Jamaica Travelogue: Why I Write About Deportation

By Julianne Hing Jun 10, 2009

Jorge Rivas, Seth Wessler and I arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, yesterday to embark on an investigation into the impact of detention and deportation on families of color. Check back throughout the week for updates from the road. In the year since Seth and I first wrote for ColorLines about the way this country’s immigration and criminal justice policies are tearing apart families of color, I’ve met other mothers who are struggling against the systems that threatened to, or have succeeded in tearing apart their families. Every parent’s life story, home country and political perspective was unique, yet all of these parents spoke about the painful moments when they realized they would be separated from their children with a similar pain in their voices. These mothers recognized it as the worst part of their interactions with the police, with detention, with the immigration system as a whole. I met Tatiana, who we wrote about in "When an Immigrant Mom Gets Arrested," at the Yuba County Jail, an hour north of Sacramento. She told me her story through a thick glass partition. Tatiana was adopted legally to the U.S. as a teen, but had struggled to adjust to her new family life long after her adolescence. Since the piece was published, Tatiana’s parental rights were terminated. She lost her son forever to the U.S. child welfare system. There was Marlene, a legal resident who immigrated to the U.S. from Trinidad with her parents as a teenager. When we met, she’d been reunited with her kids after four years apart. She had been in detention and later deported for a shoplifting conviction (for just over $200 in goods) a decade earlier. She spent a year in detention and three years in her native Trinidad. Her deportation order was cancelled though on a legal technicality, and she was allowed to return to the U.S. But the experience forever scarred her family. She described the separation as similar to the process of mourning a loved one’s death. We also met Maria*. After a dispute with her abusive partner in her home, her U.S.-born daughter was temporarily placed in foster care and Maria was detained and later deported to Guatemala. The trauma of having her daughter taken from her almost drove her crazy, she said. She fought her way back into the country and was reunited with her child. When we spoke, Maria had no papers to be here. But she was not going to be separated from her daughter without a fight. She lamented the fact that when she returned to the U.S., her daughter had forgotten much of her Spanish and was responding to Maria’s Spanish with English. Today we met Marleen, a mother who was deported to Jamaica in 2006. Immigration came to her door one night in 2005 when she was already in bed. Her son, then 16, watched as Marleen was plucked from their home in Long Island and taken into immigration detention. Today she works with a resettlement group that looks out for recently arrived deportees, who are often alone and without any family or home once they arrive in Jamaica. Since she was deported, her oldest son graduated from Westpoint, and her younger son graduated from high school. She missed both ceremonies. Every mother I’ve spoken to has a different perspective; some have strongly articulated progressive politics, some have internalized some of the frames perpetuated by the conservative right (especially those that split immigrants into two classes: the undeserving criminal and the law abiding good). But all remember the moments when they realized they might be separated forever from their families as the most traumatic. These women, unusually steely for the trauma they’d endured, would talk at length about the legal proceedings, the awful conditions in detention, the inequities built into the criminal justice and immigration systems. But revisiting the awfulness of being separated from their families always felt like a wound ripped anew. These are the families that have been ripped apart because of this country’s insistence on forging ever closer bonds between the criminal justice and immigration systems. *This is not Maria’s real name.