Disclosure: Due to the sensitive nature of this story, the names and identifying information of the family have been changed and obscured. The writer, Tricia Booker, has been previously acquainted with the family and has an interest in what happens to them.
On a warm evening in mid-June, the Florida air still humid from afternoon thunderstorms, 31-year-old José drove to a nearby Wal-Mart to pick up a new garbage can.
Afterwards, heading home, he approached the turn leading into the working class community of mobile homes where he lived with his wife and children. As he navigated off the highway, he was blinded by the spinning red-blue lights flashing in his rearview mirror. The police. No, no, no, he thought. With a sinking feeling, he pulled into the gas station at the corner. He’d been pulled over before, but this time, he suspected, would be different.
A few minutes later, as the officer checked his I.D. and called for backup, José called his wife, Helena. Bring the children, he said. He was hoping the police would have pity on him if they saw his young family.
Helena arrived in time to see her husband being handcuffed. Their 11-year-old daughter watched the scene, then burst into tears. An officer approached Helena and asked for her driver’s license. I don’t have one, she told him. Then you better not drive away, he said.
So she waited in the parking lot for the police to leave. She hasn’t seen her husband since.
When Helena tells me what has happened, José remains behind bars in Macclenny, at the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. After being stopped that night for a burned-out tail-light, he was arrested for driving without a license and spent two days in jail. He was then turned over to ICE—because although he has lived quietly in the U.S. for 14 years and has no criminal record, José is an undocumented immigrant. And that, according to the law, is a crime.
During the day, he counts the hours, dwells on his predicament, and exchanges stories with other men in similar situations. His wife has not come to see him for fear that she will be detained as well. At night, he tries to call her to tell her and the kids good night. He urges them to stay strong. He reminds his wife to send money to his mother in Mexico. And he avoids talking about this painful truth: He may not see his wife and children for a very long time.
Back home, in an aging trailer filled with photos and religious icons, Helena and the children face a similar truth. They shuffle through the days in hopes of good news. At night, they sleep together in the same room: 11-year-old Jacinta and 7-year-old little José share the bed, and Helena sleeps on the floor. The children are afraid to sleep without her there. Helena sleeps restlessly, rising every few hours to check and recheck that the doors are locked, that their vehicle still sits in the driveway.
Over the past few months, thousands of children have been separated from their parents as ICE enforced a new policy of arresting anyone trying to cross the border illegally. Though the policy has been discontinued, the public’s attention has remained squarely on the children who remain in detention and the parents who are unable to find them. But there’s another side to Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration. Beyond the border, in big cities and small towns, immigrants without legal status are being arrested and detained as well. In many cases, these immigrants have children who are American citizens—but such privilege affords them no control over whether their parents can remain here. In Florida alone, according to the Florida Immigration Coalition, one out of every 14 children is an American citizen with at least one undocumented parent.
“It really does create a big problem,” says Elizabeth Fernandez, the coalition’s communications manager. “President Obama did a lot of deportations. But under Obama, the focus was on deporting people with criminal backgrounds. Now, it’s indiscriminate.”
As of 2014, approximately 20 percent of Florida’s population—850,000 people—were undocumented immigrants. Some Florida cities have declared themselves “sanctuary cities,” and have refused to cooperate with ICE in detaining non-criminal undocumented immigrants. The Florida Immigration Coalition has issued a travel advisory for immigrants, including a map that designates which regions most likely to cooperate with ICE. Jacksonville, which is not a sanctuary city, is flagged as a “moderate risk.”
Even though Jacinta and little José are American citizens, Jacksonville’s immigration policy affects them. They, too, have been separated from a parent.
According to Helena, José grew up in a small village with eight brothers and a single mother. His father was murdered by a rival family clan when José was seven. As a teenager, José tried to find work to help his mother, who still had young children at home. But jobs and money were scarce, and the violence omnipresent; when José left home headed for the border, no one tried to stop him. He walked across the desert and crossed into the U.S. unnoticed, eventually landing in Florida, where some family members lived. He began working in construction and sending home money to his mother. Soon he found Helena.
Helena had left home at age 15. She had lived in a village not far from José’s home; they had met each other on the basketball court during childhood games. She, too, was raised by a single mother. Her father, she says, was an alcoholic and homeless. Helena grew up with her mother and siblings in a single room with a portable stove.
Her sister had made it to Florida. When she told Helena she could live with her if she promised to finish high school, Helena agreed. She crossed into America after paying a woman to borrow her daughter’s paperwork.
Upon arriving in Florida, she was overwhelmed by the prospect of high school—she spoke no English, and was fearful of what she would encounter. She first found a job at a fast-food restaurant—the manager was sympathetic to her plight—and eventually began cleaning houses, always sending a portion of her earnings home to her mother. She began seeing José.
The couple wed soon after becoming reacquainted in Northeast Florida. He continued to work in construction, eventually forming his own little company. She gathered a steady clientele for domestic services. They had two children. They worked hard. They reveled in gifting their kids with lives free from violence and abject poverty. “I tell them, we’re here because we want a better life for you,” she says.
And then came that night in June.
They’d always been so mindful about driving, taking care to follow every traffic rule and making sure the car complied with all required vehicle regulations. Neither of them had a driver’s license; they knew they were just one mistake away from possibly being detained. José, in fact, had been stopped twice before and arrested for driving without a license, but he’d always been released the next day. It was easy to begin to feel safe, and to even feel like part of the community—and even easier to think that a late-night run to the store was ordinary, the kind of chore any father or husband might have to do.
But neither noticed that the vehicle’s rear turn-signal light no longer worked; the day’s rain had shorted it out. Police lights swirled in José’s rearview mirror when he was less than a mile from his home. When the officer approached his car, José gave him the only I.D. he has: a Mexican passport. While the officer called for reinforcements, José called his wife and told her to bring the children.
By the time Helena arrived at the gas station where her husband had been pulled over, five police vehicles surrounded him. Several officers tracked José’s every move as they did a criminal background check. Then, as the children watched, police handcuffed him and led him away. Afterward, says Helena, Jacinta went to the back of the vehicle and started to cry.
A few days after her father’s detention, Jacinta visited Washington, D.C. on a scheduled safety patrol trip. There, she took pictures of the various monuments representing this country’s dedication to freedom and civil rights. She had wanted to stay home; her parents told her she should go. She earned it, they said. “I told her, we cannot stay all day in bed and say we want to cry,” Helena says.
In addition to being a member of the safety patrol, Jacinta excelled in her fifth-grade class. An avid athlete, she also was named a champion in her school’s annual Presidential Physical Fitness competition. She loves to read, swim and play basketball, like her dad. She dreams of being a nurse or a veterinarian or a professional athlete.
Even at 11, she appreciates being an American. “It means to respect your country,” she says, “to be in a country where you have rights. But not everybody has those rights.”
She’s a tall girl, with large brown eyes and long hair pulled back into a ponytail. Broad-shouldered and strong, she speaks softly and takes breaks when the tears begin to fall, burying her head in her mother’s neck. She fidgets with a blue ball of ‘slime’ as she talks, stretching it this way and that between her thin fingers.
“I get angry,” she says. “It’s not fair. We’re human, too. We have feelings and we have a family. Some people come [to America] to help keep food on the table. Some come because they need jobs or they don’t feel safe. I don’t like when people are treated unfairly. There are always two sides to every story.”
Jacinta also worries about her mother. She watches as Helena skips meals and cries. She hears her get up in the night to check and recheck, constantly on the lookout for potential threats.
Helena, a slight woman with an easy smile, works long hours to supplement the family’s reduced income. In addition to cleaning houses, she struggles to manage her husband’s construction company so that it will be there if or when he is released. She tries to stay positive, but she’s angry. When she calls to ask about his case, she says, they never want to know his name. They ask instead for his number.
“We are not only numbers,” she says, crying. “A good father is not a number. A good son is not a number. We are not numbers. We are persons.”
The family lives in a small mobile home community off a busy highway. The neighborhood shows signs of wear—overgrown weeds, peeling paint, unpaved roads. On a sunny day, Helena’s living room stays dark to help keep the home reasonably cool as two window units struggle mightily against the Florida heat.
Overlooking the room is a life-sized statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Helena’s grandfather once told her that when she’s sad, she has “another mother” she can turn to for comfort. Helena often prays these days, and believes God can see that her husband has no criminal record and is a good man. “I think God sees that and He is protecting me,” she says. “I think the only person who can do it is God.”
As his mother and sister talk, 7-year-old little José bounces around, showcasing his favorite toys. “Look at this!” he exclaims again and again. He loves Pokémon; his favorites are Kyogre, which has the power to expand the oceans, and Ash’s Greninja, which can turn water into shooting stars and grow little tornados on its back.
But most of all, little José loves Coqui, the tiny black-and-white puppy Helena and José gave to the children just a month before their nightmare began. They all adore Coqui; but the little boy can hardly let go of her. She comforts him, says Helena.
The family has retained a lawyer, and on July 16, José is to go before a judge who will determine whether he will be deported or allowed to stay in the U.S. while he applies for legal status. As days turn to weeks, Helena remains hopeful that her husband will be home soon, and she’s unwavering in her determination to raise her children here, even if she has to do it alone. “I can’t go back,” she says. “I don’t want to go back. They have a better life here.”
She knows, somewhere deep inside her, there’s a chance she herself could be arrested and deported, and it’s a possibility she has trouble articulating. Instead, she focuses on what she has done best—survive. At age 15, she tried crossing the border twice before succeeding, including once when an immigration officer held a rifle at her back. She persevered, she says, and in her mind has succeeded in making a life for herself.
“I think I’m the bravest of my family,” she says.
On July 16, an immigration judge released José on bond and told him to return in one month for a final decision regarding deportation. Until then, he’s once again a working family man. It’s all he ever wanted to be.