‘He just cries and cries’: families grapple with US deportations amid pandemic

Alvaro Hernandes saw his wife and recently born twin daughters for the last time through a video call on 5 January before he was deported from immigration detention in Kansas to Guatemala, after living in the US for 12 years.

Shortly after Hernandes and his wife brought their two newborn daughters from the hospital in June 2020, he was detained for being undocumented and handed over to immigration customs enforcement by a local sheriff after he called 911 when he was unable to get in contact with his wife for a brief period of time and wasn’t aware there was a non-emergency number for the police.

Despite testimonials from family members, friends, his longtime boss and landlord, an immigration court in Kansas City, Missouri, ordered the deportation to proceed, citing a 2008 DUI conviction. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hernandes’s family has only been able to speak with him through expensive video calls and collect phone calls. While imprisoned, Hernandes also contracted coronavirus.

“I don’t know if I will ever see him again. He just cries and cries during our visits on camera,” said his wife, Sierra Schauvilegee. “He has been tormented by being separated from us.”

Alvaro Hernandes
‘He has been tormented by being separated from us.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Alvaro Hernandes’ family

The couple met in 2017 through a mutual friend. She described Alvaro as hardworking, an employee in the agriculture industry working on a cattle ranch for the past eight years for $10 an hour, often working 12-hour days, six to seven days a week.

“He prays one day he will be reunited with his babies,” added Schauvilegee.

The coronavirus pandemic briefly halted arrests and raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), which resumed in mid-July 2020. Human rights organizations, activist groups and congressional representatives have called for a moratorium on deportations during the pandemic, as 185,000 deportations were carried out in the fiscal year 2020 by the Trump administration, many during the pandemic.

Coronavirus outbreaks have spread throughout immigration detention centers in the US, with at least 8,000 reported cases, and a recent report issued by Detention Watch Network linked outbreaks in immigration detention centers to about 250,000 coronavirus cases in communities where the centers are located between May and August 2020.

The outbreaks extended to flights of deported immigrants, spreading coronavirus to other nations. Hundreds of immigrant detainees have withdrawn their cases to halt their deportation out of fear from coronavirus outbreaks in detention centers while pursuing their cases in court.

Under the Trump administration, a zero-tolerance policy enacted in April 2018 at US borders forcibly separated thousands of children from their parents and guardians, and under a secret “pilot” program, the US was separating families at the border as early as 2017. Even after a backlash caused a reversal of the policy, separations continued and hundreds of families have yet to be reunited.

Thousands of immigrants with US-born children are deported every year, creating economic instability for the families left behind and disrupting children’s health and development.

But children also face deportation orders themselves.

Johanna Torres, an immigration lawyer based in Laredo, California, is currently appealing against the deportation order for a three-year-old boy.

The boy and his mother came to the United States without inspection after fleeing from El Salvador after being threatened by a drug cartel. They originally had an immigration court hearing in Houston, Texas, but they relocated to California and the mother did not change the court venue for her son. Because of the court absence, the court ordered the three-year-old boy’s removal from the United States, and an immigration judge also denied a motion to reopen the case.

“Our next step is to file an appeal with the board of immigration appeals,” said Torres. “It was a simple mistake that she has moved swiftly to correct and the system’s punishment is not proportionate.”

As Donald Trump’s final days in office come to a close, the incoming Biden administration has vowed to temporarily suspend deportations while enacting changes to the US immigration system, but transition officials insisted changes will take months to implement.

For those families in the US who have already lost loved ones to deportation, coronavirus restrictions have made it even more difficult to handle the separations.

Lauren Garcia of San Antonio, Texas, was a stay-at-home mother caring for three young daughters while her husband, Juan Garcia, worked full-time as a welder because of the high costs of childcare.

Juan Garcia with his three daughters.
Juan Garcia with his three daughters. Photograph: Courtesy of Lauren Garcia

Shortly before the pandemic, her husband was pulled over by a police officer for a minor traffic violation, but detained for an expired driver’s license and handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The couple were married in 2015 and Juan Garcia has lived in the US since 2013.

After spending six months in an immigration detention facility, Juan Garcia was deported to Mexico, leaving his wife and children with no income and Lauren Garcia has been unable to find a job because of the pandemic and her children who are attending school virtually.

“If it wasn’t for my family, my daughters and I would have nowhere to live,” said Laura Garcia. “We’ve been having to travel back and forth to Mexico so our daughters can see their dad. It’s been very hard. It’s not fair. My girls want their dad in their life.”

The Guardian

Leave a Reply