Every major social change starts as a whisper and grows to a deafening roar that can no longer be quieted. We will be able to tell our children that in our lifetimes, we experienced that whisper for change to our immigration policy, and it is just a matter of time before we experience the roar too.
Most of us hear the word immigration and immediately envision a nameless and faceless crowd of people that do not have roots here: they came illegally, they do not speak our language, and they somehow threaten the safety and livelihood we work so hard to preserve. But let me whisper to you that when we see immigration like that, we miss the real, bigger, greater story of what is happening in this country.
Immigration enforcement officials, or ICE, took my husband, after having overstayed his visa by 20 days. He was caught going ten miles over the speed limit, and now awaits deportation after a month-long incarceration. He had no access to a hearing, nor to a judge, nor to an appeal process, and he adhered to the singular hope that the head of ICE in our region would mercifully grant him another chance. But he didn't.
In this month, dozens of Americans have brought me their stories of the injustices that their loved ones have endured while everyone else, including myself, believed that immigration is not our problem but their problem, that sea of strangers yet again. Alecia's 38-year-old husband caught running a stop sign didn't even know that he had irregular status in America, having been raised here in the United States by his U.S. citizen father. Now, after 18 months of incarceration, he faces deportation to Jamaica, a country that he hasn't known since his family left when he was only seven. There was Beth, whose 71-year-old father, a schoolteacher by day and taxi driver by night, was pulled over for a routine DWB, and though he was a legal resident, he could not provide his legal residency papers. He sat in a Brooklyn jail for nine days facing deportation until someone pulled some strings.
I also have had the fortunate privilege of stories from the inside. There is the man who is identified inside by a red uniform signifying serious criminal behavior, because of a marijuana charge from 1994, for which he was already penalized and released. Another recent arrival from the Congo is now detained for failing to realize that he could not walk to Niagara Falls and then return to the U.S., given that his academic visa was a single entry visa. His wait goes on for weeks, with his only real crime being that he never understood the English language on his Visa. He too is one of the men that languish in the holding centre, together with my husband.
This little pen in Batavia, New York has held thousands of people for similar offenses, and there are many such holding centers all across the country. We have been told that these individuals are largely criminals, but the criminal element must be questioned. Firstly, individuals are not only apprehended when they transgress the law, but also during field operations, which include targeting the non-U.S. citizen visitors of detention centers, their detained loved ones used as bait. I was appalled to learn that Homeland security enters public buses that bring travelers to Batavia, New York, in order to interrogate passengers on their immigration status. Second, where is the criminal element? There are stories from around the nation that prove that there is clearly no statute of limitations on a crime committed, sentenced and penalized decades prior, meanwhile traffic violations have become the Holy Grail of apprehending detainees vis a vis local law enforcement in cooperation with ICE.
The enforcers of these policies are not to blame, however, their career is to serve their country, and unfortunately, they have been tasked with a witch-hunt. If only they were guarding our natural resources instead. We have shown our administration that we are at ease with Draconian immigration laws so long as they target criminals, and thus we allowed for this umbrella grouping for all infringements. More than 2.4 million deportations in the last six years and the percentage identified as criminals is steadily decreasing.
When my husband was taken, the immediate and personal loss that we felt was indescribable. When he is deported, I will go with him, so I feel that my own country has expelled us and it is a painful realization. Now, understanding that we have been silent as millions of Americans have their homes and families brutalized by a system that alienates them, that loss turns into an even deeper sadness not for myself but for my country.
The women that share this burden with me, whose loved ones are also awaiting the end of their detention, talk to me about faith. Be it faith in God, faith in the system, faith in Karma, it is easy to have your beliefs challenged when such an unjust system goes unchecked. "Write your story, and write your book," I say to each of them. I wonder how many books it will take for the whisper of our voices to become a roar.