“THAT person doesn’t live here,” I told the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials when they knocked on my door in Queens early on April 17, 2012, looking for someone I’d never heard of. I was afraid, because my husband and I did not have papers. But I let them come in anyway.
They didn’t find the man they were looking for, but they took my husband, Jose Luis Vivas, instead. Our daughters, Ariana, now 9, and Leslie, now 7, were watching. I didn’t know what to tell them, so I said that the men were their father’s friends, playing a game, and that he’d be back soon. He wasn’t.
After six months in detention in New Jersey, he accepted voluntary departure, and was expelled in November.
The Senate is debating an immigration reform that would give fathers like Jose the opportunity to reunite with their families and give us both a path to citizenship. Congress should pass it.
I was born in a small town in Oaxaca State, in Mexico. I never knew my father. I lived with my grandparents, while my mother worked in Mexico City to support our family, until after sixth grade, when I joined my mother. I wanted to get additional schooling, but we couldn’t afford the supplies. It was then that I became determined to come to the United States to help my mother and younger sister. I felt like a burden. I was 14 when I crossed the border, on my second attempt, with other migrants and help from a guide. That was 14 years ago, in June 1999.
When I got to New York, it was hard to find work, but I did, in perfume factories and dry cleaners, and cleaning offices. In 2001 I met Jose in Queens. He was from Puebla State, which borders Oaxaca, and had come to the United States in 1998. He knew my cousin’s husband, and we were just friends at first, but then much more. We didn’t officially marry — we joked we would if we were still together at 50 — but we were committed to being a family. He has given me unconditional support, in our most difficult moments.
In 2001, my mother came to the United States, and two years later, we all moved in together in Cincinnati. But then my mother died in a car accident. Jose helped me survive my grief. Soon after, I brought my little sister up from Mexico. Then my daughter Ariana was born; two years later, we had Leslie. We had started the family I never had.
Jose is a very responsible and hardworking man. He worked six days a week at a grocery store. We celebrated birthdays, baptisms, Christmas and New Year’s, and always went to church together. Saturday was his only day off. The girls and I would wait for him on Friday nights in a park near the grocery store, so we could spend the most time possible with him.
During the months when Jose was detained, at the Monmouth County Correctional Institution, in Freehold, N.J., we’d talk on the phone about once a month, for only 8 to 10 minutes because the calls were expensive. Several times, we traveled for two hours to visit him. We were permitted to see him only for 15 minutes, behind glass. My daughters wanted to kiss him and hug him, and they couldn’t. Jose eventually agreed to return to Mexico. He was here undocumented and thought he would have lost his legal case.
In June 2012, President Obama announced a program to defer deportations of undocumented immigrants like me who are in high school or have graduated, are younger than 31, entered the country before age 16 and have continuously lived here at least five years. My application is pending, and I’m working toward a G.E.D. It’s possible Jose might have qualified, but we didn’t know that before he agreed to leave.
Sometimes I think about how I tried to keep my daughters from experiencing what I went through, growing up without a father. I wonder if I’ve failed.
I’ve considered taking my daughters to Mexico to be together with Jose. But I would never do it. Mexico is a foreign country to them. I don’t want to expose them to the violence there today. I don’t want to take away their opportunities for a better life. My daughters are citizens and have the right to grow up here.
This is the second year that our daughters will not hug their dad on Father’s Day. When they ask where he is, I don’t know if I should tell the truth, or lie. It’s affecting my younger daughter’s studies. It’s possible that she won’t be promoted to third grade. They hope he’ll return to go over their homework with them, to enjoy the drawings that Ariana makes and laugh at Leslie’s mischief and to go to the park together when their dad gets off work, so the weekend can start.
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