CLEVELAND, Ohio - Every Tuesday night in Painesville, Ohio, immigrants with a common denominator meet at a converted church: they are protagonists or collateral damage in the government's deportation machine.
The picture blows the water out of the argument that the deportations are focused on criminals or recent border crossers without ties to the United States, that they aren't separating families. Here the smokescreen to refute the record numbers of deportations or justify them loses all meaning.
To talk with many of them, their comments reflect the feelings of the community: they don't think that legislative immigration reform is possible for now and they are hopeful that President Barack Obama will relieve them, ironically, from the deportation policies of his own administration.
It goes without saying that Republicans are the ones who are blocking reform in Congress. They don't seem to expect anything from them and when they're asked to name who is responsible for their uncertain state of being, they don't name any Republican, only Obama. The reason is simple Leonor, an undocumented woman who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years told me. She has four U.S. citizen children, and her husband was deported three years ago, after 24 years living in Ohio, the place where he graduated high school. "The Republicans didn't promise immigration reform. Obama did. Since he took office I put all my faith in him. I said, 'with him, nothing bad will happen to us.' And when the person who you think is going to help you the most actually disappoints you it hurts even more," Leonor said. She also has a deportation order.
The "talking points" circulating in the Washington bubble come undone in the face of the reality these families are living.
Whole families comprised of undocumented people, permanent residents, and citizens fill the space where the organization HOLA of Painesville assists people who have lost a loved one to deportation or are fighting their own case or that of others.
The weekly packed reunion is like a type of group therapy that provides a catharsis and even a place where one can joke about the tragedy just to make things a little lighter. They congratulate Alfredo Ramos for being with them once again. Ramos, an immigrant who has lived in Ohio for 24 years without a criminal record and with two citizen children, was placed into deportation proceedings after being detained when he was a passenger in a car. He was accused of "illegal re-entry" for returning after deportation to be with his family. The federal prosecution of Alfredo continues, despite the fact that he was given a temporary stay (and an ankle bracelet).
A short distance away, in Lorain, Ohio, other immigrants are living similar situations. There a chapter of HOLA and another community support organization, El Centro, helps them.
In Sacred Heart Chapel, in Lorain, I talk to six women, mothers, who are fighting their own deportations or that of their husbands.
"We couldn't even go to the park in peace because the Border Patrol was there . . . Thanks to Cel we are less worried," says María, who is facing a deportation order, referring to the Puerto Rican Celestino Rivera. Rivera is the police chief of the city of Lorain, and his department does not report undocumented people to immigration authorities.
"It's gotten better in Lorain, but when we leave the area we're afraid of running into the Border Patrol anywhere else," adds Claudia, an undocumented immigrant who has lived in Ohio for 15 years and has four U.S. citizen children was well as a husband in deportation proceedings.
When you think of the Border Patrol, Lorain or Painesville do not come to mind. But the deportations here have come from detentions of immigrants-some of whom have lived here for more than two decades-in small towns and cities between two Border Patrol stations in Port Clinton, Ohio and Erie, Pennsylvania. The primary justification for being here is the border with Canada. The reality in these parts is that the Border Patrol operates as an interior enforcement agency (up to 100 miles from the border) and benefits from collaborations with local police departments who turn in immigrants detained for minor traffic violations or any other excuse that lets them check documents.
"The real challenge is that in Ohio we have so many small police departments and each one has its own policy. They don't understand immigration law. They're detaining people on their way to work or the grocery store. They stop and question Hispanics and it doesn't matter if they are drivers or passengers, they immediately call the Border Patrol," said Veronica Dahlberg, executive director of HOLA.
The interviews in Lorain and Painesville tell the same story. The most recent arrival to Ohio has been living here for 8 years, while the ones with the longest time here had lived in Ohio for 24 years.
Their backgrounds are similar: almost all come from Guanajuato, México, and they come to work in the nurseries, in construction, in factories or on farms. They have citizen children and established lives. They have never asked for help from the government, although ironically a detention and eventual deportation would force these families to do so in order to support their US born children when a breadwinner is deported, languishing in a detention center, or can't work.
"I don't have any criminal record here, nothing at all, yet I was in a detention center for five months. I worked for 12 years in a factory supervising 40 people. I made a good living; I paid taxes. After this, our family's emergency fund is completely gone and we needed to ask for food stamps to feed our children, something I never had to do when I was working," said another Painesville immigrant facing deportation.
"The president said he wasn't going to separate families. We didn't ask him to stop all deportations because we know that there are criminals who should be deported. But the rest of us just came here to work and not to be a burden but a help for this country," he said. His message to Obama: "Listen to all of these cases and leave those of us who came here to work in peace."
Their deportation stories are also similar: they were detained while driving to work or the grocery store.
The message they are sending is similar as well: stop family separations and give them work permits if Congress is not going to pass immigration reform now.
The potential political consequences of this crisis should not fall on deaf ears for either political party. Their children are citizens-some of them vote already, and others will soon. They have family members who are voters, who have seen a Republican Party demonize immigrants and block immigration reform, as well as a Democratic administration deport them, try to deport them, and say that they can't help them.
"I have relatives who are voters and they are disappointed because they think the President only used Latinos to win in 2008 and again in 2012, and he'll leave office and won't do anything," said Edith, an undocumented woman living in Ohio for almost two decades.
Guadalupe, an undocumented woman who has lived in Ohio for 19 years, also has family members who are voters. "They are disappointed. They ask 'if the next Democratic candidate comes and says the same and I give him my vote and the same thing happens, well, it's better that I don't give them my vote anymore' . . . the Latino community will feel like they might as well not vote if the [candidates] just make promises and don't do anything."
This article was originally posted on America's Voice.
Maribel Hastings is a senior advisor at America's Voice.
Photo: Rick Nagin/PW