Our nation collectively recoiled last week over the realization that immigration officials are ripping apart families who appear at the Mexican border crossing, sometimes putting thousands of miles between parent and innocent child.
If you think that only happens in places like Arizona and Texas, talk to Andres and Leslie Mata.
American citizens Andres and Leslie are preteens who live in Manchester. This spring, their government arrested their father, who was in the country illegally, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In early May, ICE deported Gonzalo Mata Perea to Mexico.
That meant no father to help Andres and Leslie celebrate Mother’s Day or their First Communion. Dad was absent for Father’s Day. No dad to cheer on their last day of the school year at Jewett Street School.
Perea won’t be around to keep an eye on Andres and Leslie when they bicycle in the neighborhood east of Wilson Street. He can’t organize memorable family outings, such as the spontaneous family trip to Funtown Splashtown USA in Maine two years ago. Once school starts, no dad will cheer Andres on at basketball games.
And no dad to spoil his kids with a treat or soften the consequences when mom lays down the law.
“They’re separating families. Why would they do that?” said Andres, who is 11. “They have no heart.”
If there is any consolation for Andres, it’s that he is not alone. The federal government deported 1,140 people from New England between October and March, according to data supplied by ICE.
They leave behind people such as Norma Soria, who abruptly became a single parent when Perea was deported, and Stephany Soria, 18, her older daughter. Stephany put her plans for a Southern New Hampshire University marketing degree on hold and is trying to fill in the financial hole left by her stepfather’s departure.
“Her (Norma’s) main, constant fear is she won’t be able to provide like he did,” said Stephany, who translated for her mother.
Perea worked construction and brought in $400 a week. His wages paid the $980 a month rent for the family’s three-bedroom apartment, utility bills and just about everything else.
Norma makes $10 an hour washing dishes part-time for a special events company. Stephany, who just graduated from Memorial High School, works full-time in that company’s office.
Besides his role as a parent and provider, Perea also helped out when Norma’s lupus and its complications — asthma, arthritis, high cholesterol, hypothyroidism — kept her bedridden. Then he would cook and keep the house, she said.
In an email, ICE said Perea had been arrested at the border and returned to Mexico on multiple occasions between 1999 and 2004. An immigration judge ordered him removed from the country in 2004. ICE made no mention of any crimes other than re-entry, and his family said he has no criminal record.
Norma also entered the country illegally. She currently has a work permit and is applying for asylum; she ran a small business in her home state of Michoacan but was extorted by the local gang, she said.
Because she has applied for asylum and legal residence, she has avoided going on welfare, fearing that she will give the government an incentive to deport her. She has, however, recently applied for food stamps.
Andres and Leslie are on Medicaid, but not Norma. She has to pay expensive specialists out of her own pocket and frequently cancels appointments.
She said her church — the immigrant friendly St. Anne-St. Augustin Church — and Granite State Organizing Project provide financial help, but she wonders how long that will last.
She keeps a neat house. A few crucifixes and rosary beads are on a kitchen wall, beside a decorative sign found in many Hispanic homes: Mi Casa Su Casa. My house is your house.
Norma said she won’t move back to Mexico, even though Perea lives there. When she moved back in 2011, the health care was lacking, and the violence scared her enough that they returned to New Hampshire in 2014.
So twice a day, the family talks to Perea, sometimes by telephone, sometimes through video chat.
“If feels like you’re just waiting for him to come home,” said Leslie, who is 9. When they were younger, their father told scary, endearing Mexican folk stories about witches and other frights, she said.
And she warmly recalls the Maine trip. She begged her father to take the slide with her, and he ended up with wet street clothes.
Leslie has a sweet smile and ends a lot of her sentences with an inflection, such as when I ask when she misses her father the most. “All the time?”
Both are enrolled in the YMCA summer program. Norma said she’s raised her kids right, so she’s not worried that the street will replace their father.
But Andres has developed behavioral issues, and they’re getting worse, his mother said. He doesn’t listen to authority, which doesn’t surprise me, given what authority has done to his family.
“For me, it’s weird,” said Andres, who will go to Southside Middle School in September. “During the weekends, I’m used to waking up and seeing him sitting on the brown couch watching TV. He’s not there now. It’s weird.”