La Mariposa en la Pared

The everyday experiences of latino immigrants through the eyes of an outsider. Las vidas típicas de unos inmigrantes latinos a través de los ojos de una forastera.

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Location: Upstate NY, United States

"To me it’s always interesting when you get accepted somewhere you don’t really belong. It’s interesting when people open up and let you in their world." - Gilles Mingasson

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Los Desaparecidos

Sunday morning, February 24, some people I love disappeared. They showed up to work, and waited in the parking lot for the boss to unlock the door. Milton stood outside his little truck, smoking a cigarette and sipping bottled water. Rudi reclined in the front seat, wishing for a few more hours of sleep. Victor talked, as usual. Rudi wished he'd do a little less of it, and his closed eyes and sighs were unsuccessful in conveying his wish.

When we arrived hours later, Milton's water bottle still sat on the ground next to his truck, his keys tossed onto the front seat. The passenger seat was still reclined, the way Rudi had abruptly left it. It was as though the men had just evaporated.

While some of us read the morning paper, drank coffee, lingered in bed, made love, or worshiped the Lord, others were hard at work thoughtlessly plucking people from their lives of work and worry and placing them into prisons at the taxpayers' burden. A group of ICE officers, who had dined and drank and yucked it up with the waiter at that very restaurant the night before, laughed at the funny joke they were now playing on their gracious hosts. One woman officer, who had gotten tipsy and had her picture taken with Victor the night before, winked at him when he recognized her. "Just doing my job, baby," she purred. Always popular with the ladies, and always respectful and charming, he had prepared her dinner just hours before she and her cohorts returned to insult him.

These brave soldiers say they were protecting us from the worst of the worst, criminal aliens who threaten us and our children.

But I know that's a lie.

"ICE claims that Operation Return to Sender was designed to arrest criminals and individuals with old deportation orders, people whom ICE calls 'fugitives.' But the statistics belie this explanation. Of the 2,079 people arrested in New Jersey last year under this program, 87% had no criminal record, and as few as 1 in 3 were "fugitives" with outstanding deportation orders. These statistics demonstrate that the program has been used as a pretext for dragnet searches in which ICE makes thousands of what it euphemistically calls 'collateral arrests'..."

Out of the six taken from the parking lot that Sunday morning by ICE's Fugitive Operations Team, only one had a criminal record, and he had served his time. The others were more law abiding than most of us.

Now, instead of working, paying their bills, paying their rents, and supporting their families, they are languishing in detention camps and juvenile homes. Counterproductive, poor use of taxpayers' dollars, misplaced "national security" priorities - only begin to describe this excessive use of militant force against working migrants. The punishment does not fit the "crime."

One week later, as we were still reeling from the February 24th raid, another hermano was taken away. He was speeding, and the policeman who pulled him over was a friend of his. But once entered into the computer, his information came up flagged by the Department of Homeland Security. He was immediately taken to the county jail. Less than two days later, he was en route to the Federal Detention Center in Batavia. He placed one phone call, only to tell us not to bother with a lawyer, because there is nothing we can do. He is kicking himself for getting caught for something as foolish, and preventable, as driving too fast.

Who was this criminal alien, and why was his name on the list of fugitives to be summarily deported?

Just days before he was taken, Jose asked me for advice. He began by saying, "I entered this country legally."

"Wait a minute. Did you have a visa?" I had heard him make this assertion before, and I was curious what legal means he'd had of coming here.

"No. Mira pues.." That's usually how he begins an explanation of any kind. "Llegué de mojado." He arrived as a wetback, he said, using a word that is a slur in English, but a simple fact of life in Spanish. He then continued to describe a practice that had become extremely common among migrants from countries other than Mexico.

Shortly after crossing the border, Jose was apprehended by Border Patrol and given a Notice to Appear, and a permission to live in the United States until his court date. That permission was the reason Jose believed he had entered legally. With that paper in hand, Jose was legally living in the United States, for a while. Like nearly everyone served with a NTA at the border, Jose simply continued on into the country, to forget about that court date which he figured would result in his being returned to Guatemala, where he would have to start all over again. If he could live and work without getting into trouble with the law, there would be no problems.

There is little wonder that many people took full advantage of this system. The vast majority of those migrants are not bad people, looking to screw the United States. Before you condemn them for taking advantage of the catch-and-release, try and put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself if you wouldn't do the same thing in their position.

Jose's question to me was, How do I make this right? How will this affect me if I'm picked up by immigration?

I already knew the answers to his questions, but I didn't say anything. He always wants to do things the right way, but in his case, there was no right way.

Now Jose and several of his friends are paying a disproportionately high price for the U. S. government's "catch and release" chingadera. After being given invitations to come here, they are now being hunted down and put into holding pens.

I can't overstate the sadness and disruption of lives that has resulted from the raids and detentions. I will try and describe the depth of despair that has descended on our little migrant community in later posts. This is only an introduction to a story that is being re-played all across the country right now.

I can't see how these raids and detentions benefit our country in any way. All I see are working people in jail, charged with no crime. I see healthy communities being destroyed. All I see is the crushing of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.