Al Jazeera America

Immigrant family reunited at last, but fight to stay together not over

The Carranzas will celebrate their first Christmas together in 13 years but worry long-sought reunion may be cut short

TRENTON, N.J. — Franklin Carranza sat on a sofa surrounded by his family, flipping through a large photo album. The 32-year-old father grinned as he showed his daughter, Melissa, how tiny she was when she was born, pointing to a snapshot of a 4-pound infant in a U.S. neonatal care unit. His son Emanuel smiled at a photo of himself getting ready to slice into an enormous blue and white birthday cake in Guatemala with his grandparents looking on. In another picture, Franklin and his wife Sandra stand in as witnesses during a friend’s wedding in New Jersey. 

But there was something different about the photo of the entire family — Franklin, Sandra, their two sons and daughter — in front of Mayan ruins. In this shot the Carranzas are all smiling, but Emanuel and Pablo wear summer clothes and are slightly out of focus. The photo, framed in the living room, is a montage that has been digitally assembled; before this year, Franklin and Sandra hadn’t seen their sons in a decade. 

“Every Christmas, we would sit around at the table, and I would tell [Sandra], ‘I promise you, this is the year that they will come, that we will bring them, that we will all be together again,’” Franklin said, his voice cracking with emotion. “And finally she said to me, ‘Don’t promise me that anymore. I can’t take it if doesn’t happen.’”

This is the Carranzas’ first Christmas all together in 13 years.

But the family worries their reunification in the U.S. may be short lived.

This is the last photo taken of Sandra Carranza and her sons Pablo, left, and Emanuel before she left Guatemala for the United States. She would not see them again in person for nearly 10 years.
Al Jazeera America

Franklin, Sandra and their two sons are all undocumented immigrants who crossed the border illegally, fleeing the drug war violence and poverty of their native Izabal, Guatemala. Franklin arrived first in 2002, followed two years later by Sandra. Melissa was born in 2006 and is the family’s only U.S. citizen. In May the couple paid more than $12,000 to bring Emanuel, 11, and Pablo, 15, across the border. Now Sandra is fighting a federal deportation order against her, and the family worries that they will be separated again.

The Carranzas are just one of the millions of families struggling to navigate the U.S. immigration system, unsure which members will qualify for the policies outlined in President Barack Obama’s Immigration Accountability Executive Action, announced on Nov. 20. According to the White House, the action covers an estimated 5 million immigrants, many of them — like Franklin and Sandra — parents of U.S. citizen children.

Under the new policy, immigrants without criminal records who have lived in the U.S. for more than five years and are the parents of U.S. citizen children are eligible to register, pass a background check, pay taxes and stay for three years. Franklin and Sandra said they believe they qualify.

But Obama’s plan extends Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) only to children who entered the country before Jan. 1, 2010. Because Emanuel and Pablo arrived in the U.S. in 2014, the Carranzas said it’s unclear whether they will be able to stay.

Tania Unzueta, an organizer with the Not One More campaign and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said the executive action on immigration has left many families with different immigration statuses frustrated and worried.

“You have people who are being categorized in so many different ways but who are in one family. People who qualify, people who don’t qualify, people who are facing deportation but are now not a priority, people who are a priority,” she said. “This action is something temporary, and it puts people in very awkward positions when it comes to figuring out what comes next in their lives and their futures.”

‘When I saw my parents at the airport, I didn’t cry, because I came with so much anger in my heart.’

Emanuel Carranza, 11

Guatemalan immigrant

Uprooting his sons from their home in Guatemala, where they lived with Franklin’s parents, to give them a future in the U.S. is something the couple said they prayed long and hard about.

“It’s a country full of crime, where my oldest son, who is 15 years old, already had people looking at him to be a good bodyguard or a gang member. There were also places that they could be kidnapped just for being there,” said Franklin. “So it was a decision whether to leave my sons to live there, to have them live in danger for their entire lives or have them risk their lives for two weeks and be able to be with us here.”

Pablo said a guide, or coyote, led the brothers, along with a group of other unaccompanied children, in the 10-day journey from Guatemala to the border crossing in Matamoros, Mexico. As the oldest children in the group, Pablo said they were in charge of taking care of the others. The group alternated rest and travel days.

Emanuel, normally a giggly 11-year-old boy who loves tossing a basketball around the living room and fighting with his sister over their favorite spot on the couch, grew serious when he talked about that journey.

“I was only 10 when I crossed. And I was scared, because in Guatemala on the news, they say many children die in the desert,” he said. “It was very difficult. We had to pass through the river, we had to sleep on the earth, and we had to hide because the immigration police were nearby. I was so scared. I wanted to turn myself in. I wanted to stand up when they started to shine the spotlight from their boat. I wanted to stand up, but the coyote wouldn’t let me.”

“The coyote told us we had to memorize a password because they work with the narcos. And if we didn’t tell them the number he gave us, they would kill us right there in that place. So we made ourselves memorize the numbers. We wrote them down on our hands, our arms, our shoes,” Emanuel remembered.

After being caught by Border Patrol agents, the brothers said they were released to a social worker and flown to New Jersey to be reunited with their parents as their case is processed.

“When I saw my parents at the airport, I didn’t cry, because I came with so much anger in my heart,” Emanuel said. “In Guatemala, when my parents called, I didn’t want to talk to them. I came with that anger, and when my sister, Melissa, hugged me, I hit her. Now I feel bad because I had this anger but they were the ones who sacrificed to bring us here.”

Melissa watched carefully as Emanuel spoke, her chubby cheeks turned down into a frown. On the wall of the living room hung an honor roll award from her elementary school. She is the only member of the household who speaks fluent English. Melissa said she has been teaching her brothers how to live in America since they arrived; Emanuel said he is most excited to see snow for the first time.

“The other kids at school, they tell me you can roll it up into a ball and throw it like a rock and you can ride a sled down it. I want to try that,” he said.

Franklin said having the whole family living under the same roof is something he only dreamed of.

“To see my son, who was 3 years old when I left, looking like a grown man, now 15 years old, was just something beautiful. And to see my son Emanuel, who I thought I would never see, there just are no words,” Franklin said. “It is just so emotional to be able to say ‘Pablo, I love you. Emanuel, I love you.’ It’s something I can’t put into words, but it’s in my heart.”

But he laughed because some things have been an adjustment for the family. “Emanuel was used to being the baby with my parents in Guatemala,” he said. “And Melissa was used to being the baby — and an only child — here in the U.S. So you had a clash of babies. We had to find a way to make them all feel special and loved and listened to. I think we are doing really well now.”

Pablo and Emanuel said they miss their extended family back in Guatemala. “Here we are safer. Things are more controlled. There is less violence. The schools are safer,” said Pablo. “But we miss our friends.”

And the threat of deportation is always on their minds.

“To see my son, who was 3 years old when I left, looking like a grown man, now 15 years old, was just something beautiful,” said Franklin Carranza, who will celebrate Christmas with all three of his children for the first time this year.
Al Jazeera America

Around 6 one morning last fall, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrived at the Carranzas’ door, looking for Sandra.

Emanuel said he and his siblings were getting ready for school when he heard yelling in English, then his father called them all downstairs in Spanish. Pablo said he was still in a towel when the ICE agents lined them up and asked for their documents. Melissa was crying and screaming.

“After checking everyone’s papers, they told me, ‘Señora Sandra, do you know you have an order of deportation against you?’ And I started crying, and I was scared because they had never detained me. And they took me with them. I was so terrified, I cried the whole way,” said Sandra.

“One of the agents wanted to handcuff me here in the house, but the other saw my daughter was crying a lot and yelling, ‘Mami, mami, don’t go!’ and so the other agent told her to handcuff me outside because it would traumatize my daughter,” she added.

Sandra was released after two hours, she said. But from that day on, she said she couldn’t wait any longer to legalize her family’s presence in the U.S. So on Nov. 20, Sandra and six other families presented themselves to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Newark, submitting their formal requests for deferred action and protesting what they say are abusive practices by ICE agents such as workplace and home raids and retaliation against those like Sandra and Franklin who choose to speak out.

Jorge Torres, a leader with Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA), helped organize the protest in Newark. Both Sandra and Franklin have become active in ULA and the immigrants’ rights movement.

“We were there to show this country that these people have human rights and deserve to be part of it,” Torres said. “And our position now is not just ‘not one more deportation.’ It is to keep fighting for the other 7 million people who are not included in this [executive] action.”

An executive memo from the Department of Homeland Security dated Nov. 20 states that “under this revised policy, those who entered illegally prior to Jan. 1, 2014, who never disobeyed a prior order of removal and were never convicted of a serious offense will not be priorities for removal.”

ICE Public Affairs Officer Harold Ort said in an email that the agency immediately began screening individuals in their custody who may be affected by executive actions and “released 183 individuals from detention under prosecutorial discretion” from Nov. 20 to Nov. 29.

“ICE will continue to focus its priorities on national security threats, convicted felons, gang members and recent illegal entrants,” he wrote.

Sandra said she is confident she will be allowed to stay with her family under Obama’s plan. But standing in her kitchen in Trenton, as her children happily picked apart pieces of fried tilapia and poured glasses of apple juice, she said she won’t stop pushing for a permanent solution. 

“I feel happy because at least there is some relief that they aren’t going to deport me now. But I also feel sad because I hoped [Obama] would give us something different, not just permission to work but something more,” she said. “We are excited to see what happens this Christmas. Because for so many years, I waited for us all to be here together. That has always been my dream.”

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