Martha Roque and her children. Photo by Thomas James
Walking down the steps of the Yakima County Courthouse, a decade after coming to the United States, Oscar Roque thought he’d finished his business with the law for the day.
It was March, and Oscar had traveled to the city to settle up after a missed court date. He parked a few blocks away, and his wife and four children waited while he went inside. It was going to be a quick stop. But in another car, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were waiting. When Oscar came back out, they walked from their vehicle to his and knocked on the window. Thinking something had been forgotten in the courthouse, Oscar asked if he needed to go back inside.
“No,” one of the officers said. “We’re from ICE.”
When he understood what was happening, Oscar asked the agents not to arrest him in front of his children, but to take him around the corner. Instead they pushed him across the hood of his van.
Because of course in the eyes of the government, Oscar’s presence in the country was a piece of unfinished business. Ten years before, with his young family, he had entered the United States illegally.
Weary of the poverty and violent drug crime that dogged their native Mexico, Oscar, his wife, Martha, and their two children had crossed into the U.S. in 2004, hoping to start a new life. Following what work they could find, the pair eventually settled outside of Yakima, where they labored on farms and orchards.
The Roques’ was not a wealthy life, but it was the life of a family. Piece by piece, in a foreign land, the pair built a new normal that lasted a decade: a rhythm of work, school, and milestones, including the births of two more children.
A month later, I talked with Oscar over a scratchy telephone line from the Tacoma detention center, where he’d been held since his arrest. Meeting him there in person would take time to arrange, so after our phone conversation I arranged to meet Martha and his children. Only a few days later I’m sitting in the Roques’ tidy living room, explaining my plan to interview Oscar, when Martha looks at me quizzically.
“He’s in Texas,” she says.
It’s the second-to-last step in deporting a person—shipping them to a hub like the federal detention center in El Paso, where they will wait for a flight across the border. It means the appeals process is over, and the wheels have begun to turn.
“Oscar can’t come back.”
Oscar’s role as a father likely was not a factor in the decision of the agents who arrested him that day in March. Yet, through a confluence of policy and demography, the act of removing fathers is for ICE so routine as to almost be policy itself.
Overwhelmingly, ICE arrests and deports men. In April, according to agency spokesman Andrew Muñoz, the Tacoma detention center held just over 1,200 men, but fewer than 200 women. In the past two years, according to federal documents provided to researchers at Syracuse University, more than 90 percent of deportees were men. Yet according to the Pew Research Center, men make up only about 60 percent of the adult undocumented population.
And at a rate four times the national average, those undocumented men are fathers, living at home, raising one or more children with another person, according to a Seattle Weekly examination of data from the Pew Center and the U.S. Census. Among the undocumented population, about four in 10 men live with a partner and children. Among the U.S. population as a whole, only one in 10 do. In total, among undocumented immigrants, nearly half of all households are couples living with children, compared to one in five among non-immigrants.
The result is a punishment that carries a particular weight. Losing a father takes a unique emotional toll, and for families clinging to stability in a foreign land—and living close to the poverty line—losing half a household’s earning power is also a blow.
“You’re depriving them of their main source of support,” says Jorge Barón, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “And many times, that has massive, cascading effects.”
“A family that maybe they weren’t wealthy, but they’re making do—all of a sudden based on this one incident, [they are] in a very dire situation.”
In 2011, ICE’s director issued a set of enforcement priorities that included instructions to officials to avoid taking in immigrants who were primary caretakers of children. But the document makes no mention of family status, or avoiding splitting families, or the removal of a family’s primary economic support.
While the agency refused to make a representative available for an in-person interview, ICE spokesman Muñoz wrote via e-mail that most of the people arrested by the agency are caught crossing the border or after being arrested for a crime, and that men do both more often than women. Pressed for details as to how a population with a 2/1 gender split ends up with a deportation ratio of nine men for every one woman, Muñoz wrote back that it was “an interesting question that I imagine requires a quantitative study” to determine the cause.
Even more than in other families, in immigrant families fathers play a crucial economic and social role, Barón says. Often it is they who cross the border first, making a beachhead of sorts before sending for their wives and children. When their families arrive, the father is not only the head of the household, but the one who speaks the most English, has worked here longest, and best understands the patterns and institutions of American life.
While Barón is quick to emphasize that women in immigrant households play vital roles, he also acknowledges that “traditional gender roles” are common, with men often taking on more of the work of economic support. Statistics bear out his statement. While undocumented immigrant men have the highest workforce participation rate of any citizenship status, including U.S.-born, undocumented women have the lowest—chiefly, the Pew report found, because 30 percent of undocumented women care for children instead of working outside the home.
All this means that homes tend to be balanced precariously on the shoulders of fathers—and have the most to lose if those fathers are taken away. And when fathers are deported, says Sandra Aguila-Salinas, a kindergarten teacher who works with many immigrant students every year in the Highline School District, “it’s like a domino effect.”
When students in her class lose a father to deportation, she says, the results often fit an all-too-familiar pattern. Because the mothers often don’t tell their youngest exactly what’s going on, Aguila-Salinas usually hears that a father “is going back to Mexico.” When she talks to the mothers, though, the explanation is almost always deportation.
Next, she watches as students’ home lives are turned upside down, and sees them struggle to adjust to a mother suddenly stressed and absent, looking for work after losing the father’s income. Then the effect of less time with parents in general begins to show: less help with homework and the absence of a strong disciplinary figure.
“Kids start acting out,” says Aguila-Salinas, “and then I find out, ‘Oh, the father’s not there anymore.’ ”
Finally, she says, with one—if not the only—breadwinner in the family suddenly gone, many students struggle with homelessness. Bouncing from family member to family member, some end up living in their cars, while others move and switch schools abruptly.
“It’s very, very hard on the kids,” she says. “Their whole life is crumpling down because of the fact they don’t have a stable place to be.”
For the Roques, the events that flowed from that March day were especially bitter, coming just as the family seemed on the verge of recovering from another cataclysm.
On the morning of New Year’s Day, Oscar lost control of his pickup outside of Sunnyside, Wash., with the family packed into the cab. Veering into the median, the truck flipped, rolled, and came to rest on its wheels. Martha walked away from the accident, but the children and Oscar were hospitalized. For 7-year-old Diego, a helicopter came, taking him to the airport, where he was whisked by plane over the mountains to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where he remained in a coma.
Oscar and Martha followed, quickly moving the entire family first to a hospital apartment, then to a neat apartment in South Seattle. While Martha took care of Diego and the other kids, Oscar found a new job at a grocery store.
On February 27, almost two months after the accident, Diego left the hospital. His coma had lasted 27 days, and he still couldn’t walk long distances. But weekly trips to a physical therapist replaced the hospital bed, and the family could finally begin to heal. They had a home, with a jungle gym outside for the kids and a bus stop nearby, and they had each other.
Only, during the mad rush from Yakima, Oscar had made a mistake. Following a domestic dispute when the couple lived in Yakima, a judge had required Oscar to complete a series of check-ins with the court. After the accident, Oscar missed one, and a warrant was automatically issued for his arrest.
So, on a Friday, Oscar brought records to the court that explained why he had missed the check-in. The court accepted his explanation. All settled, he walked outside, crossed the street, and got into the van. That’s when the ICE agents knocked on his window.
As a form of state violence, the removal of a father from a family is not new, either in the U.S. or elsewhere. In the West, where corporal punishment has largely been abandoned, the forced dislocation of a person is the primary means of physical domination exercised by the government. If you rob the corner store or mug somebody, they take you away.
Yet for immigrants the punishment is unique. Under current law it is often more permanent—immigrants deported after being caught entering illegally must wait 10 years to apply for legal citizenship, even if their family is here the whole time. While prisoners have visitation rights and the chance of parole, deportees are sent to virtual exile—especially if they are returned to a country farther away than Mexico, or if the remaining parent is also illegal and so cannot leave the U.S. to visit his or her spouse.
The punishment is also handed out seemingly arbitrarily. With ICE agents targeting not only those who interact with the court system, but also people doing nothing more than driving down the road or stopping for gas—as in highly publicized cases in Arizona and on the north end of Washington’s own Olympic Peninsula—exile lurks at the other end of even the most mundane errands. Despite recent statistics showing that 59 percent of deportees had been convicted of a crime, a closer look shows that roughly a third of those had only a single misdemeanor, and another quarter had committed two misdemeanors. Among the crimes counted, of course, is the crime of having been caught trying to enter the United States illegally.
Almost inevitably, the debate around immigration in this country is framed as an issue of protection: from the crimes immigrants might commit, from the dependents and dependencies they might bring, and especially from the work they might do in our economy, their presence threatening the livelihoods of those already here. But for the children of undocumented immigrants—many of them legal U.S. citizens—federal intervention leaves them vulnerable, collateral damage of a punishment we have collectively deemed necessary.
In the end, the math is simple. Because Diego’s father was not born in this country, he does not deserve to be here. Because Diego’s father broke the law in coming here anyway, Diego’s father must be punished. Because part of Diego’s childhood is attached to his father, part of Diego’s childhood must be sacrificed. According to our laws, the wholeness of the family is a price worth paying for the punishment of the man.
For Martha, Oscar’s absence means poverty. The Roques were never rich, but now the family barely scrapes by. Martha has been going to a local food bank. Still recovering from an injury suffered in the accident and unable to do heavy work, she sells tamales, cooked cactus, and horchata at farmers’ markets and church gatherings—a livelihood to which a tower of fresh cactus leaves in the family dining room bears witness.
She’d like to get a cheaper apartment, she says, but Oscar signed the lease when he was still supporting the family, and it’s written for a year. In the meantime, the family goes to the food bank every week, and she has another month before she can go back to physical work. Diego also still needs therapy that wouldn’t be available to his family in Mexico.
Instead of the cautious hopes made possible by a couple sharing the work of providing for a family, there is only uncertainty, living day by day.
“Vivimos muy limitados,” says Martha. ‘We live very limitedly.’
Oscar’s family members aren’t the only ones paying for his absence. If the Roques’ poverty continues or worsens, it could cost the state of Washington money. A family suddenly forced to survive on a single income can easily end up below the poverty line. On top of the cost of deporting a person, which ICE last year estimated at around $13,200, if the remaining Roques end up on food stamps, it would cost the state more than $700 per month in benefits alone, or almost $9,000 per year.
If Martha Roque’s worst fears are realized and she too is deported, her two U.S.-born children would likely enter foster care—a tremendously expensive option. According to the Department of Social and Human Services, a foster child costs the state $36,000 a year. For Damien, 5, and Diego, the cost of providing a combined 24 years of foster care would total close to a million dollars.
Of course, ideally those children might stay with another family member, or Martha or Oscar could apply for visas for them to move to Mexico. And while ICE guidelines technically instruct the agency not to deport primary caregivers, it still happens, say Barón and other immigrant advocates.
Barring some fresh rupture, however, the Roque family simply waits. With hundreds of thousands of illegal crossings each year, Oscar’s place in the ranks of the undocumented, to say nothing of the economy, was likely filled before he even arrived in Texas. The hole left by the departure of Oscar the father, however, remains.
“It’s hard for the kids,” Martha says. “They don’t understand . . . My girl still says, ‘Why did they take Papa?’ ”
“There’s nothing we can do,” she continues. “He can’t come back. Right now the only thing I can do is to try to arrange for Diego, and so that if something happens to me, with the immigration, they won’t separate the kids.”
Joy Valdez with her daughter holding an image of the family with Rafael. Photo by Thomas James
For Joy and Rafael Valdez, the same stark dilemma presented itself last year—but led to a different solution. Rafael, a Mexican citizen like Oscar, first illegally crossed the border in 1996, at age 19. Later he returned to Mexico, then crossed to the U.S. again. On that crossing, the Border Patrol caught him and sent him back, but he tried a third time and was successful.
Working in a Kirkland restaurant as a dishwasher, Rafael met Joy, a waitress there. After dating for seven years, the couple married in 2006. The same year, they bought a house and had their first daughter, Maya, followed by their second, Catalina, in 2011.
“When we met, I didn’t know he was illegal, but when we started dating he told me,” says Joy. “I didn’t know about all that, but I learned.”
One thing she learned was that because Rafael had previously been caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally, he was an immigration criminal. Because of that status, even after the pair were married he was ineligible to become a legal resident.
“I called a ton of different lawyers,” Joy says. “And they all said... we would just have to wait for the laws to change.”
They didn’t change in time for Rafael. In 2011, on a dads’ camping trip near Ellensburg, he was arrested for driving drunk. He didn’t cause an accident, so was sentenced only to community service—but during the process, someone asked if he was in the U.S. legally. He told the truth and was transferred to the Tacoma detention center.
Rafael paid a bond to get out of detention, and fought deportation for two years, but ultimately lost. At a judge’s order, the couple bought a single one-way ticket to Mexico, and last September, Rafael boarded his flight.
After Rafael landed in Mexico, the couple bought another pair of one-way tickets, for their daughters. On a Saturday, Joy flew down with the kids. Sunday she dropped them off and headed back, to be ready for work on Monday.
“It was an impossible decision,” says Joy, “but we wanted what was best for the kids.”
Facing the same situation as the Roques, the couple chose to send the children with Rafael to be near his family. With the cost of child care in Washington what it is, Joy would have had to work two jobs. What penciled out was a picture of the two girls raised alone—no father, a mother able only to drive them from school to day care, and only strangers to watch over them.
“They could still be with their daddy,” says Joy. “We wanted them to be with a parent. Someone to put them to bed at night. That was just the realization.”
She still works two jobs—it keeps her busy, she says.
In lieu of the hoped-for change to the laws, Joy is petitioning U.S. senators to sponsor a humanitarian visa for Rafael—a rare result, but one that would reunite the family right away. In mid-May, the girls arrived to spend the summer with their mother.
At the airport Maya, the eldest, walks along carrying her small backpack, talking to passersby, and now and then stopping simply to stare. Catalina clings to Joy, baby-talking in Spanish. Having left the U.S. before her 1st birthday, it is the only language she speaks.
Remembering the separation, Joy says, “I was still nursing the baby, I had been at home with Maya for most of her life... It’s excruciating the thought of not being a mom, because I am a mom.”
On the last words, her voice deepens. Then it breaks.
“But if you don’t have your kids, does that still make you a mom?”
The plight of the Valdez family is seemingly insurmountable. Although each Valdez has a citizenship of his or her own, their citizenships do not match, and because of this as a family they technically cannot exist—at least not together, not now.
Theoretically, their relationships entitle them to apply for special visas, but in practice the process is long and not always successful. And shy of the Shenandoah that is legal residency, what awaits is limbo.
The situation is different for the Roques. Oscar, Martha, Carla, and Oscar Jr. are all Mexican citizens, and while Diego and Damien were born here, legally as American as apple pie, they also have Mexican citizenship. Their decision to stay in the U.S. is their own, the division of their family a price they are willing to pay to avoid uprooting their children and missing out on the opportunities that come with a life north of the border.
The irony of the immigration debate is that in some ways the lives of undocumented immigrants like the Roques resemble the American ideal more closely than those of non-immigrants. Statistically they are prone not only to start families, but to work hard and to push their kids through the schooling they themselves often did not receive. If you squint—past the Pew Center report’s note that for an outsized portion, home ownership never materializes; past the articles about the college-graduation gap between poor and wealthy students; past the heartache—you can almost see the American Dream.
Sitting in the Roques’ living room in south Seattle, her husband already thousands of miles away, there is little hesitation in Martha’s answer to whether she would do it all again, if staying in Mexico would have saved her family its trials. Talking about her fears for her children, of her own possible seizure, and the potential rending of the family along the fault line separating the eldest and youngest children, she pauses.
“Every dream has a price.”
CORRECTION An earlier version of this story intimated that, because they were born in the U.S., Diego and Damien Roque were unable to easily obtain citizenship in Mexico. This is not true. Children born to Mexican parents automatically qualify for dual citizenship. The story has been adjusted to reflect this reality.