This is the first article in Rewire‘s two-part series on Minerva Cisneros Garcia. You can read the second part here.
Earlier this month, in front of a small congregation at Parkway United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a shy and reserved Minerva Cisneros Garcia shared her story.
This was not the first time the mother of four children had told it, and it certainly won’t be the last. There will be candlelight vigils, press conferences, and an endless stream of interviews with reporters leading up to June 28, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would like her to board a bus to Mexico, leaving behind her children and home for the past 17 years.
For nearly two decades, Garcia has lived quietly, working, taking care of her children, and doing everything possible to not draw attention to her “situation,” meaning her lack of authorization to be in the United States. Garcia is confused by the media attention—she even texted Rewire one night, asking, “Why do you want to talk to me?”—but also knows she must engage it for a chance to garner enough support to stay.
Garcia was instructed by ICE that she is no longer able to remain in the United States, after checking in with the federal immigration agency annually for the past eight years; after being told repeatedly by ICE agents that she was going to be treated “humanely,” and that she was not a priority for removal. So for weeks, she has pushed her shyness aside and put herself on display in a way that makes her visibly uncomfortable. For Garcia, it is a small price to pay in the hope that she can remain in the United States with her children.
Garcia’s oldest, Eduardo, is 21 years old and blind due to complications from cancer. Her second-oldest son died of cancer in 2007, seven years after they first migrated to the United States. Her two remaining children, who are 6 and 3 years old respectively, were born in North Carolina. Winston-Salem is the only home they’ve ever known.
After her husband died in 2000, Garcia said, she migrated to the United States with her two eldest sons. When they arrived at the border from San Nicolas, a municipality in southwestern Mexico, she said she had no intention of misleading immigration officials. Garcia told Border Patrol she wanted to enter the United States to find better educational opportunities for her son Eduardo.
“They arrested us because we came here illegally, but I gave them all of my information. I never lied to them, I always told them my name, my kids’ names, who was I was going to live with, everything. They gave me an appointment and let me come into the U.S. for six months at first,” Garcia told Rewire at her small, tidy home in Winston-Salem.
But Garcia didn’t make her appointment. The attorney she had at the time instructed her not to, saying they would deport her on the spot. Bad legal advice plagues many undocumented communities, subjecting countless people to deportation orders.
“I didn’t want to get deported because I wanted my kids to have a better life, especially my oldest, who is blind. So I didn’t go back, and immediately it became a deportation order,” Garcia said.
Despite the order, nothing happened. Garcia continued to work and pay taxes using a pin number assigned to her by the government. ICE never came to her door. But in 2009, Garcia was driving in North Carolina and encountered a checkpoint. Checkpoints are seemingly innocuous to U.S. citizens, used for checking driver’s licenses or cutting down on DUI’s. For undocumented immigrants, any interaction with law enforcement can trigger deportation, especially when agencies participate in immigration enforcement programs like Secure Communities or the 287(g) program, which essentially deputizes local law enforcement to double as immigration officials.
Checkpoints continue to be an issue in the state, even in its most “liberal” and immigrant-friendly cities like Durham, which has faced criticism from advocates for the practice along with its collaboration with ICE.
The county where Garcia encountered the checkpoint participated in 287(g). She was jailed for one night and then released, she told Rewire.
“They let me go. ICE came to speak to me in the jail and said they would not deport me because they knew the situation with my son and they wanted to be humanitarian. They told me to find a lawyer to fix my situation. So I did,” Garcia said. “Since then I reported to the [ICE] office. Every time they said OK, you’re fine, you don’t get in trouble, everything is fine. But now everything is not fine.”
“It’s Not Possible for People Like Her”
Garcia’s children play in their shared bedroom as she scrolls through immigration stories on her phone. When she sat down with Rewire, Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of ICE, had recently said, “If you’re in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable. You should look over your shoulder.” This conflation of immigration with criminality has been an effective line of rhetoric from the Trump administration, which has used a series of anti-immigrant executive orders to criminalize the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently reside in the United States.
“It’s very difficult to understand. If we did something wrong or bad, I would understand. I understand we have to pay consequences in life. But I’m paying consequences as if I did a bad thing, and all I do is work and take care of my children,” Garcia said.
Garcia cites April 23 as the day that everything changed for her. She went to her regularly scheduled appointment with ICE, but unlike the previous years—when she was told she was “fine” and that as long as she continued working, paying her taxes, and “staying out of trouble,” she wouldn’t be targeted for deportation—this time ICE officials told her they were unsure of her future and they would contact her attorney.
Later that week, Garcia received a letter with another appointment date from ICE. But this letter also said she had until June 30 to leave the country.
As instructed, Garcia attended her next meeting with ICE in June and, as instructed, she brought with her the $150 bus ticket back to Mexico, proof to immigration officials that she would leave the country. The bus ticket is for June 28. When asked if she will get on that bus should her attorney be unable to get her a stay of deportation, Garcia tells Rewire she does not know and simply hopes “that day doesn’t have to come.”
Whenever she leaves the house alone, Garcia’s youngest son, who is exceptionally close to her, expresses fear that someone will “steal” her. His fears are not unwarranted.
“Will [ICE] go to the bus stop to make sure I get on the bus? Will they look for me at my home? I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen to me or my kids,” Garcia said.
President Obama’s administration was responsible for more deportations than any other president’s in history, and his “felons, not families” rhetoric has been widely criticized by immigrant rights’ advocates for denying the realities of many immigrant and mixed-status families, including the fact that re-entering the country to reunite with family is considered a felony. But under Obama, there were some protections in place for people like Garcia. In 2011, the Obama administration implemented a policy change to scale back on the number of people being deported who had formed deep ties in the United States and were not considered a threat to public safety. All of this has changed under President Donald Trump.
Earlier this month, Reuters broke the news that the Trump administration has moved to reopen the cases of hundreds of undocumented immigrants who, like Garcia, had been given a reprieve from deportation under Obama. Between March 1 and May 31, Reuters reported, prosecutors moved to reopen 1,329 cases. Upon learning this, Garcia says her April letter instructing her to prepare to leave the country makes more sense.
Garcia’s attorney, Helen Parsonage, said her client is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the immigration system and that the people who will respond to her story by saying Garcia should have just come “the right way” or that she must “get in line” to become a citizen are grossly misinformed about the realities of the U.S. immigration system.
“There are no avenues for people like Minerva. It’s not possible for people like her,” Parsonage said.
As the American Immigration Council reported, the “line”—or pathway to citizenship—for the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants simply does not exist. Immigration to the United States on a temporary or permanent basis is limited to three routes: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection. Each of these routes is “highly regulated and subject to numerical limitations and eligibility requirements,” according to the American Immigration Council. Not only that, but most undocumented immigrants do not have necessary family or employment relationships and cannot access humanitarian protection, including refugee or asylum status.
There are other factors that prohibit undocumented immigrants from ultimately attaining citizenship, including the visa backlog. To obtain citizenship, a migrant must first obtain a green card. Depending on what type of green card the person was eligible for, they must then wait an additional three or five years before applying for citizenship. Furthermore, there is a cap in place for the number of people admitted to the United States each year on family visas, which is when a U.S. citizen sponsors a family member who is an immigrant.
This effectively has caused a first-come, first-served immigration system, and people from Mexico, like Garcia, experience some of the longest wait times for visas. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), the services-arm of the Department of Homeland Security’s federal immigration agencies, is just now processing family visa applications from Mexico that were submitted in April 1996.
There are also the costs associated with obtaining an attorney to help in the complicated process of filing all of the necessary paperwork—and the cost of naturalization itself. In 1990, the application fee for naturalization was $90. The cost is now $725, including an $85 biometric fee.
The only hope that a person like Garcia had for deportation relief was Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), an Obama-era policy that was designed to protect undocumented immigrants with children in the United States who are either permanent residents or U.S. citizens. Like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), DAPA would have provided undocumented parents with protection from deportation, work authorization, and the ability to obtain a driver’s license. Also like DACA, it was not a pathway to citizenship.
Twenty-six states sued the federal government against the policy, arguing President Obama overstepped his authority in enacting it. A federal court agreed and blocked the administration from enforcing the policy. In June 2016, a deadlocked U.S. Supreme Court kept that order in place, and the program was put on hold. That was until last week, when the Trump administration rescinded the policy.
Parsonage told attendees of Garcia’s candlelight vigil last week that what this mother is “enduring” is an example of the changes the country has seen in the last five months.
“We’ve been going to the ICE office for years and everything has been fine. Nothing changed on Minerva’s end, but all of a sudden there was a change in the system and a change in ICE. All of a sudden these people who said Minerva was not a priority, who said they weren’t interested in deporting Minerva, all of a sudden have made Minerva a priority. We’re seeing this time and time again, people who’ve been here 10, 20, 30 years are all of a sudden being told they are not wanted. It’s making me sick to my heart to see this happening. Our legal system is broken and we need to put heart back into our immigration system,” the attorney said.
There is also the fact that under Trump, “61 percent of people who are issued a notice to appear before an immigration judge, which is the first document in an immigration court proceeding [to determine whether or not they’ll be granted protection from deportation] have been detained,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC).
“This is compared to 21 percent under Obama. We’ve also seen that ICE has pretty much eliminated its own bond process [in immigration detention]. ICE isn’t releasing anyone on immigration bonds. It’s severely curtailed the asylum parole process. So what this means is that more people are being detained under Trump and when they are detained, less people are being released,” Fialho told Rewire.
As June 28 approaches, the date Garcia’s bus to Mexico departs, Parsonage is hoping to get her client a stay of deportation. Garcia tells Rewire she is hoping for a miracle, and does not like to think about a world in which she is forced to choose between obeying unjust immigration laws and staying in her home of 17 years with her three children.
It is her hope, she said, that America “chooses the right thing.”
“I know America. In other countries when there is a problem or something bad happens, like an earthquake, America sends help. America is humanitarian,” Garcia told Rewire. “In my situation, how they are treating me, is not how they are. It’s not who America is. I can’t understand it.”