Family reunited 15 years after mother’s deportation
Long embraces and tears of joy. That’s how Claudia Cifuentes’ reunion with two of her children — Claudia and Kevin — went after 15 years of separation.
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the kisses of a loving mother were meant to make up the long period of absence after she was deported in 2008 when Kevin was 11, Claudia was 15 and her oldest, Edwin, was 18 years old.
Cifuentes returned to the United States from Guatemala through a family reunification process, after being deported when her children were still underage.
She entered the U.S. for the first time in 1998 with her children and younger brother. Cifuentes said they migrated from Guatemala after Hurricane Mitch left the family with nothing.
U.S. Border Patrol detained them in Texas. But an agent released them after five hours and gave her paperwork and instructions to start the process for staying legally in the U.S.
“The agent told me, ‘What I am giving you can open many doors for you, but I need you to give the papers to a lawyer, because they will call you and you will have a court date, and you will be able to stay here with your children,’” she said in Spanish.
Cifuentes did find a lawyer to take on her asylum case. But it didn’t work out.
“Two and a half years went by, when suddenly, she told us: ‘[You’ve] lost everything because I didn’t notice the court date and you had a court in Texas and now you have a deportation order,’” remembered Cifuentes.
Cifuentes went on with her life, hoping to receive news about her case, but that never happened. Then Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detained her while her children were at school.
Her daughter, Claudia Loza, remembers that day.
“There was a call telling us not to go home because immigration had arrested my mom,” she said in Spanish.
The children panicked.
Cifuentes remained in the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center for nine months until she was deported to Guatemala. Cifuentes said she faced the pain of being separated from her children.
According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, like Cifuentes, more than 359,000 people were removed from the U.S. in 2008.
Claudia Loza said she and her brothers stayed with relatives for a few days while their mother was detained. Then they returned home.
Then, ICE arrived again, and this time agents detained 18-year-old Edwin. Claudia said she and her younger brother Kevin were frightened, because their brother Edwin always protected them.
“The saddest is that I was hiding inside. I heard when agents asked him: ‘Who is inside? Let us in.’ And my brother told the agents, ‘I’m not going to let you into my house,’” she remembered.
Kevin said it’s a tough memory, because he was staying longer hours at school to make up for lost time after his mother was detained. His brother was at home, waiting to pick him up from school.
“If I hadn’t stayed, my brother Edwin would be here [in the U.S.], but he did what a big brother does; he protected my sister and me,” he said.
Edwin also went to the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center and was released with an ankle monitor. Kevin and Claudia say Edwin was deported to Guatemala after his high school graduation.
His case to reunite with his family in the U.S. is currently in process.
Sandy Restrepo is Cifuentes’ new lawyer. Restrepo is the co-founder of Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, an organization that provides immigration legal services.
“This is when we’re seeing it come full circle and she’s able to come back. But many people, they’re not able to get out on bond. And if the case isn’t reopened, if you don’t have a good asylum claim — so many different factors — [then] you’re not able to stay here or win your case,” said Restrepo.
Reopening Cifuentes’ asylum case would have been complex, said Restrepo, so the family opted to petition for family reunification. Claudia was required to wait 10 years before applying to re-enter the U.S.
Restrepo said when it comes to asylum, many factors come into play, and only ten or 20% of asylum cases are resolved in favor of the petitioners.
Colectiva Legal is handling just over 1,000 cases, including deportation defense, family petitions and asylum requests. All cases are different.
Maru Mora is an advocate with La Resistencia, an organization in Seattle that works to end the detention of immigrants. She says people have been deported even when their cases have not been resolved.
According to an emailed statement from an ICE spokesperson, “Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that protects the homeland through the arrest and removal of those who undermine the safety of our communities and the integrity of our immigration laws.”
The statement added that, “Regardless of nationality, ERO makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, considering the individual merits and factors of each case. ICE officers make associated decisions and apply prosecutorial discretion in a responsible manner, informed by their experience as law enforcement professionals and in a way that best protects against the greatest threats to the homeland.”
“Entering the United States without authorization is a violation of federal law, and those who do so many be subject to administrative arrest, and in some cases, criminal prosecution,” the statement continued.
For Cifuentes and her family, this is a new beginning. She said she wants her case to be known and wants to be a voice for other families experiencing separation.
Cifuentes said the first thing she wants to do is heal.
“I want to start putting my pieces together, my jigsaw puzzle,” she said.