Back to the border
Chico man picked up during a sweep of illegal immigrants
In their view, “David” and “Margarita”—their names have been changed to protect their family’s privacy—were buying into the American Dream. The two Mexican immigrants married 14 years ago, worked very hard and are paying a mortgage on a lovely Chico home.
That neither had legal status in this country troubled them. Margarita came to Northern California at age 14 on a temporary visa, and in 1996 graduated from Chico High School. Her father, a legal resident, applied to get legal residency for Margarita. Unbeknownst to her, the application became invalid when she married David.
David crossed illegally in 1992 to join the rest of his family here; two of his siblings are U.S. citizens. He made two unsuccessful efforts to obtain legal residency, one of which led to a 1995 deportation order.
Fifteen years after the order was issued, immigration agents came for him. By then, he had three children who are U.S. citizens and a home that bears the signature of a conventional, middle-class family. On the mantle over the fireplace are framed pictures of smiling children. In one family photo, David looks handsome and happy in a light-blue, freshly pressed dress shirt.
At about 6:30 a.m. on a recent Monday, he left the house with a friend to pick up milk at the store before going to work at his construction job. He noticed he was being followed by a Dodge Durango van that had parked near the house. When he stopped, the van parked and he was approached by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
They had a few questions. Was he David? Did he have papers (a reference to whether David had proof of legal residency)? Did he have other identification? David answered honestly; then, the officers handcuffed both him and his friend—also an undocumented immigrant—and put them in the back of the van.
The two men were picked up in an immigration sweep that appears to have stretched from Red Bluff to Gridley over the past few weeks. David said the officers picked up three other men that morning in Chico. The five were taken to ICE headquarters in Sacramento, and David and his Chico friend were among about 120 people who were flown that evening to Tijuana.
At St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Chico, Father Héctor Montoya said he has heard rumors of the sweep and, in two cases, been asked for prayers for affected individuals. “A lot of people are afraid,” he said. In the case of one family, he said the children are upset their dad is gone. “The kids are so sad,” he said. “It’s awful.”
In an April 5 telephone interview from Tijuana, 40-year-old David described a humiliating journey he never thought he’d have to take. Perhaps he thought that, after 15 years, the deportation order had been lost in the federal government’s paperwork shuffle. “My whole family is there,” he said of Chico. “I’m worried about my little daughter and kids. My daughter was pretty sad to see me in handcuffs.”
The sweep comes at a political juncture for ICE. Reports in the press that immigration officers are trying to meet deportation quotas by targeting undocumented residents who have no criminal background—and are therefore more readily deported—has put ICE on the hot seat and in the middle of a national debate.
President Obama has said ICE should focus on weeding out illegals who have criminal records, and the ICE official who established the deportation quotas, according to The New York Times, has been reprimanded.
But immigration-rights activists portray ICE has an out-of-control agency that answers to no one. “It’s a run-amok agency that needs congressional oversight,” said Martine Apodaca, communications director for the Reform Immigration for America organization.
An ICE spokeswoman said she knew of no unusual enforcement activity in Chico in recent weeks, and when asked about deportation quotas, referred this reporter to the Department of Homeland Security. “Our efforts are focused on dangerous criminal aliens who are the biggest threat to our communities,” said Lori Haley, the agency’s spokeswoman.
But Haley said an undocumented resident who has ignored a deportation order for many years is certainly vulnerable—even if he or she has no criminal record. “We do enforce the immigration laws of the country,” she said.
Margarita said David came to their home the morning of his arrest handcuffed and escorted by ICE offers. He looked stunned, she said. “He had no voice. … It seemed like he had lost his voice,” she said. “I said, ‘David, what happened?’ ”
The officers asked Margarita if she had papers, and she said no. They asked her to sign a court order that would give her a chance to argue her case before an immigration judge before undergoing her own deportation proceedings. David pleaded with her to sign the paper; the ICE officers said that she would be deported, too, if she didn’t sign. What would they do with the three children?
She signed, and meanwhile their 14-year-old daughter dissolved in tears. “If only I were older and could help make you citizens,” she said, according to Margarita.
David said the officers then drove around to pick up some other people as they checked data on a laptop. One of the men they picked up was a Dominican, whom they addressed by his name, but also the phrase “HIV positive,” David said.
In Sacramento, the men’s feet were shackled and their hands chained at the waist. Margarita drove to the ICE offices in Sacramento with a girlfriend after packing a small suitcase for David. The two women said one of the immigrant prisoners was barefoot in pajamas. David said they were bused to the Oakland airport, and there they boarded a plane. The plane stopped in Bakersfield, where another 50 immigrants came on board.
Margarita said David’s friend, who had stayed the night with them and was also deported, was kidnapped, held for ransom and beaten in Tijuana. His Chico family wired the kidnappers $1,500 to free him.
Immigrant-rights activists say that’s common; people who have been recently deported arrive with nothing and are easily spotted as kidnap prey in Tijuana.
Rumors were flying last week, but not confirmed, that people were being stopped in Orland and other towns and asked to show proof of legal residency. A Chapman Elementary School staff person, asking not to be identified by name, said a Chico man on his way to pick up his granddaughter at an after-school program was stopped and held until relatives arrived with his so-called “green card.”
ICE spokeswoman Haley, though, said the agency’s policy is “targeted enforcement” rather than random stops. “We don’t do random arrests,” she said. “We’re an investigative agency.” After hearing about the Chapman school grandfather, she said that, if more information could be provided, she’d “be happy to chase that down.”
During an interview, Margarita wept and wondered aloud how she’d make the mortgage and pay the bills on her housekeeping earnings. During a phone conversation with David, Margarita suggested they move to Mexico.
David told her he could make $10 a day at a job in Tijuana. “How can I support my family on that?” he asked her. He planned to leave Tijuana soon for his hometown in the state of Jalisco.
In October, Margarita goes before an immigration judge. In the meantime, she says an attorney she consulted suggested she pray for immigration reform legislation that would help people who have lived most of their lives peacefully in this country. Her 9-year-old son has written an essay for school called, “I miss my Dad.” There’s a picture of a child’s face with dripping tears and a bubble with the words “I want my Dad back.”