9: A Recount of My Family's Displacement
By Karlotta Gonzalez @midwestsangre | Illustration by Maia Magoga @maiamagoga
The closet was dark, and the touch of the cold floor jolted through me as I sat down with the phone in my hand. The dial tone echoed in the half-empty room, and each number felt heavier as I kept pressing. When I heard my mother answer, all the sadness I had pushed deep within me burst out past my heart through my mouth, and I could not longer hide that I was upset and been crying on and off since the night she left. At this point in time, I hadn’t seen my mother in two months for the first time since I was four. But little did I know when I left school that day for Thanksgiving break, I would be reunited with her sooner than I would’ve ever imagined.
My father had taken my brother and I to our local YMCA, where I found myself coping with the absence of my mother by playing racquetball on my own, and swung my arm back with every ounce of pain I had until my father eventually said we had to go home. As he drove into the driveway of the house my parents had bought earlier that summer, we noticed flashing red and blue lights in the rearview mirrors. They would be the last things we saw in Kansas City.
The ambiguity of the flashing lights was broken by the sound of footsteps on the gravel. When the two officers approached each side of the car, they both displayed exactly who they worked for: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They asked my father to get out of the car, and to go into their SUV, meanwhile keeping my brother in the passenger seat, and myself in the backseat, waiting. My eyes stared down towards my feet while the speed of my breath started to increase. I started going through a mental image of my room and scrambled to define what mattered most. In a brief side step to what was happening, I reached for my cell phone to let a friend know that I would be unable to make our plans for the next day, but an officer waved his finger back and forth through the window, so I continued to sit, with my seatbelt still intact, waiting. After physically assaulting my father inside one of their vans, ICE immediately handcuffed both him and my brother at their wrists and their ankles and instructed us all to go into our house. They did not handcuff 15-year old me.
We were each assigned an ICE officer, who took us to our respective rooms and informed us that we were allowed to pack one suitcase with whatever belongings could fit. My bed was still unmade from that morning, and I panned around my room before turning to face my closet and started to pack what I had determined to be worth something while I was waiting in the car to bring with me to a country I had not been to since I was four years old.
In the midst of packing and unsuccessfully holding back tears, the ICE officer pointed to the guitar in my room and asked if I knew how to play it. They then asked me what grade I was in. After I answered, they only shook their head, before telling me that we were going to be barred for 10 years and that after that time, I could try to return. It was as if, that guitar caused him to see me as the child that I was, as the child he was personally deporting, as more than a case number.
We were all eventually led downstairs, where the officers informed my father that I was going to be separated from him and my brother, and would be taken to a juvenile detention center in Topeka. I hugged my father and my brother, as they tried their best to reach their arms out with the chains weighing down their wrists, and made my way to our kitchen where my cat had been placed into his traveling case. I was eight years old when I picked him out in a shelter where we had originally gone to find a dog for my brother. He was my best friend, and with the officers telling me it was time for me to leave, I opened the door of his crate, and took his collar off, so that I could hold onto a piece of him. I still have his collar to this day. I told him I was sorry that I could not do anything as I cried, and then I petted his head for the last time. I tried stuttering out the same words to my dog, but at that point, they were completely incoherent.
It was one in the morning at this point, and as I walked outside to the side of our house, I noticed a small crowd had gathered. An audience that had kids I went to school with, just watching. Then I was in the back seat of a car with two ICE officers in the front. I had changed earlier into a gray zip up hoodie from some band that I don’t recall now, jeans, and a pair of checkered vans. It was just past two in the morning when we arrived at the juvenile detention center, where I had to take my vans off before entering, and where I was immediately taken to a private room by a detention officer. Once we were inside, they locked the door behind us and told me to remove all of my clothing so that they could make note of any bruises or cuts I had prior to entering the detention center. They turned around as I unzipped my hoodie, and began lifting my shirt to remove my bra. I let my jeans fall to my feet, along with the rest of my undergarments, and softly said, “Ready” while trying to keep my body from shaking. They had me take a step forward and began circling around me, as I stood naked with my arms stretched out. Once I was cleared, I was given a set of the detention uniform, a blue, stiff jumpsuit and washed but used undergarments, and lead out of the room to a cold metal bench while another officer registered me into their system. It was there where any bit of humanity the ICE officer in my former bedroom had tried to paint my experience with has been brushed away. They took my photo and information before eventually leading me into a private cell on the second floor. It was around 3 am when they locked the door behind me, and I sat down on the cot before beginning to cry again. My eyes were swollen from the hours spent with the tears flowing out, but I could not make my body stop. I looked around the cell, with its small, rectangle window, and metal toilet and sink. It was in that moment where it began to sink in that everything I had ever known had disappeared in a matter of hours. And it was there the last sense of hope left me, and an emptiness that I would not be able to escape for the next decade would take its place.
Just past 5 am, a voice echoed from the speaker in the cell and told me that I was to be leaving within minutes. I was escorted to the main floor, where I was able to dress in my own clothes again, and then I was led outside to board what looked like a school bus. When I stepped inside, I saw the bus was full, and that my father and brother were on it - behind a fence. Everyone on board was also being deported, and since I was the only child, the officers kept me upfront with them, still without handcuffs. Soon after, the bus started making its way to Omaha, Nebraska, to an ICE airport. My thin grey hoodie was not enough for the weather, as the bus was not insulated, so I shivered through the whole three hour drive as the first snowfall of the season began and I stared out of the window, just as I had stared out of the plane we took to Kansas City when I was four years old, where I saw snow for the first time.
When we boarded the plane, it was already half-way full. Again, being that I was the only child, the officers sat me apart from everyone else, behind their seats. At this point, I had not eaten anything since the afternoon of the day before. Halfway through the flight, one of the officers began asking me questions - how old I was, if I was in school - entertaining themselves during the passing time. The flight was six or so hours long, and as they were taking people off the plane, one officer attempted to separate me from my father and brother, until my father spoke out. They then lead us inside a white passenger van, where for the first time since we pulled into our driveway, we were able to say more than one sentence to each other. We were driven close to the border, and when we got out of the van, we saw all the suitcases laid out on the ground, and were instructed to grab ours and begin walking towards the border and across the bridge - and to never look back.
We stopped halfway through the bridge, once we were officially in Mexico. My father called my mother to let her know. She had left for Mexico two months earlier, and had tried to return through the river but was detained and barred for 5 years, to drop off documents at the American embassy from the first encounter we had had with ICE on March 7th, 2005. I was in 7th grade and was set to go to a local high school that day with my class to go see a play, but instead, I woke up that morning to my parents opening the front door to ICE officers. They questioned us, and eventually handcuffed my father outside, after I heard them say to each other, “Not in front of the kids”. They took my father to the Homeland Security Offices and told my mother that we would be able to go post bail for him in a few hours. When we drove there, we passed the high school where I would have been seeing the play. I even saw some of my classmates getting off of the buses. After waiting over an hour, we were escorted to the part of the building where they were holding my father, and where they took all of our fingerprints and photographs. We then posted bail for my father. Immigration told us that we would have to report to them every month and tell them if we changed addresses. They also said that due to not having criminal records and the length of time we had been in the country, we had a case for residency. But after waiting two years and reporting to ICE every month, we never did get our fair trial. The lawyer my parents hired and paid decided to take advantage of our situation. When our court date was switched, he went without telling us and told the court we would take voluntary departure. He said that we would leave on our own by August 2007, and then called my father to tell him we had to leave and to demand an additional $700 before refusing to appeal the court’s decision.
We finished crossing the bridge and sat in a city park while we waited for my mom to transfer money to us so we could fly into Mexico City. The three of us sat on a bench, with three suitcases, in silence. I don’t know what time it was by the time we got to the airport, but there weren’t any open restaurants, so we had now gone 24 hours without eating. We arrived in Mexico City just after midnight and boarded a greyhound bus down to Puebla. When I stepped out of the bus, I saw my mother after being separated for two months, and my grandmother, whom I barely remembered, for the first time since I was four. I was silent and still, as I knew I had to maintain my composure because only my mother knew why we had suddenly arrived. It was close to two in the morning when we arrived at my grandmother’s house. In just under 30 hours, everything I knew was gone and I was back in the city I was born in but had not been to since I was four years old.
On November 20th, 2007, my family and I were deported from the United States, and ultimately, barred for the next 10 years.
This anniversary date was supposed to be a sigh of relief. One more year left. Something that for the first six years I never thought I would stay alive to say. That cold November night changed the entire course of my life, and I spent the rest of my teenage years and early 20s with the emptiness, one that to this day has been tamed, but is still relenting. On election night, I had tried to stay distracted but ultimately ended up watching the results come in until 2:30 AM, alone. And just like so many others, I woke up the next day with a numbness I had not experienced since the night we were deported.
I sat through work, staring blankly at a computer screen, as everyone around me followed the motions of their daily routines with ease. That night, I rode my bike home, just as numb as when I woke up, wondering how many more years I would have to wait to be able to see the city I grew up in. Gaining Canadian citizenship (which includes a Canadian passport that does not require a visa to enter the U.S.) has become more difficult every year. Between this, and not knowing what legislation the new U.S. administration will pass, a possibility I now have to think about as I wait out the end of the decade is that I could never be allowed to go back home again, or that I will be kept waiting indefinitely.
This is just one of many stories. There are millions more undocumented people without any current legal protection who don’t know what they will have to face in the next four years. More than 728,000 undocumented youth protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are waiting to see if the information they provided the government that promised them a path to citizenship will be the same information used to deport them. The people of Mexico, which includes most of my family, have been told they must pay for a wall, or face a number of threats ranging from the halting of money transfers from family members in the U.S., to open warfare.
As for when my story will reach a conclusion, that is as unclear as the decisions that will be made from January 20th and onward. What is clear are the forms of resistance that we can engage in. From physically showing up to donating, here is a list of organizations you can donate to/get involved with.
National Immigration Law Center
National Immigration Forum
The Young Center for Immigration Children’s Rights
For Canadian Immigration:
No One is Illegal
Karla Gonzalez is a Graphic Designer based out of Toronto, Ontario. She is involved with the local Toronto punk and hardcore scene, and sings in Pure Pressure. You can listen at purepressure.bandcamp.com, and view her design work at www.karlottagonzalez.com.