Young girl carries a secret that’s hard to bear

Photo illustration by Michael W. Lemberger, copyright 2009

By Barb Arland-Fye

(Editor’s note: On  May 12, the first anniversary of the immigration raid in Postville, Archbishop Jerome Hanus of the  Dubuque Archdiocese, said individuals and the country as a whole must make the effort to work for immigration reform. “Let us proclaim the year 2009 as the year for comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.

The following story describes the experiences with immigration laws of a young U.S. citizen in the Davenport Diocese whose parents are undocumented immigrants. Names have been changed to protect those interviewed.)

If you saw Anna in a school hallway, you’d think she’s like any other 12-year-old. But this preteen born and being raised in the Diocese of Davenport keeps a secret from teachers, friends and other schoolmates. Her parents are living in this country illegally — they have been for years — and she is terrified that immigration agents will snatch them away from her.

Anna’s fear is valid. Less than a year ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents came knocking on her family’s door trying to get her father to come out of the house.


Tears welled in Anna’s eyes as her father, Jose, who accompanied her to an interview with The Catholic Messenger, described his struggles to become a legal U.S. citizen and the guilt he feels for the fear that consumes his youngest daughter.

Jose left Mexico back in the early 1990s because the job he worked paid hardly anything and required him to spend long hours away from home. Because he had a sister living legally in the United States, he decided to enter the country in hopes of pursuing a better future for his family. He would have them join him as soon as he was settled.  His sister agreed to seek application for him to become a legal resident. They were told the process would take 13 to 15 years. Once he gained legal status, he would apply for his wife. Meanwhile, his family joined him.

But things did not go as planned after he was picked up a couple of years ago as part of an immigration raid at different businesses in the city in which he lives.

He had to go to court and bring members of his family who could testify to the impact on their lives if he were to be deported. He brought Anna and Jose Jr., who is 1-1/2 years younger than his sister. Both are U.S. citizens.

In an essay she wrote recently, Anna described what happened:

“When I was in the fifth grade, I had to go to court for my dad. He had said we were just going somewhere for the day. At first, I thought it was going to be fun and I found that they were trying to take my dad away.

“When I was about to testify, so many thoughts ran through my head. The first feelings that had come to mind were anger and sadness. When I went into the room I felt angry that such a person would be so cold-hearted to take a little girl’s father away from her and her family. I started to cry because I was so close to my dad and the thought of just being so far away from him scared me.”

The judge told Jose’s lawyer that’s why he didn’t like having kids testify in court. The lawyer said, according to Jose, “That’s why I do this — so you can see how it’s tearing apart families.”

The judge granted Jose a work permit. Some months ago, he had another court hearing concerning his legal status. Because he could not prove he had lived in this country at least 10 years, a judge told him to leave the U.S. voluntarily. Jose chose not to. A few months later, ICE agents arrived at his house on a Saturday before dawn looking for him.

His family would not open the door. “If I go back to Mexico, I don’t have any chance to survive,” the middle-aged man said. “It’s impossible to get a job.”

Anna, now a middle-school student who plays in the school band and makes good grades, described what happened when ICE arrived:

“ICE had come to my house on an early Saturday morning. My mom had climbed into my bed with me crying and praying. She told me to start praying because Jesus is closer to kids than adults. I asked her what was going on and all she said was, ‘They’re coming for your dad.’ I started to cry with her while she was holding me in her arms, praying, and I started to pray, too. I had never thought even in my nightmares that ICE would come to my house and take the part of my family that I had in the U.S. So many thoughts came through my head.

“Where would we go? Where would we stay? Would we all be together? Would we all be okay? I would have never thought that so many things could happen to one single family.”

When ICE agents finally gave up — after knocking on the family’s door for two hours — the family fled from their home and stayed at different places for a while.

“I was feeling watched or tracked down wherever I was,” Anna wrote. “Things are better now, but I can’t help feeling scared that this might happen again.”

Once she missed a band performance because of the upheaval at home. She couldn’t tell her band instructor for fear that her secret would be exposed. She doesn’t share her private turmoil even with her closest friends.

“I think the hardest part of being a daughter of an immigrant is that I face problems with having my parents (being) illegal in this country and having two kids who aren’t. I also think that I have more problems than people that don’t have illegal parents in the U.S. because they don’t have the same questions that always pop into my head,” she wrote.

“In the future I just hope that my parents will finally not be in these problems anymore. I just pray that things will get better soon in time.”

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