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U.S. Policy Gives Mother of Three Criminal Treatment

January 30th, 2012

Mariela Obregon Chavarria had hoped to return to her native country of Nicaragua
one day, but she never imagined that she would arrive in handcuffs and be escorted by U.S. security.

Mariela had been living and working in the United States for seven years. A mother of three, she and her partner worked to support her family in Nicaragua and her three-year-old son, a U.S. citizen with her in the U.S. Mariela was deported because she lived in a county that participates in the controversial “Secure Communities” program. Secure Communities facilitates information transfers between local police departments and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Its stated goal is to apprehend and remove undocumented, dangerous criminals. However, mothers like Mariela are much more commonly the targets.

Mariela’s life changed when her partner’s sister violated a restraining order and appeared at the house where Mariela was living. The two got into an argument and the police were called. After the ICE database revealed that Mariela had failed to report to an immigration hearing almost six years prior, Mariela was strip-searched and locked up to await deportation.

When Augusto Obregon, Mariela’s uncle, heard about her detention, his first thought was to call Witness for Peace’s team in Managua. Witness for Peace has a 12-year history of bringing delegates to speak with Augusto, a community leader from El Regadio and WFP ally who has traveled to the U.S. with Witness for Peace on speakers’ tours.

When Witness for Peace alerted people from Mariela’s U.S. community about her case, hundreds of supporters took action on her behalf. Grassroots activists throughout New England contacted their government representatives and the ICE office, asking for a hold on Mariela’s deportation order or for her release from the detention center to be reunited with her son. Mariela spoke softly when describing how she had been moved between detention centers—four in total—in the middle of the night and without warning. Up to 60 women were held in the same room, the food was terrible, and she had no access to information about where she was being moved or for how long she would remain in detention. It was difficult to stay in contact with family or legal representation.

“It’s unjust to treat people that haven’t committed any crime like that,” she said firmly. One woman she met in detention had been living and working in the United States for three full decades. Another woman worried about her young child who’d been taken into state custody since his mother’s detention.

“Can you imagine?” Mariela said. “The hardest thing is that people are losing their children. In my case, if my husband and my aunt weren’t there, I would have lost my son. Thank God that I had somebody, but for others,”she paused, shaking her head, “it’s very, very hard.”

These stories are not unusual. Up to 88,000 of deported immigrants have U.S. citizen spouses or children. Within the first six months of 2011, the federal government deported over 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children, leaving over 5,100 children in foster care.

Furthermore, the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California—Berkeley found that over half the people deported through the Secure Communities program have either no criminal convictions or exclusively minor offenses, like traffic infractions.

Because the U.S. government does not consider deportation to be a criminal proceeding, detainees are not provided with free legal counsel. They must seek out information to defend their case on their own—a difficult task when one takes into account the expense of phone calls from detention, language barriers, and center transfers between states.

Even with these disturbing realities, Secure Communities continues to expand with support from the Obama administration. As of September 2011, there were 1,595 jurisdictions in 44 states and territories participating in Secure Communities. By 2013, ICE hopes to have Secure Communities operating in each state and local jail across the country.

Mariela’s story demonstrates how Secure Communities is a threat to the fabric of immigrant families. However, by fostering fear about contacting law enforcement, the program also endangers the broader community. Each time an undocumented immigrant reports a crime or dangerous activity, they put themselves at risk for deportation.

Like millions of others, Mariela had come to the United States in order to support her family.

“When you leave [for the United States], you’re not thinking about doing anything bad—you’re thinking about working to support your family,” she sighed. “But [immigration policy] doesn’t give you…a chance.”

Mariela’s decision to leave her hometown and the challenges she faces upon returning speak to the consequences of neoliberal trade policy in towns like El Regadio. These policies make it difficult for rural communities like hers to compete with U.S. subsidized agricultural exports. Many farmers leave their land to work in factory jobs. Although neoliberal trade policies encourage this work, the labor conditions can be poor and the salaries are low. Within the last few years, several tobacco factories have opened near El Regadio, employing many people, but also the industry causes health  problems due to the exposure to hazardous chemicals. Realities like these leave many Central Americans with no choice but to migrate north looking for work.

For now, Mariela’s partner will remain in the United States, working with the company he has been employed by for the past eight years.

“He has to work even harder to support us now that I’m not able to work there anymore,” Mariela said.

Sitting in a rocking chair at her mother’s house, Mariela reflected on her bittersweet return to Nicaragua. Her excitement to see her two children, who had grown so much in the last seven years, was evident. But she longs for her son, who is still in the U.S.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’m waiting for my baby to come here. For now, that’s what I’m waiting for.”

Almost 300,000 people have been deported under Secure Communities, representing that many families torn apart, livelihoods lost, months spent languishing in detention, and hopes shattered.

Comprehensive immigration reform, including the repeal of the Secure Communities program, is essential for a strong, sustainable economy. Through grassroots mobilization, educational events, and our unique delegations program, Witness for Peace puts immigrants and their families at the center of the debate on policy solutions.