My Family Divided
Deported. Long before I understood the meaning of that word, I’d learned to dread it. It implied that one day, my loving, hardworking immigrant parents could be expelled from America and sent back to Colombia. Month after month, year after year, they strived to become American citizens. They pleaded, planned, and prayed. Their dream was to stay with me, here in the country we love.
My story is far from unique—in fact, it’s heartbreakingly common. There are more than eleven million undocumented immigrants in America, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Often, they are fleeing the violence, poverty, and starvation that plague their home countries. America is a promised land, they hope, that will provide them with safety and solace.
For immigrants without legal documentation, the risk of being deported looms. It threatens to tear them away from their communities, their families, and—as in my family—their children. Some of the children who are left behind are placed in state care or foster families; many others are left on their own, like I was. After my parents were snatched away, no cop or government official checked up on me. No one seemed to care—or even notice—that I was alone.
Documented, detained, deported. These are things I never really understood as a kid—things that were rarely talked about. So, I wanted to give you the simplest way I can explain what these words mean. Here goes … What exactly do these words mean, and how do they work? Well, in order to live in this country legally, individuals need documents—such as birth certificates, visas, or green cards—that prove they were either born here or have government approval to stay. Some immigrants receive temporary visas, allowing them to live in the country for a set number of months or years. Other immigrants are granted residency, allowing them to work and live here legally. And still others are granted citizenship, which gives them the additional privileges of voting, serving on juries, and running for political office.
ICE is the government wing that enforces these laws. Their job is to arrest and detain (or, imprison) the people who have been living in the country without such documentation. Once an undocumented person is detained, a judge determines whether they will be deported and sent back to their homeland. The fear of this happening to my family shook us all to our cores. Anything, from the whir of a police siren down the block to the simple ring of our doorbell, was enough to make us panic. Who was there, and were they coming to take us away?
While we’re at it, let’s address some other vocab: I cringe every time I hear the phrase illegal immigrant or illegal alien. Since the only difference between immigrants and citizens is paperwork, undocumented makes more sense. It’s also more respectful; no one is “illegal” in this world—we are all humans!
I wish I had understood these things at the time. It would have helped a lot. Honestly, if you’re reading this book, you’re already miles ahead of most of the people in this country who do not understand the immigration system and don’t want to learn about it, because it seemingly doesn’t affect them. Believe me, it affects all of us. It affects how safe we feel, the food we eat, and our friends and neighbors. Growing up, I kept my story a secret, and many of my friends and classmates had no idea what I was going through until my first book was published.
Talking about what happened to my family is difficult after years trying to hide it. So why open up now, nearly twenty years later? Because growing up, I felt like the only kid who’d ever dealt with having the people I loved most in the world snatched away from me. It would’ve meant everything to know that someone, somewhere, had survived what I was going through. For the thousands of nameless kids and teenagers who feel forgotten like I did—this memoir is for you. It’s as much for your healing as it is for my own. In my neighborhood growing up, the sense of community between Latin American immigrants was strong. I want that community to reach across the whole country—standing together for what is right.
The forty-fifth president’s administration is not making life easy for immigrant people. No, in fact, the administration is going out of its way to make it as difficult as possible, with a plan to increase border security, build a wall, and threaten innocent individuals and families with deportation.
Luckily, many, many people disagree with that dude in the White House. Immigrants, citizens, and activists alike petition for a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented people who live among us and contribute to America’s culture and economy. We have support. And knowing that we are fighting on the right side gives us hope. We can learn how to protect ourselves, know our rights (yes, we all—you included—have rights!), educate others, and fight strong and hard together.
Behind every one of the headlines on deportation there is a family. Parents. Innocent children. True stories that are rarely told. At last, I’ve found the courage to tell you mine.
Copyright © 2018 by Diane Guerrero