Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Father's Last Words from Mexico: Stay (San Lorenzo, CA Patch)

A Father's Last Words from Mexico: Stay

Just weeks after her father died alone in Puebla, undocumented dreamer Adriana joined hundreds of immigrant activists at a rally with Congressman Luis Gutierrez to end deportations like the one that destroyed her family.

By Sonja Sharp | April 29, 2011


Idling on a chartered bus at St. Joachim's Catholic Church, that one word echoed in Adriana's* thoughts. Among the hundreds terms she'd reviewed for her three AP tests and volumes of vocabulary she'd memorized for her looming battery college entrance exams, it was that word that had decided everything.

She studied the sparkles in her neon green manicure, recalling the most difficult decision of her young life.

"It was all too fast," she said, compressing the imaginary months between her hands. "Too soon."

It's been almost a year since Adriana, 16, saw her father for the last time. Weeks since she last listened to him repeat the word, even as his voice grew too weak to hear, even when it broke her heart to hear it.

Stay, her father had pleaded with her, even as she, her five-year-old sister and her mother were packing their bags to join him in Atlimeyaya, the small town outside Atlixco in the south central Mexican state of Puebla where he lay dying.

Stay, he implored them, knowing that leaving would mean turning their backs on the country they had loved and dreamed of, where his eldest daughter would soon head to college, and where his youngest was a citizen.

The bus pulled out onto Heseperian Boulevard, en route to Fruitvale, where Adriana would join hundreds of immigrant activists from Richmond to Union City who had come for a Thursday night tent revival with Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), currently on a whistle-stop tour of the country to demand "administrative relief" for America's immigration system.

Murkier than actual legislative reform, administrative relief would require some legal maneuvering within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or an executive order from the President. But there's no horse-trading or last-minute vote switching involved.

"The president already has the power to do this," Gutierrez said. "He has the authority and the discretion."

It's a far cry from the broad immigration reform promised on the campaign trail in 2008. But in the face of so many failures, it's something.

The DREAM Act, a bill that would have offered a path to citizenship to undocumented students who entered the United States illegally as children passed the House, only to die in the Senate in December.

And Secure Communities, a two-year-old federal immigration program intended to streamline the deportation of "serious criminal aliens," is widely loathed. It's critics say it's succeeded mainly in creating a culture of fear among immigrants like Adriana and her family, who know its power all too well.

"I just want everybody to understand what the federal government says Secure Communities is about," Gutierrez said. "The president is telling us that the people that they’re deporting are narcotraficantes, killers, criminals."

Certainly, tens of thousands of those deported under the program—known colloquially as S-Comm—fit that description.

But tens of thousands more do not.

It was S-Comm that snatched Adriana's father from his family on his way home from work one night, despite the fact that, like nearly 30,000 others across the country who have been deported under its auspices, he was never convicted of a crime.

It happens like this:

In late spring of last year, Adriana's parents were driving home from the restaurant they cleaned together in East Palo Alto when they were stopped by police for a broken tail light on their pick-up.

Because her father was driving without a license, he was detained and his fingerprints taken.

Because San Mateo County had recently joined Secure Communities, which rolled out across California counties last year, that data was rerouted to ICE.

Because he had spent the past decade living in the United States without papers, ICE database registered a hit.

By the time his family heard from him again, he'd already been deported. According to the most recent data available from the agency, about a third of the time that's just how it goes.

In California, where more than a third of all S-Comm deportations begin, almost 10,000 of the 35,600 immigrants removed under the program had no criminal record. Nationwide, that figure is 27,000 out of 94,000.

Locally, the numbers are similar. In Alameda County, 253 of the 625 people deported under Secure Communities since it debuted here a little over a year ago were listed as non-criminals. In San Mateo County, where Adriana’s father was picked up, 53 of 247 people deported fell into that category.

Despite loud protest of the program from Bay Area law enforcement agencies, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties lead the nation in non-criminal removals.

After the rally, the Hayward/Cherryland contingent milled about in the gathering dark, browsing the small cluster of snack carts that had bloomed like dandelions in the concrete courtyard.

Several eyed the elotes, but settled on a bag of pinwheels. Adriana and her mother shared a bag of chips.

For a while, the removal turned Adriana's life upside down. Her grades tumbled, and her five-year-old sister wept inconsolably. Her mother agonized over how they would eat.

The three lost their home and floated between relatives, eventually settling in with another family split across the Mexican/America border. For the first time any of them could remember, they celebrated Christmas without their father.

And then things went from bad to worse. Late that winter, Adriana's father developed a persistent cough. When her mother nagged him to go to the hospital, they discovered that he had advanced stomach cancer. In early spring, knowing he would die, they made the impossible decision to leave, and then the even more impossible decision to stay.

"I told him to stay strong and keep fighting," Adriana said of her last conversation with her father, the night before he died. "He said he was tired. I think maybe he knew he was going to die."

But like the many young people who spoke at the rally, she'd pushed on.

Recently, she made it to the third round of selection for the Level Playing Field Institute's Summer Math and Science Honors Academy, a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to study at Stanford for the summer, for free.

Next month, she'll discover whether she was accepted. The month after, she'll take the SAT and start making plans for college.

"I'm really determined," Adriana said. "If anything, I would want to make my dad proud."

Editor's Note: Because of the immigrant status of Adriana and her family, several identifying details have been omitted from this story.

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