Preparing for deportation
On Sunday afternoon Felipe De Jesus Valdes and his daughter, Mayra Valdes, were sorting through stacks of paperwork, sending last minute emails to his attorney, and fielding calls from the press.
Valdes held up one of the documents: It was the deportation order from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that he received ten days ago. It requested that Valdes report to ICE offices at 10 a.m. on November 18 for removal to Mexico, with no more than 40 pounds of luggage.
“We have a 50-50 chance” at a last-minute appeal, Mayra said. Her three-year-old daughter, sniffling from a cold, clung to her side. Mayra is nine months pregnant with her second child. Tears rolled down Mayra’s cheeks as she contemplated the possibility that Valdes would not be around to meet his grandson. “I really don’t want to go into labor knowing my dad is on his way to Mexico. ”
According to numbers from ICE, approximately 410,000 people were deported last year—roughly 1600 people a day. While the Obama administration has said that it focuses on removing violent criminals, nearly 18,000 people deported in 2012 had no criminal background. Many of them, like Valdes, have started families and established lives here.
As the primary breadwinner for his family, Valdes’ removal would leave his wife and children in a precarious financial position. Their youngest son has scoliosis and, since the family has no health insurance, Valdes’ income is the only way to pay his medical bills. “I would send back pesos to buy dollars and support the people right here?” Valdes shook his head, “In that way, it looks impossible.”
On top of financial and practical considerations Mayra said her mom is worried about losing “her friend, her soul mate, her strength.”
“I can see in her eyes that she’s tired and she’s scared, but she doesn’t want to tell her kids,” Mayra said.
Mayra’s mother was not present at the house on Sunday. As usual, she’d risen at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for a day of selling drinks and snacks at a local soccer field to help contribute to the family’s small income.
Evidence of their situation was everywhere in the Valdes home.
Canned goods from a local food pantry were stacked neatly in one corner, and the bookcase in the living room was piled to the ceiling with bulk chips from Costco that Valdes’ wife re-sells for a small profit. In the backyard, amid a few potted pepper plants, stood heaps of cardboard and garbage bags full of cans and bottles to sell at the recycling plant. On the roof sat an improvised antenna made by Valdes from wood and nails so his wife can watch the news.
In the living room was a handmade altar honoring Jesus and the Virgin Mary and adorned with plastic flowers and rosaries.
Valdes has lived in the United States for 23 years, 20 of them in Richmond. He works as a plumber. Years ago, he started an adult soccer league, donating his time and money to get the league going. He described going out onto the soccer field and fixing holes in the turf by hand.
According to his current lawyer, Marie Vincent of Pangea Legal Services, the order for Valdes’ deportation was the result of legal malpractice and fraud by his previous attorneys. Immigrants are often at the mercy of malicious or uninformed lawyers. “When you don’t have those people to give you the right advice it could destroy you,” Mayra said.
Since 2000, Valdes estimates that he spent over $20,000 on legal fees—which comes to about one full year of wages. “They just take our money away, but they don’t support us like it’s supposed to be.”
Valdes has been eligible for a special kind of visa for the past ten years, however his application was only filed two weeks ago. The U-Visa is available to immigrants who have suffered a violent crime in the U.S., and who cooperate with law enforcement. The Valdes family has experienced a number of robberies, but in 2003 they were victims of a particularly brutal attack by eight men.
Valdes’ eldest son Adam was 12-years-old at the time. He says the family was packing up from selling snacks at the park as usual when a group of men approached asking for change. He says his dad thought it was suspicious but asked them how much change they needed. “The next thing you know I remember one of the guys hit my dad, and from there I kind of went blank. I just remember a guy was hitting my grandpa with a pole. I grabbed the pole and hit the guy in the leg.” Adam was hit in the head in return and blacked out against the fence. When he came to, he saw his sister getting choked. The attackers abruptly left when a member of the group called out that they needed to get going.
Adam says some of the men were arrested initially, but he is not sure what has happened with the case. The Valdes family agreed to be witnesses and cooperated with law enforcement.
The Valdes case came to the attention of activists in part due to his daughter’s involvement with the group CCISCO (Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization). Mayra started volunteering for the organization last year, and now they are helping her father. CCISCO and another group called Catholic Charities helped Valdes to get representation with Pangea Legal Services who filed an 11th hour petition to stay Valdes’ deportation.
In addition to support from these faith-based groups, Mayra said numerous people from her community have signed petitions, written letters of support and offered prayers in her father’s name. “I don’t feel alone,” she said.
Day of deportation
Monday was a cold morning, and for the Valdes family, one filled with uncertainty. Mayra had been up much of the night nursing her daughter who had gotten sicker and was running a fever of 102 degrees. Valdes said that he hadn’t slept at all.
Valdes and his daughter, armed with papers, left their home around 7:30 a.m. When they arrived at the Pangea Legal Services office in San Francisco an hour later, Vincent showed Valdes a stack of legal documents about an inch thick, which would later be presented to the immigration authorities. She walked Valdes through the papers he had to sign, and they headed out to the ICE headquarters a few blocks away.
When Valdes arrived at 630 Sansome Street a small group had gathered to support him. Members of the Valdes family spoke about their situation to reporters, often breaking down in tears. Supporters offered prayers, and activists from CCISCO led the growing crowd in chants of “No uno mas! Not one more!” By 10:00 a.m., when Valdes walked through the doors, the congregation had grown to around 60—its numbers boosted in part by a strong showing of students from Richmond High who said they were there to back their fellow student, Valdes’ youngest son.
Adam Kruggel, the director of CCISCO accompanied Valdes, Mayra and Vincent into the building. He later reported that chants from the demonstrations below could be heard in the meeting five floors up.
At 11:00 a.m. a shout went up from the crowd. Kruggel texted another member of his organization saying that ICE agreed to grant Valdes a one-year stay on his deportation while they review his U-Visa application. However, Valdes remained inside the building for another four and a half hours.
“Part of the reason for the delay is that there is so much media and community pressure that they want to announce the stay of removal before he is released and it is working its way thru the process,” said Kruggel, in a text message.
Many of the supporters and television went home at that point, but a small group including the Richmond High students remained. “Fe-li-pe. Fe-li-pe,” the crowd chanted.
Valdes’ wife waited to see her husband again, standing on the pavement for six hours.
Her patience was rewarded when a smiling Valdes emerged from the office building around 3:30 p.m. holding a piece of paper in his hand which not only stays his deportation for one year, but also grants him a work permit for that same period. Kruggel said that this was an example of a very difficult situation turning into positive one.
Valdes embraced his wife and sons and shook hands thanking his supporters. For Valdes, this decision meant he will get to see his family, “Every morning. Every night.”
Behind him, the small crowd chanted, “Rich-mond! Rich-mond! Rich-mond!”
Sara Lafleur-Vetter contributed to the reporting of this article.