My life has drastically changed since February 28, 2017, when my father was arrested by ICE agents as part of President Trump’s effort to fulfill his campaign promise to deport immigrants with criminal records. While my dad sits in a detention center, I wake up every morning with an upset stomach and a nervous, worrisome feeling. I describe it as like getting knocked down by a large wave.
If I didn’t have my 3-year-old son, Kelvin, I would have no energy or motivation to get up in the morning: He knows that I am going to dress him, help him brush his teeth, feed him breakfast, and drive him to school. As hard as it is to continue with life and responsibilities while my dad is not with us, I try every day to be the best person I can be for my son and the rest of my family. Also I want to prove that my dad raised a strong, independent, responsible daughter. No matter what happens I will not give up. And under no circumstance will I let my family down.
Before my dad was detained, I would go to my parents’ house every morning before taking my son to school and my son would get a kiss and hug from his grandparents and I would get a hug and kiss from my parents. It was our way of starting our weekdays off right. My dad would give my son a blessing and my son would return it. When my son now asks “What about my blessing?” I say grandpa is sending him a blessing from his heart.
My dad has lived in L.A. for a little over 25 years. I am 24 years old. For most of my life I never thought of my dad as an immigrant. He was my dad: He worked hard (at a restaurant, from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.), paid taxes, paid rent, raised kids, and had a happy life here. He was devoted to his kids, aiming to mold us into successful adults. He was at every practice, every game, every performance and parent conference.
Recently, he’d been helping my younger sisters train for the 26.2-mile L.A. marathon. On Saturday mornings he’d wake up at 5 a.m., after two hours’ sleep, and take the girls to train, running alongside them, or riding on his bike as they ran 20 miles.
That life ended on February 28 when my mom and dad were driving my two younger sisters to school around 7:20 a.m. They dropped off my 12-year-old sister Yuleni first. On their way to another school to drop off my 13-year-old sister Fatima, my dad noticed two vehicles following him. The cars turned on their flashing lights and pulled him over, and my dad noticed that their vests said ‘Police.’ My dad asked them, “What did I do wrong officer? Why are you pulling me over?” The man said, “Shut up, get out of the car, you have an order of deportation!” My dad was then arrested and put in handcuffs and in the back of the police car. Fatima started recording on her phone while sobbing hysterically. My mom was in shock. My dad told them “Don’t worry, be strong, get help.”
My sister called me while I was pulling into the parking lot at work. She was crying and said they’d taken Dad. I said “What! Who?” She said “the police, but Dad says they’re ICE.” I told my supervisor that I had to go, and I picked up my sister Jocelyn, who’s 20 and works in the same company as I do.
I don’t remember the drive. I was crying and had so much adrenaline going that I felt strangely numb. Once I got to the location where they had stopped my family, my dad already had been taken away. My mom and sister were sitting in the car crying. I ran to them and we all hugged tightly and cried. My mom said the police gave her a card with a number on it and told her to call in two hours because he had to get processed first. When we called they told us my dad was in the basement of the 300 North Los Angeles Street building waiting to be deported.
My sister Jocelyn and I went to go see him immediately. The officers were rude. My dad was wearing his street clothes and crying. I realized he was scared. He almost never cries; he prefers to keep strong for anything that might happen. He said he was in a room with a bunch of other guys and heard they would be deported in two hours. I could not handle that; I burst into tears. We told my dad we were going to get help. We didn’t want to leave him but we knew we had to take action fast.
Meanwhile my other two younger sisters and mom were at the school they attend, Academia Avance, where a team was gathering to find a solution and a lawyer. The team started making phone calls to the city council, mayor, and other contacts to try and stop my dad’s deportation.
We all decided to go down to the detention center on Los Angeles Street and stop the bus if they tried deporting him. We went and we blocked the exit and we were waiting, praying, crying, and hoping. We saw a group of guys that were being escorted to a big van behind the fence that we were blocking. I desperately looked closely to see if any of those men were my dad. I saw them all looking out with sad faces, but my dad was not in that group.
The we got a phone call from the legal team saying my dad’s deportation had been stopped temporarily. My dad called us from the detention center and we gave him the news. It was bittersweet. I felt relief knowing my dad was not being deported, but anxiety at not knowing any more than that. That night we couldn’t sleep.
The next day we found out he had been transferred to a detention center in Adelanto, about 100 miles away from Los Angeles. We also learned more about the government’s reasons for picking him up.
My family and I never thought that such minor issues would put him at risk. And for all the cases we saw on television of people getting detained and deported, it never seemed like something we would go through. Since he wasn’t a criminal or a bad person, how could he ever be considered a priority for deportation? He was an immigrant, and nobody in our neighborhood or friends distinguished between immigrants and legal or illegal: We considered ourselves regular, hard-working people.
We’d been sheltered from the reality of deportation. Our family didn’t know anyone who had been through the process of deportation, so we didn’t know what to do in case this happened to us.
This terrible process has brought realizations: We have come to understand just how profoundly my dad had dedicated his life to us and our wellbeing, and just how dependent we are on him. If they actually remove him, the government will be taking away our life, our happiness, and our wellbeing.
I also realized something about being American. Before this, being an American meant being like my dad: a “good citizen” of our community. Work hard, take care of your kids, pay taxes, pay rent, help your neighbors. But the rules around immigration don’t recognize good citizenship. And they don’t recognize how immigrants are a blessing that make this country diverse and strong. Instead, they are a series of requirements for legal entrance that are so high that many people end up living like Americans, without the legal status.
The problem is that legal citizenship matters more than good citizenship. Should a paper determine your worth as a person? It is your actions, personality, hard work, dedication, and kindness along with other qualities that determine your worth. That’s why my dad taught us. If the American immigration system is going to be great again, it needs to learn that lesson too.
The video my sister Fatima made of the ICE officers taking my dad while she sobbed went viral on the internet. When I first watched it I cried—it broke my heart. When it started to get played on the news it just made us feel down. Eventually, we started turning off the news whenever they played it.
But my feelings about it changed when I realized that people from other countries were sharing it. I think the video spoke to the universal language of compassion—people could really see and feel what it was like to go through what we had gone through.
It’s a long drive to see my dad at Adelanto Detention Center. We are always happy to see him in person but feel sad seeing him in a prisoner’s uniform, skinnier and miserable. Sometimes we can tell he has been crying. He says that each of our hugs and kisses made him stronger. During the first visit, when my dad wasn’t looking and we were walking away after saying goodbye, I broke down in tears. It was the worst drive back, because we were all crying. He has been in there for approximately five months now. Patience is the hardest thing to have in a situation like this.
These months have been emotionally draining and exhausting. A major struggle for my family has been financial stability. My dad was the backbone of this household. Now me and my sister Jocelyn are pitching in to help my mother and two younger sisters stay in their home.
In other ways, my dad’s situation has expanded our horizons. My siblings and I are aiming higher; our dreams have grown. We talk more now about enhancing our education so that our voices are heard and acknowledged. One of my younger sisters, Fatima, now wants to be an immigration lawyer. My other younger sister Yuleni wants to become a marine biologist. Jocelyn is continuing her schooling with the goal of becoming a teacher. I’m planning to increase my training and become a registered nurse.
As my son gets older, I will tell him what we went through and how it molded us to be stronger. I want him to be a successful adult one day, and will tell him that anything is possible with education. Our parents raised us to be proud U.S citizens and we remain proud, despite the detention of my father. We want to contribute in the success of this country and we will, together.
On June 8 my sister Fatima finished middle school. It was extremely hard to prepare for this day knowing that our dad wouldn’t be there. This was the first graduation of any of his children that he has missed. He told us to “do everything I would do, clap loud, scream when she is called on stage, buy her balloons and flowers, and make sure to tell her how proud we all are in this accomplishment.” We followed his instructions.
During the ceremony my dad called at the perfect time, when Fatima was receiving an award from the L.A. city council office for being a voice for kids who have immigrant parents. My dad heard the clapping and cheering. They shared that moment together and even though he was 100 miles away and on the phone, we felt his presence. My mom made pozole for dinner that day and our aunt and cousins came over and celebrated. It was a good day.
Brenda Avelica is a medical assistant in Los Angeles.
This essay is part of a Zócalo Inquiry, Anxiety, Defiance, and Refuge in Immigrant Los Angeles, produced with support from The California Wellness Foundation.