A family shares story of mother’s deportation — and what it took to get back

May 18, 2017

From the Pews

Lorna and Javier in 2017, choosing not to show their faces — and to use only their middle names — to protect their identity. Courtesy Lynda McDonnell

Lorna and Javier in 2017, choosing not to show their faces — and to use only their middle names — to protect their identity. Courtesy Lynda McDonnell

“We were all sleeping. It was like six in the morning. You could hear someone yelling. They came in, took my mom, took several other people. I didn’t know much of immigration at that stage in life. Never knew that they would come and do that to a person… We thought somebody did something wrong and that’s why they were there. We thought they would let my mom go eventually, but that wasn’t the case.”

Jesse was 14 and about to start high school when immigration agents pushed into his family’s home that summer morning in 2005.  His mother Lorena was a 34-year-old cleaning woman and the single mother of 12-year-old Teresa, seven-year-old Javier and Jesse.  Their experience sheds light on how deportation of undocumented immigrant parents may affect their estimated 4.5 million citizen children.

Because Lorena’s children are U.S. citizens, they were not arrested with her. Two friends agreed to care for them, but no one had money to hire a lawyer to argue Lorena’s case. So after spending two months in detention, she was flown to Honduras, the country she left at 17 to find work in America and help the impoverished family and infant son she left behind.  She considered getting a passport and ticket for Javier, her youngest, but decided that would only fracture the family further.

“In my mind, I am coming back,” Lorena says. “I wanted [that] they stay together.”

She had struggled to make a life in America without family to support her. The children were the family she created, but their fathers had left her and provided little help.

“When are you coming?” the children asked whenever she called. “One day,” she promised. “Soon.”

The journey back to Minnesota was long and dangerous, but within a week of arriving in Honduras, Lorena was headed north. “I need to coming back because I love my kids and my kids they need me.”

Meanwhile, two friends living in different Twin Cities’ suburbs shared the job of caring for Teresa, Javier and Jesse. One took them during the week, the other on weekends. They alternated the arrangement every six months to ease the burden. The frequent switching of homes and schools led Jesse to fall behind in school. Eventually he quit altogether.

“At first I was doing okay,” he says. “Then I slowly started not having stability, moving from house to house.  I ended up cheating myself out of an education because I would never have that stability or finish the school year in one school. I was constantly moving.  I would have to start all over with certain credits.”

Arrested crossing the border in California, Lorena was sent to a detention center. She worked there to buy phone cards and call the children so they could hear her voice. Her friends and the children wrote letters pleading that immigration officials let her come home to them. But there was no money to hire a lawyer and argue for a humanitarian visa. After nine months in detention, she was flown again to Honduras. Now a felon, she was banned from ever returning to the U.S. But she would not abandon her children.

In phone calls, Jesse often blamed his mother for her absence. “What crime do you have?” he asked angrily. “Why do you leave us?”   Teresa excelled at school, but Jesse struggled and Javier often misbehaved. “I didn’t have to listen because they weren’t my mom or dad,” he says.

Lorena’s second trip through Mexico and across the border was even more harrowing. She was held for ransom in Mexico and walked two days across the Arizona desert, guided by a coyote and relying on crackers, tuna and two gallons of water to survive. They passed the bodies of immigrants who had died in the desert.  But staying with the bodies, waiting for help, meant risking dying themselves.

Finally, 16 months after she left, Lorena arrived one cold winter morning at her friend’s house. There were tears and celebration, but also damage that could not be undone. Still angry, Jesse refused to live her. Javier’s face had lost its boyish brightness. He looked older, angrier, and resisted going to school, fearing that men in uniforms would take her away again. At 19, he still mistrusts authority. “I thought cops were bad, anything with authority was bad. It’s been that way, even now.”

Twelve years later, both sons are working, and Teresa will soon graduate from college. Jesse understands the risks his mother took to return to them. Javier is convinced that he’d be in jail if his mother had not returned. “Not letting her down. That’s the main thing.”

Lorena still cleans houses and guides her children with a strong example and clear messages: Trust in God. Work hard. Help others. “I pass[ed] a lot of bad things to come back to you,” she tells them. “We need to do good things.”

With deportation threats increasing, the children’s worries about losing their mom have returned. Lorena worries more for younger families. “My kids growing up. They don’t need me. But what happens with the other women with the little ones?

“Don’t think for the parents. Think for the kids,” she urges. “You deport the parents from the kids. What do you think will happen to those kids? Do you think it will make a better country?”

Lynda McDonnell

Lynda McDonnell

Lynda McDonnell is a writer and journalist and a member of Incarnation/Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in Minneapolis. Her blog – A Pilgrim’s Way – and other information can be found at  http://www.lyndamcdonnell.com

Editor’s note: To protect the family’s privacy, family members’ middle names are used in this account.

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