In my work on immigration issues, I have come to know many undocumented immigrants. My relationships with them prompted me to write my new book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal (due out from Beacon in May 2014). In it, I show how “illegality” and “undocumentedness” are concepts that were created to exclude and exploit. I probe how and why people, especially Mexican and Central Americans, have been assigned this status—and to what ends. The more I wrote, the more struck I was with how utterly arbitrary our immigration system is. But writing about it is one thing, and living it is another. Last week the arbitrariness hit home—literally—when my close friend and housemate was flagged by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is now threatened with deportation, after a routine traffic stop near our house.
Mariola appeared in my life shortly after arriving in the United States from Guatemala, terrified, traumatized, homeless, and seven months pregnant. She fled after many years of abuse and mistreatment. I told her that she could stay temporarily in my extra bedroom while she figured out her next steps. That “temporarily” evolved into a long-term house-sharing arrangement. Her son, Ernesto, was born in May 2010 at Salem Hospital and came home to my house, where he has lived ever since. Both of my own children were away at college and took a bemused fascination with my new household configuration. Mariola and Ernesto have become integral and beloved parts of all of our lives.
It has truly been a joy to watch both of them blossom over the past three years. Mariola has worked incredibly hard to get on her feet here, devoting many hours first to ESL classes, then to GED classes, and now in a one-year college-readiness program at Operation Bootstrap in Lynn. She has not let a single opportunity go unexplored.
Besides her own education, Mariola has devoted herself to her son. She signed up for parenting classes at the Family and Children’s Services of Greater Lynn: she knew that she did not want to raise him with the patterns of violence and abuse that she had experienced growing up, and wanted to learn how to do things better. You will find the two of them at the Salem Public Library story hour, riding their bikes on nearby trails, and at Salem’s U-4 Youth Soccer league. Ernesto attends the Salem State University Pre-school program four half-days a week. He is growing up fully bilingual, a truly joyful child. Mariola’s two priorities in life are her education and her son. She is doing a wonderful job with both.
It is difficult to describe the joy that Mariola and Ernesto have brought to me and my extended family. My son and daughter visit frequently and are enchanted with watching the baby grow, and he adores them. Perhaps most moving is Ernesto’s relationship with my 84-year-old father, Noam. The presence of a new baby who calls him “Bop-Bop” (as his own grandchildren do) and brings his lively cheer and love to my father’s house during his weekly visits has brought him unexpected joy. My father calls Ernesto his great-grandson.
Ernesto does suffer from severe asthma attacks, and has required several emergency doctor’s visits and one frightening hospitalization. His pediatricians here have been wonderful at working with Mariola to keep the condition under control, but it has continued to flare up unexpectedly, including once earlier this summer, and require emergency care.
The friends Mariola has made here hope she is not forced to leave the life she has made for herself and Ernesto and have started a petition urging the field office director to grant her a stay of removal. She is scheduled to appear at the ICE facility in Burlington, MA, on September 17, where her lawyer will file for a stay of removal. People like Mariola and Ernesto are a perfect example of why we need to pay attention to the stories of immigrants—to understand just what it means to be undocumented and how this status affects the lives of children and families.
Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and coordinator of Latin American studies at Salem State College. The author of several books including "They Take Our Jobs!" and Undocumented (May 2014), Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights issues for more than twenty-five years.