Chic and attractive in brand-name skinny jeans and Nikes, Johanan and Faith Bohorquez navigate gracefully through their daily life complete with cell phones, iPods, a dad who’s a pastor and a winning local soccer coach, and a mom who’s a church counselor and teacher’s aide in their school district.
But all that could change for the 12- and 14-year-old Bohorquez kids with their dad’s deportation hearing looming next month.
Walter and Paula Bohorquez don’t talk about it much, but the kids know should worse come to worst, they’ll be moving to Medellin, Colombia, as a family.
It’s a stretch to picture Faith and Johanan-both U.S.-born citizens-making the transition from their Bolingbrook home to a muggy one-room flat in Medellin, with drug lords and police scuffling in the streets outside. The infamous Medellin drug cartel toppled more than a decade ago, but Medellin, where the family’s relatives live, still ranks among the 10 most violent cities in the world.
We’re mostly afraid of the crime and violence,” Walter says. “I don’t see a future for my kids in Colombia … This country has been so good to me. I want the same for my kids. They’re citizens.”
When it comes to deportation, the numbers are shocking. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights calculates that, over the past five years, 65,000 to 90,000 Midwest children lost a parent to deportation, based on about 50,000 deported immigrants in the ICE Chicago district, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Missouri and Kansas. There are about 500,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois, most of them living in the Chicago metro area, according to ICIRR estimates.
This is now starting to be a problem of substantial scale,” says Josh Hoyt, ICIRR executive director. “We’re now looking at a generation of children, most of them U.S. citizens, where a family has been thrown into poverty, a major breakdown of their support system, possibly the loss of a parent or a family business.”
Children whose parents are deported face a laundry list of crisis factors. First comes loss of family income. Overnight, they have a single-parent family. The oldest daughter or son may now be thrust into a parental role.
When parents opt to keep the family together and take children to their country of origin, as they often do, there are environmental and social shifts.
Hispanics are just one immigrant group plagued by the threat of deportation. There are about one million Polish immigrants in the Chicago area, as many as one-third of them undocumented. Polish immigrants are second to Mexican immigrants for top nationalities of area immigrants, according to Monika Starczuk, an ICIRR staff member and founder of the Polish Initiative in Chicago.
Paul is a dad who moved from Poland 10 years ago to Portage Park, met his Polish-born wife there and had two children. They’re just like all their American-born neighbors, he says. They have jobs, are active in the community and share in park district programs.
But they live under a cloud of constant fear, Paul says.
If something happened and we should have to go back after living in the U.S. for so many years, we’d be starting all over again,” he says. “It would be devastating for our children. We have nothing in Poland.”
Arturo Gonzalez, a community organizer with the Interfaith Leadership Council at St. Anthony’s Church in Cicero, sees three or four new deportation cases like the Bohorquez’ every week.
Gonzalez leafs through a file of papers in his tiny office on the third floor. Each one is imprinted with the story of another pair of parents, another flock of children, staring down the “total devastation of the entire life they know,” he says.
The Interfaith Leadership Council, working hand-in-hand with the social justice group United Power for Action and Justice, puts Chicago-area families facing deportation in touch with a lawyer. It offers counseling and support for families facing deportation. Working with the ICIRR, it helped set up an Immigrants Rights Hotline and hosts workshops to teach people what to do if they are stopped by police or arrested.
Walter Bohorquez’s story goes back to a Dominick’s parking lot nearly two decades ago, when a woman he knew offered him $500 to deliver a brown paper bag to an address. The woman turned out to be an undercover drug agent and Walter served 15 months in prison for money laundering.
Through the years to come, as he met his wife, got a green card, found religion and became a pastor, Bohorquez made yearly visits to see a brother in Colombia. Coming back to the States in 2009, “something weird happened,” he says.
Customs officials asked him if he’d ever been in prison. Even though he now had a green card, the law mandating deportation of undocumented immigrants who’d served prison terms was retroactive. He wasn’t legal when he went to prison. Bohorquez’s deportation decision is Oct. 6.
On another page in the Interfaith Leadership Council’s file is the saga of the Hugo Gonzalez family. Gonzalez (not related to Arturo Gonzalez), an undocumented 24-year-old factory worker in Berwyn, was jailed for three weeks in April after police arrested him for driving without a license and sporting a tattoo officials found suspicious. He now faces deportation.
His two children, Yilmak Uriel, 6, and Daphne, 4, grieved for him while he was in jail. They cling close to him now, growing increasingly anxious and despondent as the deportation date nears. The family of four will likely find themselves sharing a single room, Hugo Gonzalez says.
It will be extremely hard for my family, especially for my kids in Mexico City,” he says. “Security-crime-is my number one concern.”
Then there’s the page chronicling the case of Ramiro Avalos, who, on his way home from work in Broadview last February, was pulled over for having a dream catcher on his rearview mirror and went to jail for a sight obstruction.
Avalos’ 6-year-old son Daniel had only a vague understanding of what might happen when his family moved to Mexico in July. As moving day approached, Avalos says, Daniel was excited about seeing his grandparents and uncles in Mazatlan.
But the grown-ups knew the realities. Once a vacation paradise, Mazatlan today is a virtual war zone between police and drug lords. It’s one of the most violent cities in Mexico.
Our sense of security will be different,” Avalos says. “Every day we hear of the chaos and violence that is going around in our town because of the cartels’ war with the government.”
He’s worried about how he will get to work, even if he does manage to land a job in a depressed labor market.
If the criminals see you with a truck, regardless if it is new or old, they will probably take it,” he says.
Catching the dream
That dream catcher? The icon of hope and promise that, ironically, led to the Avalos family uprooting their lives and being sent back to Mexico. It evolved into a symbol of activism for Chicagoans working to change immigration laws that shatter the homes of so many children.
Arturo Gonzalez handed Avalos’ dream catcher to Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin at a candidate forum in Deerfield during last fall’s elections. When meeting with state lawmakers to promote Illinois’ Dream Act this summer, he gave another dream catcher to Illinois State Senate President John Cullerton.
It’s too late for Daniel and Ramiro Avalos Jr. They are now living with their grandparents in Mazatlan. Their dad got that truck and, so far, he’s managed to hold on to it. But there have been some positive developments for immigrant families in Illinois.
In May, Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers made Illinois the first state to withdraw from Secure Communities, a federal deportation program that targets hardened criminals but has also been used against illegal immigrants arrested for misdemeanor crimes. Even so, Arturo Gonzalez says, immigration officials are balking on stopping operations in Chicago.
In August, Quinn signed the Illinois Dream Act, which allows immigrant students, under certain circumstances, to move toward U.S. citizenship if they go to college or serve in the U.S. military.
In Cicero, the Interfaith Leadership Council secured an agreement with the Cicero Police Department to issue a regulation dissuading officers from enforcing immigration law. In Berwyn, council leaders lobbied the city to drop a proposed agreement between the school district and the city to share housing and registration information that would disproportionately purge children of immigrants and their families.
All the families facing deportation say they will pass their years in exile until their children turn 21. That’s when, as citizens, the children can return to the country where they were born and petition to bring their parents. Of course, the young people will be a decade behind others in education, language and marketable job skills.
Faith and Johanan would be “starting from zero” in Medellin, their dad says. They’re American, he says, and they don’t even speak Spanish.
We’ll have to tough it out for at least seven years till Johanan turns 21,” Bohorquez says. “Who knows what the world will look like by then, but we’ll still be together as a family.”
As long as we’re a family,” he says, “we’ll have hope.”