Opinion: A family - and a documentary film - torn apart by deportation
By: SARA MACPHERSON*
What began as a high school scuffle just before Christmas break, ended days later with the parents of a student being deported to Mexico. The episode in question did not take place in Arizona or Alabama but in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area where one county has embarked on an aggressive implementation of Obama’s “Secure Communities” program, in which local police refer undocumented immigrants to Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents regardless of whether they have been convicted of a crime. The arrest and deportation of the married couple cut short a family odyssey of hope and hard work and begs the question of just whose communities are made secure by this program.
On December 14, Dionicia Martinez and her husband Mario Muñoz were called to Kennedy High School in Richmond California, following a fight involving their 14 year-old son. When they arrived, they argued with police on the scene and within moments they were arrested on misdemeanor charges of “resisting an officer.” Although the charges were minor, the Contra Costa County police alerted ICE and held the parents at a county jail for deportation.
Had Dionicia and Mario lived in nearby Santa Clara County this would not have happened, as Santa Clara County policy honors ICE detainer requests only for a specified list of serious felonies. However, Contra Costa Country, east of San Francisco, has adopted the Secure Communities program with enthusiasm. Since April 2010 more than 1,130 Contra Costa County residents have been deported under the program, almost half of whom have no criminal convictions. Nationally, over 93% of those deported under Secure Communities are Latino, though Latinos make up only about 75% of undocumented immigrants.
I know Dionicia and Mario well because for the past four years my co-producer Tricia Creason-Valencia and I have been filming their family for our upcoming documentary “Stable Life,” which looks at the dreams and challenges faced by the many undocumented immigrants living and working in the stables of American racetracks.
Across California, isolated stable workers toil long hours for low wages and live with the constant fear of deportation. Their stories are often boilerplate: flights from poverty, arduous border crossings, extended separations from loved ones. Yet the racetrack is a place where hope persists and stable workers endure the daily hardships with a steely focus on their families’ futures. Some of these immigrants have achieved success. Dionicia’s oldest son José Luis, for example, began his racetrack career cleaning horse stalls but soon learned to ride horses and was named Santa Anita’s Apprentice Jockey of the Year in 2008.
For the undocumented, however, any success can revert quickly to failure. Months after winning the prestigious jockey award, José Luis was picked up at an immigration checkpoint in Southern California, and within hours, was deported to Mexico. With José Luis’ sudden deportation, the tone of our documentary shifted from optimistic to rather gloomy. This latest event occurred just weeks after we submitted our documentary to film festivals nationwide, and with the epilogue we plan to add the film’s tone will be even darker.
Mario Muñoz, deported to Mexico, is the main subject of the upcoming documentary “Stable Life,” which follows the life of a Mexican family working in a California horse racetrack. (Photo: John Russo)
The Obama administration deported a record number of undocumented immigrants in fiscal year 2011, nearly 400,000. In a May 2011 speech in El Paso, the President defended his Secure Communities program.
“I want to emphasize …we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income.”
The numbers, however, don’t support this claim. Like Dionicia, nearly half of those deported in 2011 had no criminal records, and nearly 40% had a US citizen child or spouse at home. As we saw firsthand at the racetrack, Dionicia’s family was doing nothing if not “scraping together an income.”
This brings us to the heart of America’s immigration crisis. We have an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, of whom many, like Dionicia, are fleeing poverty and “scraping together an income” for the sake of their families. In his El Paso speech Obama insisted, like many others, that these undocumented immigrants be punished for “cutting in front of the line.”
But here’s the thing: For Dionicia and millions of others like her, there is no immigration line to cut in front of. America wants low-wage immigrant labor to man its agricultural and service sectors, but we provide no way for migrants like Dionicia to enter the country legally to perform this necessary and valuable work. This is our real immigration crisis, and as we fail to address it we move further towards the creation of a permanent underclass of vulnerable immigrants and we tolerate unnecessary suffering as families are arbitrarily and traumatically broken apart. The good news is that we could largely solve this immigration crisis by choosing to give a broader range of immigrant workers — not just those with college degrees — the legal means to live and work in the U.S.
I was able to visit with Dionicia and Mario briefly (and separately) in immigration detention. Mario had been deported before and would be expelled again without any further process. Dionicia was frantic about her school-age sons, about whom she had had heard no news since her arrest the week before. I had seen the boys, who were being well cared for by a relative, and did my best to reassure her. Dionicia said that she had signed the papers to leave the country “voluntarily.” With her clean record and U.S. citizen children she could have fought her deportation, but she was denied immigration bail and couldn’t face the prospect of further incarceration. Tearfully, she said good-bye. I told her, in my awkward Spanish, that she is a good mother and a good person and that she should leave this country with her head high.
The ICE agents said that Dionicia and Mario could be deported within hours, but if their son Mario Jr and I returned before 4pm we could deliver them each a bag to take with them. We rushed back to Richmond to pack their things, but on the way back to the detention center in San Francisco we got stuck in bridge traffic and arrived at the ICE office at 4:03pm. It was too late. A sympathetic guard on the ground floor tried to call someone to bring the bags to the deportees, but no one answered. Some time later that evening, Dionica Martinez and Mario Muñoz left the country the way they arrived: with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
*Sara MacPherson is the director/producer of the upcoming documentary Stable Life. The trailer can be seen at www.equipoisefilms.com.
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