‘It’s not only happening at the border’: Immigrant families seek help on Capitol Hill
As the immigration crisis played out this week along the southern border, family members of two undocumented immigrants detained and separated from their families came to Washington for help in getting their loved ones released.
Here are their stories:
Veronica Paute vividly remembers the moment Immigration and Customs Enforcement apprehended her brother, 35-year-old Cristobal Paute, in his home earlier this year: Federal agents knocked down the door and threatened to arrest everyone in the house if her brother didn’t surrender, she told ABC News. (An ICE spokesperson says enforcement actions differ based on the circumstances.)
After two hours, Paute says her brother gave himself up to avoid putting his children and family at risk.
The separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks has captured the attention of millions and mobilized many against the practice. But for others, being separated from loved ones is a reality they’ve lived with for months or years.
“It’s not only happening at the border, it’s happening also at our communities,” Veronica Paute said about her brother’s arrest in February. “It’s real. It’s not fiction. I live in that pain and I want [people] to know there is a family that is missing their brother, father every single day and every single night.”
This week, Paute and other immigrant family members in similar situations came to Capitol Hill from New York to meet with , Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, in hopes she would take up their campaign to get their loved ones, locked in detention centers for months, released.
Although the separation issue is different from loved ones being deported, the families say the pain is the same.
“We were devastated. We were scared. We didn’t know what to do, where to go, who to speak to,” said Paute. “We were really scared because [even] in [your] worst nightmare, [you don’t] expect something like that to happen. We’ll see on the news things like that going on, but when it touches [you] personally, it’s more horrifying.”
Cristobal Paute did not have a criminal record, according to Bruna Bouhid, National Communications Manager for United We Dream, a youth-led national immigrant organization. Bouhid believes Cristobal’s arrest came from contact with U.S. Customs Border and Protection a decade ago, and he remained in their system. ICE says a criminal conviction is not necessary for agents to arrest someone for immigration violations.
Paute says nothing has been the same since he was “taken away.”
“Father’s Day just passed and we don’t really celebrate it anymore,” said Paute, pausing to collect herself before continuing. Paute says her brother’s children would bring home Father’s Day crafts made at school, hoping to give them their gifts if he comes home.
The family had been able to visit Cristobal Paute at a detention center two hours from their home in New York until he was moved to a new detention facility in La Salle, Louisiana. Now, phone calls have become the only way to keep in touch, Paute said. She fears that if her brother is deported back to Ecuador, he will commit suicide from depression.
“If he gets deported, he will be alone back home,” Veronica Paute said. “He has no [close] relatives back there. We have learned that [of] some other younger people that have been deported, they find themselves alone [and] they just decided to put an end to their lives.”
The Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants is affecting the lives of children, too – so much so that 15-year-old Jefferson Arpi had to get a part-time job to make ends meet for his family after his father, 41-year-old Manuel Arpi, was detained by four undercover ICE agents in October 2017 while on his way to work.
“[My father] worked a lot” and was the breadwinner for the family, Arpi told ABC News while visiting the Capitol on Wednesday. “Now everyone in this family has to work to barely make enough to pay the rent.”
Arpi told ABC News when he found out his father was arrested, he thought he would be detained and sent back to Ecuador, too, despite Arpi having been born in America and holding U.S. citizenship. When he later learned he would not be detained because he was a citizen, Arpi said the relief was short-lived because he realized staying would mean giving up his father – something he wasn’t willing to do.
“Since family is more important than anything, I thought if he went back I should, too,” Arpi said. “I [would] rather stay with my parents even if they’re in another country.”
Because Arpi is 15 years old, he would have to wait until he was a legal adult before joining his father, but he fears that if his father is deported, he will die before Arpi can reunite with him in Ecuador.
“He really talks about that a lot,” Arpi said. “[He says] my life doesn’t have any meaning if I’m not with you guys and [I’d] rather just die because it’s not life if I’m not living with my family.”
Similar to Cristobal Paute, Manuel Arpi’s family says he was moved to three different detention facilities before ending up at a center in Alabama where his family can only reach him by phone. But while they speak to him every day, United We Dream said Manuel’s children rarely leave their home or celebrate holidays because everything they do reminds them of their father. The organization says the eldest son of the family requires therapy and antidepressants to cope with their father’s detention.
Despite the recent challenges his family has faced, Arpi said he still believes the American dream is a possibility for immigrants in the U.S. and that President Donald Trump is stripping him of his rights.
“Each citizen has their natural rights of life, liberty and property,” Arpi said. “I can’t have life or liberty or property without my father. So he’s [President Trump] depriving me of those natural rights. I would like him to bring back my father and bring back the immigrant parents that are detained. Stop separating families because it’s not worth it.”
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