RAGE, FEAR, and HELPLESSNESS: The day immigration officers came for my father

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 I don’t remember exactly how a group of undocumented immigrants got into our apartment, or  how quickly immigration agents showed up at our door. I only remember my feelings of rage, fear and helplessness.
 At the time my siblings and I lived in a 3-bedroom apartment with our parents, aunt and baby cousin Flor. We were latchkey kids and spent most of our days alone because our parents had to work 13 hour shifts to put food on the table and keep that roof over our heads.
The reason my dad fled from El Salvador
My dad was a well known and respected teacher and he was an organizer of events for the youth at his school and for the community. He was an enthusiastic leader, musician and athlete. He was also an alcoholic. (More on this below) To the guerrilla forces he would have made a great recruiter and for the military, he would have been a threat because of his influence among the youth.
I still have memories of the last night we saw our dad in El Salvador. Our uncles and close friends came over and together with my mom and dad they sang and recorded their voices in unison. We knew dad had to leave in the dawn of morning in order to escape and we had seen my mom had been crying all day. We heard the whispers of danger and the threats he had received through an anonymous note. This note came after my dad had been "arrested" while traveling with some youth to do a concert to raise funds for a city festival called "Fiestas Patronales". He was taken by the police and as they went to tie him up, he begged them to please tie his hands in front rather than from behind. He knew he would be beaten and by having his hands tied in front, he could somewhat protect his face and defend himself. Unfortunately he was unable to do anything about the rifles used to crush his back. El Salvador in those days was rife with violence from civil war and both the guerrillas and the military made people “disappear” overnight. Regular civilians like my dad faced torture and death if they remained in the country. We understood that a swift escape was necessary because the threat could not be ignored, but we grieved with our mother and knew we might not see our dad again. He left for the United States and entered as an illegal alien.
The reason my mom had to flee
We might have grown up in El Salvador if we had not had such a brave mother. When my uncle was conscripted into the military, she went with him to the tribunal where he requested to be exempt from joining because of his medical condition. He had the documentation from a doctor as proof and my mom was successful in getting him released from serving; however, the military general who oversaw the proceedings took a “liking” to my mother. He threatened her and her children if she did not accept his advances. She would not. Instead she desperately contacted my dad and went into hiding until my dad could earn and borrow enough money to get his wife and 3 children out of the war-torn country. Within a year of one parent fleeing because of death threats, we had another parent also in danger. Threats from evil men in positions of power were followed by vile and horrendous actions. She not only had to worry about her life, but also the lives of her 3 children.
A couple of my first interactions with Americans
We often played outside on the terrace of the apartment building in the Links Apartment Complex in Houston, Texas. My dad says at that time in American history, the immigration department paid informants up to $2000.00 to turn people in who were suspected of being undocumented. He is certain one of our neighbours turned us in for the cash. It was a time of trying to assimilate into American culture and learning a new language. I was teased by my family for attempting to “laugh” like an American when I copied the laugh I had heard from two African American ladies sitting at a bus stop near our apartment building. I also remember learning that the meaning of showing my middle finger to someone couldn’t be good when I decided to imitate the gesture I had seen others doing all the time. I pointed my middle finger at a teenage kid on my block. He came after me and I never pointed the finger at anyone again!
My church’s role in helping my family
By all accounts, we were all illegal aliens. Although my dad had begun the paperwork to obtain his work permit and was seeking asylum in the US, we were still on unstable ground. As kids, we had been able to attend school and sometimes even felt welcomed in the community. This was especially true in our church community as my parents and older sister had converted to the LDS faith and become members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. When my dad was trying to get us across the Mexican-US border safely, he prayed and promised God that if he would help him get his family to safety, he would search for Him in a church and turn his life over to Him. By then he had joined an Alcoholics Anonymous group and by becoming a member of the church, his ability to stay sober was solidified because of the gospel's Word of Wisdom doctrine.
Our family listened to the discussions from Elders Gibson and Mortenson, who were missionaries from Utah and California respectively, serving in the Houston area. They were teaching some friends of my parents. Like many Spanish people tend to do, my parents showed up at their friends’ home unannounced and it was there, they met the missionaries and there, they began their journey toward membership in the church. The church played an important role in helping our family transition to the new American culture. We even took refuge in the church building for a few days when a hurricane tore the roof off our apartment. It would be members of the same church in Vancouver, British Columbia that would help our family transition from living in fear and always looking over our shoulders, to full acceptance and transition to legally protected citizens within Canadian culture.
The day they came for my dad
But on the day that those agents came for my dad, believing he was the one behind the transport of the group of undocumented immigrants, I saw the face of cruelty and apathy. It was on this day that I realized that to these agents from the American government, I was nothing. They didn’t see me or my family as worthy of a humane treatment, let alone a kind gesture.
The group of undocumented people that had been left at our apartment were from areas surrounding my mother’s village in El Salvador, so they knew of my dad, but none of them had implicated him. Because he wasn’t the coyote and had not agreed to bring people over, immigration officers could not charge him. The man who was the coyote, had given my dad work at one of his night clubs. Being unable to find the family members of this group of people and knowing he couldn’t keep them in his truck for very long without detection, in a desperate move, he dropped them off at our house.
What happened when they got us to the detention center
When the immigration agents called my dad to tell him to come home immediately, he had no idea what was waiting for him at home. I remember looking around our living room to men and women sitting on the floor around the walls of the living room floor with their hands held above and resting upon their heads. My brother remembers being among those sitting on our living room floor. When dad got home, the agents proceeded to lead everyone into their vehicles. They were sure my dad was a coyote and they showed their disdain by harming the most helpless among us, my cousin Flor. She would have been about a year and half at that time. We were 6, 7, and 9 and were often in charge of caring for our young cousin. Dad knew that if they were taking us away, he needed to bring milk for her to drink. He requested permission to get Flor’s milk, but the agents refused to allow him to bring milk or even one bottle. When I saw this, I felt rage first, then fear, then helplessness.

I have often felt those feelings, when I have witnessed acts of cruelty and when I have experienced unfair, discriminatory and racist treatment. Understanding that my dad was worried about the youngest among us and remembering that she would need diapers wherever they were taking us; in the depths of rage, I walked toward our bedroom attempting to get a diaper to take with us. The agents stopped me from doing that too. I tried to tell them to go get the diapers then, but the wouldn’t go and they didn’t let me through. I told them that we needed things for the baby if they were taking us away, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. I realized I had no power and fear flooded my heart, followed swiftly by helplessness. My father’s fear of them taking us away to be deported, made him plea for my mother’s welfare. Knowing she would be out of her mind if she came home to an empty apartment, he requested that they stop at the hotel where my mom worked as a maid, but they would not stop.
How we got out
While being held, my dad was badgered, and they kept insisting that he was the coyote. He kept telling them he wasn’t and asked them to review the paper work that should have been available to them about his application for a work permit and for asylum. My cousin Flor was hungry and needed a diaper change. My dad reminded the agents interrogating him that the screaming child in the room was suffering. He told them that they were the ones who had not permitted him to bring milk or food or anything to comfort her. She was a baby who needed food and needed her mother! He told them, that they didn’t let him bring food or water for his own children. Although I don’t remember more than the cries of my baby cousin and the repeated harassment of my father, my younger brother remembers sitting on the floor of the prison like room that they kept us in. We weren’t extended any show of humanity. They did not give us water, we had nothing to eat, there was no diaper to change our baby cousin{s soiled one, we had no lawyer to help us fight for basic humane treatment, and, we had no rights.
I don’t know how long we were held but eventually they let us go. As we were walking out, a member of our church, Brother Silva was rushing in to the detention center to try to free us. He had worked in some level of immigration before and my mom must have alerted him and our bishopric about our situation.
My reasons for sharing such a horrific experience
Why do I share this? Because in the past few weeks, I have heard the cries of children like the child I was, like my siblings were and like my baby cousin Flor. I have heard callous and unfeeling agents make fun of the suffering of little children. I have seen comments from angry people who are beyond feeling defend the “zero tolerance” policy of the Trump administration. On social media, even people claiming to be members of my church, have defended the inhumane treatment of my people by citing that it is law and it should be obeyed. They try to use scriptural accounts to defend cruelty and have even criticized our church leaders for their stance on showing compassion and keeping families together while the government works on reform. And no matter what the political affiliations of people, this “zero tolerance” policy should not be allowed to continue. There must be a better way.
I mentioned to my husband, that 36 years ago, when I experienced cruelty from immigration agents, the president of the United States at time had not won the election on scare tactics and populist sentiment. Yet racism and cruelty were common. How much more now, with a president who instigates hatred and racism? How much easier it must be for some agents in a position of power to abuse it and to use their position for inflicting pain upon the helpless and voiceless. My heart is broken for the people held in detention centers. My heart is full of fear for the children. Where are the babies? Where are the girls? Why are they transporting young girls in the middle of the night?
What I hope and pray for

I cannot be silent. I will continue to speak out, even if what I say falls on deaf ears. Because one day, there will be an accounting of our actions. We will all face our Lord. When history is written, and my great grandchildren read from our own family history, they will know that I did not remain silent. They will know that I did whatever was in my power in any small way to protest the inhumanity. I applaud the women banding together to fight for the reunification of families, I applaud the all the organizations working to provide legal services to the families separated and held at the detention centers. I applaud all the churches in all denominations who are working and fighting to provide comfort and to succor those that are in need. I pray we all in our own way can raise awareness, keep the spotlight on these issues and not stop until every child is returned, and every baby again sleeps in the tender embrace of his or her mother.

Stay tuned for ideas on what you can do in your corner of the earth. 
UPDATE:The following link is from the FB group Families Belong Together. It gives some specific suggestions on what you can do wherever you are in the US. In Canada, and throughout the world, we need to keep reminding our elected officials that our governments cannot stay silent in the face of such inhumane and cruel practices.

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Comments 2

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Tom Cormier (website) on Saturday, 08 September 2018 14:14

I cannot say enough how powerful this story is Jacqueline. I encourage everyone who reads it to please share it so we can put a real human face on this very difficult issue. Wow!

I cannot say enough how powerful this story is Jacqueline. I encourage everyone who reads it to please share it so we can put a real human face on this very difficult issue. Wow!
Dick Pellek (website) on Friday, 16 November 2018 18:56

This story just crushed me. I had read most of it when it was first posted but was so stunned that I turned away. Returning to it was a moral duty that I put off for too long. To this day there is a feeling of helplessness about what we as brothers and sisters can do to prevent it from ever happening again.

This story just crushed me. I had read most of it when it was first posted but was so stunned that I turned away. Returning to it was a moral duty that I put off for too long. To this day there is a feeling of helplessness about what we as brothers and sisters can do to prevent it from ever happening again.