Monday, August 27, 2012

The Invisible Lives We Do Not See

Update: The most important thing to do RIGHT NOW is sign this petition. Then come back and read the rest of the story. This family is being separated TOMORROW.

Last Thursday I ate a McDonald's Filet 'O Fish sandwich for lunch. And small fries. I haven't had fast food in ages because I tend to eat things like kale salad and other food that is healthier and more "white people" as my friend Babs said to me once. But today I was in the basement of the Jackson County Courthouse sitting with my new friend Yessie and her little daughters. It was the third courthouse we'd been to in our search for the courtroom where her husband Polo was supposed to be arraigned on a traffic violation. 

I'm a college educated woman with a good job and five (nearly) college educated children, but after being given bad information by no less than 10 different sources in three hours, I felt like I'd fallen down the rabbit hole and ceased to understand any of the rules by which we were playing. We were all exhausted and the girls who are four and two years old, were hungry, and while I had no big solutions for the day, McDonald's at least solved one of their problems. I needed to go alone in case Polo happened to arrive while I was gone. I got Happy Meals, of course, which came with the dinosaurs from Ice Age and when the girls saw them it didn't seem to matter that their dad was facing his second deportation or that their mom had emptied her bank account so that her Cricket phone could accept collect phone calls from jail. It only mattered that they now had something to do while they were waiting for a court appearance that had been scheduled and cancelled six different times.  And while we sat there eating our un-nutritious food and talking about how Yessie had scored a 12.9 on her GED placement test though she'd only needed a 7, a woman came out of the courtroom to lock up and asked us who we were waiting for. When Yessie told her she said, "Oh, the judge is actually doing it right now. It's a video arraignment." 

Every bit of heavenly wrath I wanted to call down on the system in that moment was swallowed up by her next words, "The judge is giving him credit for time served. You can pick him up at the jail."

We grabbed napkins and dinosaurs and children and Cokes (Godforgiveme) and ran to the car as fast as we could. But of course it was no use. Because if you've been deported before, as Polo has, no one but ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is picking you up at the jail. Polo's record is completely clean (apart from driving without a license) and he is an entrepreneur who has worked hard and employed others and established such an honest reputation that his business comes to him word of mouth. He is not a criminal. But, because he was deported and then returned to his family in the US without papers, he is a felon. And so, on Wednesday August 29 he is scheduled to be deported back to Mexico, in spite of the fact that he's been living and working and keeping other people in this country working, for more than 18 years.

I didn't know any of this prior to last week. I just knew he showed up on time and called me back and did what I hired him to do. And so when he didn't show up, I didn't really think about it, I just assumed he'd been called to something urgent. That night I answered a knock on my door to find a young Hispanic woman, two toddlers, and a young man on my porch. 

"Are you Kate?" she asked, and when I answered in the affirmative she told me who she was. When Mary Glen and I invited them in she unleashed her story, of Polo being mistaken for another man and arrested at a Burger King. By the time they discovered he was not the man they were seeking, well, it was too late. Because they'd discovered his true identity. 

In her final quarter at Stanford, Mary Glen took a class called Printmaking and Social Justice, taught by a woman named Favianna Rodriguez. The class looked at how art can spur action on behalf of the oppressed, in particular the undocumented. It was there that Mary Glen learned that more than 5,000 children have been taken from their parents as a result of their arrest and deportation. Some have been left sitting in cars, put into the foster care system and adopted by American parents, in spite of the fact that their parents had no criminal records. Let me say that again so you understand me--people who are undocumented and have been picked up, have been taken from their young children, left alone by the side of the road. They have lost them to a court system that decided they were better off with American parents because they were citizens and their parents were not. And I don't care where you fall on the political spectrum, unless you are Kris Kobach who is trying to make a name for himself, the thought of children being taken from loving and hardworking parents should rend your heart.

I've learned a lot in the past two weeks. Spent time on the phone with lawyers and activists and heard stories I did not want to hear. This morning I arranged to drive Yessie and the girls to the deportation center in Kingston, Missouri so that we could take Polo some clothes and money. Yessie was also hoping I could take the girls in so they could see him and though I am willing to do whatever she needs, I confess that the thought of being privy to this meeting reduces me to tears every time I consider it. 

One thing I've learned is that the more well-known you are, the better chance you have of not being deported. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out as undocumented in an essay for New York Times Magazine. Julio Salgado, an undocumented artist was on the cover of Time magazine. Polo isn't famous and neither are we, but while I was running last week I thought about Dr. King. I wondered how he looked a the problem of civil rights in all its presentations--access to voting, education, employment, housing--and kept his head above water, so vast was the sea of inequality. I look at this one life and feel overwhelmed by the systemic brokenness that has produced it. All I can do are a few small things. 

So I am asking for help. Here is a link to two very good articles about the trauma of families those who experience arrest and deportation: 

And here is a link to a petition that I am asking people to sign in the hope that a very small act can help save a family:

I know it's a big problem and with as many heads as the Hydra. I don't have time to worry about that today though. There are lives at stake. I am descended from Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower and none of them had papers either, yet here I am today, a "legal" citizen of this country. The countless men, women, and young people simply trying to survive in America today should not be torn from their families and expelled from this country by a harsh and broken system. Polo and his family deserve their right to life in America. If you believe in human rights for all, please sign the petition.