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Border Crossings Refocus Immigration Debate on Families

The “Bring Them Home” campaign challenges politicians to act on their promises of immigration reform.

(Image: Through fence via Shutterstock)

In 2007, Elvira Arellano, a single mother from Mexico who made headlines after spending one year seeking sanctuary in Chicago’s churches, was deported. On March 18, she returned to the United States with her 15-year-old son Saul and her four-month-old infant. But Arellano did not return alone. She returned as part of a mass border crossing organized as part of the Bring Them Home campaign.

“Bring Them Home is for people who have already been deported,” stated Dulce Guerrero, an organizer with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, or NIYA. In 2013, NIYA successfully stopped the deportation of Fredi Alcazar, who had lived in the United States since he was eight years old. In 2008, days before his high school graduation, Alcazar was deported after being in a car accident. Alcazar returned to the United States, but, after being pulled over for a traffic violation, was facing deportation again.

After stopping Alcazar’s second deportation, NIYA organizers wondered, “If we can do that for him, why can’t we do it for others?” So began the Bring Them Home campaign.

Organizers started with an online intake form for people who had been deported or who had left the United States to avoid a deportation order. “We got a sense of who they were and how long they had lived here,” described Guerrero. Word spread among friends, family members and immigrant communities, and over 90 families signed up.

Organizers then contacted each person to talk about the action, including the possibility of detention and a deportation order.

“When some people found out they’d be in detention, they dropped out,” recalled Rosario Lopez, another NIYA organizer. “But others didn’t. We gave them enough information to make an informed decision.”

Organizers also warned potential participants that there was no guarantee against deportation. Those who had left the United States to avoid deportation orders risked receiving one. Nonetheless, 150 people decided to risk detention and deportation if it meant being reunited with their family. The crossings took place over four days — beginning on March 10 and ending on March 18.

Miguel Angel Cedillo was one of those 150. He and his family had left the United States to avoid a deportation order. While living in Mexico, they regularly received calls from people claiming to be members of a Mexican cartel. If the family did not pay them, the callers threatened they would kidnap a family member and return them in pieces. Cedillo reported these calls to the local police, who took no action. After a run-in with masked men with machetes during a family picnic, Cedillo and his wife, Andreina Cruz, agreed that Cruz, a U.S. citizen, and their two sons, who were also citizens, would return to the United States in July 2012, even though it meant separating the family.

“We hadn’t seen him since then,” Cruz recalled. Although their five-year-old son regularly speaks with his father on the phone, he does not recognize him in photos.

Then Cruz’s sister told her about the Bring Them Home crossings. Cedillo decided to join the crossings. The couple’s older son, six-year-old Michael, flew to Tijuana to join his father. On Thursday, March 13, they joined the second crossings. After entering the United States, Cedillo was handcuffed and taken into detention. Cedillo and others who crossed as part of the campaign — including Sugey Carrazco, who is five months pregnant — remain at the Otay Detention Center, run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America.

Mothers who crossed the border with their children who are U.S. citizens have been sent to Arizona’s San Luis Detention Center, which is operated by the private corporation Emerald Correctional Management. Mothers with children who are not U.S. citizens have been sent to the Berks Family Residential Facility, an ICE-operated detention center in Leesport, Pa.

Two children who had U.S. citizenship were also detained at Otay before being released to family members who are U.S. citizens. Other children with U.S. citizenship — such as Cedillo’s son Michael and 11-year-old Kevin, who crossed the border with his father — were taken to the Polinski Children’s Center, which is run by Child Protective Services.

“They put us in a white car,” Kevin said. “They took me and my dad to the children’s center and then they took my dad away. They wouldn’t let me say goodbye or give him a hug.” His seven-year-old sister, who had crossed earlier with their mother and their older sister as part of the campaign, was also taken to the children’s center, but Kevin was not allowed to speak with her.

“I wasn’t allowed to leave my room or else I’d get in trouble,” Kevin recalled. Although he saw his sister during meals, he could not sit with her. “It was boys with boys and girls with girls,” he said. He and his sister spent three days at the children’s center until his aunt, a U.S. citizen, was able to pick them up. His older sister, who was born in Mexico, is currently at the Berks facility with their mother.

Behind Every Person Who Crosses Is a Family Organizing

Even before the crossings, family members have been organizing. “We had a basic workshop on how to stop deportations using online petitions and contacting legislators,” Lopez explained. Those participating in the border crossing also reached out to their family members. When Kimberly Sotelo Ochoa decided to join the crossings, she called her mother and sisters in Washington State.

“She told us we’d have to start getting involved,” recalled Alejandra Campos, Ochoa’s 15-year-old sister. “So we started attending meetings, talking with other families, getting to know each other.”

Although the families live in different parts of the state, they came together to watch a live stream of the first border crossing. They continue to meet and plan strategies for supporting their loved ones. “We usually discuss our ideas with groups of two or three people,” Campos explained. “Then we present our ideas to the larger group [20 to 30 people].”

NIYA organizers have continued to reach out to family members, sometimes working with them to overcome fears around speaking out. “With some families, there’s a fear of organizing,” Lopez noted. “But when they come to pick up their children, we remind them that they have to organize.” She remembered one woman, a U.S. citizen, asking, “What happens if you stand outside with petitions? Do you ever get people yelling at you?”

Lopez told her about her own experiences as an undocumented person participating in a 2008 hunger strike outside a state legislator’s office around the DREAM Act. “With some families, there’s fear around taking actions, but having their loved ones in detention pushes them past their fear.” Noting that the organizers themselves are mostly undocumented, Lopez added, “We’re not going to ask someone to do something that we’re not going to do.” The conversation helped the woman overcome her anxieties and begin participating in the organizing needed to get her family out of detention.

Cedillo’s wife, Andreina Cruz, has not allowed fear to stop her from organizing. She flew to San Diego two days before the first crossing. On the day of the first crossing, family members held a vigil in San Diego. “That same day, my mother and my younger child participated in a ‘Coming Out of the Shadows’ event outside an ICE detention center in Chicago,” Cruz stated. “My mom spoke, my younger son [age five] also spoke.”

Cruz returned to Illinois one day after the last border crossing and immediately plunged into local organizing. In Illinois, five families have loved ones who participated in the mass border crossings. With two activists from the earlier DREAM 9 and DREAM 30 border crossings, they held their first meeting on March 19.

Two days later, Cruz drove over an hour to her congressman’s office to ask for his support. Although she was unable to speak personally with Luis Gutierrez, she spoke with his staffer who said that Gutierrez would lend his support. Cruz pointed out that Elvira Arellano had been released from ICE detention with the help of Luis Gutierrez’s office. “We’re hoping that if he helped her, he will help us and the other families,” she said. The following day, she and other family members held a “Coming Out of the Shadows” event in Melrose Park where they shared their stories of family separation.

Cruz noted that, although the families live far from each other, “we keep in touch with text messages, calls and Facebook.” In addition, some family members’ work schedules prohibit them from attending every meeting while others may have difficulties getting rides. “If someone can’t make an event, there’s always a person who will speak up for them so they’re not forgotten just because they can’t be there,” she explained.

Family members have been raising public awareness in other ways. Alejandra Campos, whose sister Kimberly remains in detention awaiting a hearing, has been raising the issue at her high school. She has also approached teachers who knew her sister — who had attended and graduated from the same high school three years earlier — asking if they would write letters to the judge on her sister’s behalf. ”Most people I tell want to get involved,” she said. “They want to know how they can help.”

What’s Next?

Elvira Arellano is one of three mothers who have been paroled from detention. Ninety-five families remain in detention.

On March 25, one week after the last border crossing, family members in several states held vigils outside congressional offices. Andreina Cruz points out that Bring Them Home challenges politicians to act on their promises of immigration reform. “Obama has said there’s going to be immigration reform, but he’s the president who has deported the most people,” she stated. “He’s deporting them; we’re bringing them back. We’re reuniting families. Is he really going to deport these families or is he going to keep his word and help out? If you can’t help the 150 people who are asking for asylum now, then how are you going to help the 11 million people who are already here?”

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