Edison Neighborhood

Increased deportation enforcement leaves many Edison families living in fear

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Edison series. Tha names of the father and mother in this story have been changed for their protection.

Three weeks before Christmas, Edison resident Edgar Garza was picked up by a Homeland Security Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) and detained in the Calhoun County Correctional Center.

Garza has been in the United States since 1995 and in Kalamazoo since 1999, working and raising a family in Edison. In December, he found himself housed with other undocumented immigrants, some of whom did not have families or jobs, for an undetermined length of time.

For the Garza family, life had become increasingly uncomfortable since the 2016 presidential election and ensuing tightening of immigration policies. Both Garza and his wife are undocumented and had been hearing more and more about increased enforcement.

"There isn’t any insurance your parents are going to be home when you get back from school," says Edgar about the effects on his children. "There is that fear you could lose your family from one day to another."

When Edgar was arrested, he became one of a growing number of detainments by ICE in Southwest Michigan. According to Anna Hill, staff attorney with Michigan Immigration Rights Center (MIRC), from 2016 to 2017, ICE arrests increased 52 percent in Michigan and Ohio, slightly higher than the national average.

"The fear around increased immigration enforcement is related to an actual increase in enforcement," says Hill. "Some of those arrests happen directly from ICE actions. For instance, ICE officers are going out and taking someone right off the street or in their homes. People can also end up in ICE custody with local law enforcement.

"We’ve seen cases where people have been arrested on their way or after dropping off their kids at school," says Hill. "The very day-to-day life experience for our clients has become much more difficult and scary. We’ve seen a lot of our clients make some really hard choices about how visible they might be in their community."

Current aggressive immigration policies are creating a climate of unease and distrust, an atmosphere that affects not only undocumented immigrants, but also the entire Latinx community and anyone who knows families who are affected. This is particularly true in Edison, where the Hispanic population is almost 19 percent.

And the fear of possible detainment or deportation impacts overall well-being related to health, safety, and public services, such as school and food assistance.

"That fear connected to both the increase of arrests and increases of detention and deportation has led many of my clients to be much more reticent to seek public benefits for the kids, to access basic services in their communities, such as going to a local food bank, or anything that might require them to show ID, or any time they might be asked about their immigration status or going to widely publicized events that might be subject to immigration enforcement," says Hill.

At their Edison home in December, Edgar’s wife Beatriz was facing one of her worst fears. She had to tell their children, her 8-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son that their father had been detained. She also had to find ways to raise money for the family, to pay for the phone calls to Edgar, and to possibly raise bail, should the opportunity arise to post it.

"It was terrible because you don’t know what’s going to happen," says Beatriz. "Then you get home and you don’t know what you’re going to tell your kids. How do I tell my kids? I was thinking, 'I just pray to God and give me the strength that I can continue providing the same strength to my kids and continue moving forward.'"

For Beatriz, that meant rallying for support at El Sol Elementary School, her daughter’s school, as well as at their church, and El Concilio, formerly the Hispanic American Council, which is located at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Edison.

Alison Parsons, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Parent Teacher Organization of El Sol Elementary, Kalamazoo’s Spanish immersion school, and also a social worker, was distraught about the overnight sea change in immigration policy following the election. She says the day following the election, she saw children crying in the hallways of El Sol when she took her son to school.

"One child thought that they were going to build a wall down the middle of Vine Street, which meant they could no longer play with their friends," Parsons says.

El Sol is made up of 50 percent Spanish-speaking students, many who live in Edison, says Parsons, noting that the current immigration climate affects not only children of undocumented immigrants, but also their peers.

"Kids see color differently. All they know is that this is a kid I’ve played with since I was in kindergarten. What do you mean that you’re going to take them away? What do you mean they can’t be here?"

Using as many resources as she could when Edgar was detained, Beatriz approached the El Sol PTO for support. Beatriz’ eyes still tear up as she recounts the ordeal.

"When you are in the situation, you don’t know what to do because this has all happened at once. Time counts a lot in the situation and you have to work really quickly to find the support," says Beatriz. "The days seemed shorter than normal. And then nights were long and I wanted it to be morning again so I could find people to support me and help me."

When the PTO found out about the Garza family's situation, they launched into action. "The vulnerability of saying we need help puts you at such risk," says Parsons of the Garza family. "And then to watch (Beatriz) come in day-in-day-out with a straight face, and smile at people, acknowledge them, while keeping strong for her daughter. That was very moving."

Fortunately, after 17 days, Edgar was approved to begin the legal process to apply for residency. The school community raised enough money to provide support for the family while Edgar was detained, along with $2,500 to pay his bail. Edgar, however, was one of the lucky ones. Many bail amounts for ICE detainees are set at $8,000 and $9,000, which can place a considerable hardship on relatives and community members who want to help.

"(Edgar) was detained because of a misunderstanding so he got into the system," says Adrian Vazquez, Executive Director of El Concilio. "Because he could prove he was innocent, and he has a family and job, he’s now out. He’s a hardworking person helping the family, having two kids, going to church, caught in this situation."

Vazquez works closely with immigrant families, including those who are facing detainment or possible deportation, by connecting them with organizations, such as MIRC, Justice For Our Neighbors, a local immigration safe haven, and legal services group, and the Immigration Assistance Program. "We’re not experts on the law, but we’re experts on relationships and connections with other organizations," he says.

And helping with immigration issues has become a growing part of his job in recent months. When Vazquez first took his post two years ago, he worked with five to 10 immigration issues a month. Since 2017, he says, that number has risen to five to 10 a week.

ICE comes around the city more often, often staying for one to three days at a time and making several arrests, Vazquez says. “For a few years, ICE was doing the right job, only looking for people with arrest warrants. Now they are questioning everyone and taking people that don’t have criminal records.

“We want a safe community, but breaking families apart doesn’t create a safe community. For the past year, our community members live in fear, and they don’t see a clear future for them and their children.”

Vazquez says people might question why more immigrants don’t seek legal status rather than live in fear. For many undocumented immigrants, there is no process for them to obtain legal status. For others, some processes are available but they are limited to the number of visas available for the year. Those who have green cards are finding that it takes about one year to process an application through United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, though in the past it has taken six months.

"The process is not as easy or as fast as it should be," Vazquez says. "If the process was easy and fast, everyone would be doing it. Also, there’s not a lot of funding for the process and processing. There’s more money put toward enforcement. That’s not easy for the community. It makes them live more on fear now. People ask why they don’t apply for status, that’s why."

Edison is home to a Mexican grocery, bakery, restaurant, a Spanish mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church, and many Mexican festivals, such as the popular Dia de Muertos. It's also the center of an increase in immigration issues.

"A lot of families close to ours have been in the same situation," says Beatriz. "You don’t want to think about this happening, but you have to—because we’re seeing more cases around the communities. Now we’re not safe. It could happen to us. And it did. And obviously, a few years back, we were thinking nothing was going to happen, now we’re caught up in this whole thing and we have to live reality."

Edgar’s detainment has had its after-effects on the Garza family.

"It’s affected my daughter, her feelings, her mood. She’s sad and worried," says Beatriz. "My elder kid is angry and sad. They obviously both want to do something to help the situation, but they can’t. They don’t have any way to help."

"Their grades went down in school," Edgar says. "They stopped talking to us as much like they used to."

"We always talk to our kids, and say everything will be fine," says Beatriz. "As Christians, we tell them God is always going to be there if something is going to happen. We’ll be fine. We’ll get through this. But it’s hard for them to understand. We do get them involved and share with the information so that they are ready and not caught by surprise."

For Edgar he has a heightened cautiousness when he’s out and about in the neighborhood.

"When you see a police officer, you get this sense of panic, not because you have done something bad, but because you’re afraid they will pull you over because you might not have a driver’s license," says Edgar.

Beatriz and Edgar have plans to start a fund for other immigrant families experiencing similar situations to help pay for bail, phone calls, and other expenses.

"The way I felt, other families are feeling the same," says Beatriz, who is grateful for the support she received. "Thanks to God, there were organizations that would help me, but there are people who don’t have family, who don’t have other people who can help them, so I want to help them.

"In general, anybody who is in a situation, anyone who wants to help or make a difference, anything will help--talking or driving them somewhere, food, money. Any actions are welcome. When this is happening to you, you just want a hand to help you move forward."

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Edison series.

Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Edison.

Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Edison” series amplifies the voices of Edison Neighborhood residents. Over three months, Second Wave journalists will be embedded in the Edison Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.

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The On the Ground program is made possible by funding from the City of Kalamazoo, LISC, the Fetzer Institute, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, Michigan WORKS!, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo.

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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.