Friday, February 13, 2009

Deportations: Desaparecidos en America

When we hear the term “disappeared” we think of something that happened to people in the bad old days of military dictatorships in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, etc… But my friend Felipe is “desaparecido” in the United States of America. He was seized over a week ago by ICE and we have not been able to find out where he is, except that he is NOT in the Arlington County Detention Center, the closest facility to his home.

Last year, I saw the movie “The Visitor” several times (it’s a great film dealing with the deportation process), never imagining that I would be living that frustrating reality of not knowing where an immigrant friend is. I tried calling the ICE Deportation Office for Virginia (703-285-6200) but never got a human being on the line. The automated phone system offers no option for finding out where a detainee might be, or for speaking with a customer representative. I called ICE’s 1-866-341-3858 number, ostensibly set up for families and friends of detainees, and that automated message informed me that this line was not regularly staffed, that notices would appear in the media when it is staffed and, in any case, the electronic voice said brightly, I should not worry because the detainee would be provided with access to a phone to call family and friends. But when? We have heard this can take weeks.

Meanwhile Felipe is disappeared. We don’t even know for sure if he still has an attorney at this point and, if so, does that person know where he is? The reality is that often the lawyers are just as clueless about the detainee’s whereabouts as the family.

María doesn’t know what to do. Felipe’s room is still there, just as it was the day he was led away in handcuffs. She has been reluctant to enter, but at this point she needs to know: Is he coming back, or not? Should she box up his stuff? Where should she send it? Can she clean the room and rent it out to someone else? She can’t afford to go too long without that extra income, but she can’t bear closing the door on Felipe.

The children have called, María says. They are frantic but they do not have the knowledge or the resources to find their father and María’s babysitting job does not give her a lot of free time to help them look.

Señor Presidente Barack Obama, Señora Secretaría Janet Napolitano, we know that comprehensive immigration reform may take some time, but is it too much to ask that ICE provide an easy way for families, friends, and lawyers to locate their detainees? Because nobody should be “disappeared” in America.

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