Divided We Fall: Deportation and the Nation
A story of deportation and family separation and how it affects families and our country
Tears filled her eyes as she looked down at the table. Her finger traced invisible lines on the smooth surface as her lower lip trembled. “What is making you sad,” I asked slowly, knowing that most of what I said wouldn’t be understood by my recently-arrived 15-year-old English language learner. She glanced up at me and quietly said, “My dad.” I nodded slowly and looked at her empathetically, knowing she was missing home.
Jessica (not her real name) was born in the United States. Her parents had come to the United States before she was born, illegally, hoping for a better life for their children. Sometime later, her parents were deported back to El Salvador. She and her older brother went with them. As time passed, life in El Salvador grew more and more tenuous. Gang warfare, poverty, drug cartels, and government corruption became the norm.
Due to widespread poverty, education is also a major issue in El Salvador. Girls, far more than boys, are more apt to never attend or never finish their schooling. Public schools in El Salvador are poor and provide minimal education. Unless families have money and can afford the rigorous private schools available to the elite, most families are forced to send their kids to public schools, and most students are more likely to drop out after elementary school.
The education crisis in El Salvador has never been more apparent to me than the first time I met Jessica. After a few assessments in Spanish, her native language, it became obvious that while she had “graduated” from 9th grade in El Salvador, she possesses a 1st-grade education in math. She had initially been placed in the tenth grade, but we quickly realized that we would need to work closely with her and the other school staff to make things attainable and approachable.
In the summer of 2018, Jessica’s parents made the difficult decision to send her north, to the country of her birth. Her parents really depended on her to help them run the house and care for her little sister. However, they knew that life in El Salvador wasn’t in Jessica’s best interest. Girls in El Salvador are more often subjected to violence and the danger increases as girls get older.
Jessica packed her things and moved to Minnesota, far away from everything familiar. She lives with her aunt and uncle and cousins. Her older brother, who also lives with her, had actually been sent two years prior after their parents became concerned that he was getting involved with one of the gangs in San Salvador.
Since arriving, Jessica has struggled, both academically and emotionally. English is not her first language. Even though she was born here, she speaks Spanish as her primary language. With the educational disparities between the United States and El Salvador, Jessica knows she is falling behind her peers. However, even beyond the academic struggles, Jessica has felt a wide range of emotions.
The words, My life bad, scribbled on a blank sheet of paper caught my attention. I looked up at Jessica after realizing it was her handwriting. She barely speaks English, but this was most obviously her writing and resonated deeply with me as a cry for help. I gave her a look reflecting the questions in my own mind. She shook her head with tears threatening to fall.
A little later in the day, I sat down with her to talk through how she was feeling. “I miss my parents and my little sister, but I was born here, so I guess my future is here,” she stated, voice trembling, reflecting feelings of defeat. She shared that her aunt and uncle love and care about her, but that she desperately just wants to go home.
I prodded a little deeper, wanting to know if the kids at the school have been welcoming and if there was anything more I could do. She shared that she liked the school and that the kids had been nice, but her voice caught and the tears started to fall as she said, “But I feel like I’m never going to learn English.”
After the conversation was over, I went directly to our school’s counselor in hopes of finding some answers and help for this girl who seemed so lost and alone in a country that in some ways is her home, but, in so many other ways, isn’t her home.
Unfortunately, stories like Jessica’s are not unique. In today’s political climate, I often wonder how many of our students struggle with depression, anxiety, and uncertainty due to immigration and the convoluted nature of it all. Sadly, deportation and family separation has a profound effect on families.
In a statement given to the American Journal of Community Psychology, most of those deported over the last three decades are people who have lived in the country for ten or more years and are often caregivers or parents of US citizens. Worth noting, approximately 5.9 million children have at least one parent who is living in the country illegally. However, despite this being the reality, our current political climate is shifting away from reunifying families and shifting toward further separation.
Multiple articles, news reports, and podcasts have been produced over the last ten or more years as people have started advocating for those separated and away from family. The rancor and uproar only grew more intense as President Trump shifted family separation at the border into high gear.
Stories from all over the country have come to light as families have shared horrifying and traumatic experiences at the hands of border agents and while living in the shadows, trying to keep their families together. Over the last few months, news stations have reported hundreds of children, separated from their parents, and ultimately Even after reunification, however, the damage has already been done.
The challenging part of this whole debate is the misconceptions and misunderstandings that most Americans have about immigration and why it is so difficult to immigrate to this country. Trump understands that there are deep misconceptions and has gambled and won on them. He has ramped up the fear and mistrust in his base, painting illegal immigrants as villains, when most are simply moms and dads just like us, who love their kids just like us, who simply want to keep their family together.
Many of these families originate from countries where it is simply too dangerous to go back, so the thought of taking their entire family back is simply a death sentence. No parent would ever willfully choose this.
Consider this: if your child had a deadly mold allergy, you would do whatever it takes to ensure that the home you live in and the school they attend is safe. However, if you lost your job and your entire life’s savings, and you were forced to move into an apartment complex known to have the deadly mold spores that would most certainly kill your child, would you? Or would you choose something else — a homeless shelter or living out of your vehicle?
While this example is a bit extreme, these are the kinds of choices that illegal parents make every single day.
I think many in this country forget that this country was built on immigrants. Everyone that comes to this country is seeking something, be it a better life for themselves or their children. Even the caravan of immigrants coming from Honduras, even they, are looking for a better life. When we simply turn our backs on them and we support policies that seek to shut them out and close our doors to the people who are looking for the very same thing our ancestors were looking for when they arrived, we spit on those words found on the Statue of Liberty:
I urge you to vote. I urge you to consider what it might mean to reunite separated families. Put yourselves in their shoes. Do some research. Ask good questions.
United we stand. Divided we fall.