Anguish arises out of deportation

Danica Coto and Peter St. Onge
The Charlotte Observer
Deysi Ramirez helps her children, Sandy, front, Kayla, right, and Sammy, left, in a truck for the ride home from Guatemala City, Guatemala. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

Kayla Ramirez knew something was wrong. Where's Mom? Where's the car? What happened?

It was March 26, a Sunday evening. Ten-year old Kayla was at her aunt's house in Monroe, N.C., playing video games with her cousins. Her father, Ray, had just stepped in the front door. Her mother, Deysi, wasn't with him.

Less than an hour before, Ray and Deysi - his partner of 10 years - were driving back from a soccer match in Monroe. A state trooper stopped them for an expired tag, and Deysi was jailed for being in the U.S. illegally and not following up on U.S. asylum paperwork eight years ago.

Now, Ray wasn't sure what to tell his three children. He didn't know where Deysi was going - or what would become of their family.

He decided not to tell the children for now.

Your mother had a family emergency in Guatemala, he said.

The younger children, 9-year-old Sammy and 5-year old Sandy, didn't understand, but they accepted their father's word. Kayla asked why her mother left without a suitcase. Why didn't she say goodbye?

Later, Ray took her aside. He hoped she was old enough to know. She soon would have to be, he remembers thinking.

Your mother's been arrested, he said.

Two years before, Kayla had seen a TV report on illegal immigrants. Do you have papers? she asked her mother then. No, Deysi said, but she promised to be careful.

Now her mother was in jail.

Why did she let herself be caught? Kayla remembers thinking.

At school the next day, her friends were surprised to see her sitting alone, head down, in the cafeteria. She was crying. My mother's gone, she told them. Don't tell anyone.

Two weeks had passed since her arrest, and Deysi Ramirez believed she soon would be released. When she prayed, she told God she wasn't a bad person.

She was a volunteer at school and a soccer coach. She and Ray had raised three children, provided for them, wanted a better life for them, as parents do.

But Deysi knew she was here illegally.

Now her attorney, Joan Larson, sat on the other side of the Plexiglas at the Mecklenburg (N.C.) County Jail, where she had been transferred.

Your children want me to tell you they love you, Larson said.

Deysi tried to hold herself together.

Larson, too, had to steel herself for this moment. For the past year, she worked in Charlotte as an attorney representing immigrants. It was a job that offered great joy or terrible sadness. You either got residency for an illegal immigrant, or you watched that client get deported.

Larson had previously been a U.S. immigration official in Houston. She knew the government concentrated its immigration enforcement on felons and terrorists. But if someone like Deysi appeared on the radar with a deportation warrant, officials would act on it.

She had filed for a stay of deportation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, noting that Deysi's son needed minor eye surgery. Medical pleas can be grounds for ICE to halt a deportation, but Larson knew this one was not urgent enough.

She was direct with Deysi.

It's a long shot, she said.

Their only chance was to file a writ of habeas corpus - essentially a lawsuit saying ICE was holding her wrongly - then argue her case in federal court.

She explained that they would be hoping mostly for mercy from the court, and that Deysi would have to wait six more months - or longer - for the case to be heard.

Deysi didn't need time to think. She didn't have the money to pursue the case. She would rather be in Guatemala than here in jail.

No, she told Larson, then she began to weep.

On April 13, Deysi was taken to Etowah County Detention Center in northeast Alabama, where each day, 300 illegal immigrants fill the jail cells reserved for them by the U.S. government.

The prison is one of more than a dozen contract facilities that ICE officials use as regional hubs to process the 160,000 men, women and children deported each year.

For now, Deysi and Ray had decided to put the future on hold until she arrived in Guatemala. There, without prison officials recording conversations, they could talk about Deysi crossing the U.S. border again.

Another option was sending the children to Guatemala. The two youngest, Sandy and Sammy, didn't read or write in Spanish, but they were young enough to adjust. Then there was Kayla, who was fluent in Spanish and raised in a Latino household, but had never known anything but life in North Carolina.

She also had promise here. While in Etowah, Deysi had received a letter from Kayla saying she'd been selected as one of the best students in Union County It was what Deysi had dreamed of after she crossed the border, pregnant, almost 12 years ago.

Here, Deysi had hoped that Kayla, a U.S. citizen by birth, could graduate from high school and maybe earn a scholarship. In Guatemala, the government doesn't pay for education past sixth grade, and Deysi wouldn't be able to afford a good school.

How, she thought, could I do that to my daughter?

At home in Monroe, Kayla was overwhelmed. She was suddenly responsible for Sammy and Sandy - their clothes, their lunches - and she grumbled to her father about the extra work.

Her schedule had quickly become elastic. Mornings started earlier. Days ended only after the dishes were done and she'd helped Sandy shower and Sammy with his homework. Often, she fell asleep after midnight, her MP3 still playing, her arm wrapped around her favorite stuffed animal, Smoky the cat.

At East Elementary School, at least, Kayla could be a full-time fifth-grade girl.

She studied ratios and wrote book reports, although teachers encouraged her to read more.

She was young enough to draw hearts and crosses on her notebooks, young enough to be thrilled about wearing the yellow hall monitor's sash - her prize for a winning D.A.R.E. essay. She was old enough to be scolded by a teacher for wearing a halter top.

Kayla was one of 21 students in Carmen Campbell's fifth-grade class. All but two were black or Latino, an almost even split. Kayla was one of few who effortlessly crossed the race line, spending most of her time with three black girls. "My homies," she called them.

Fifth-grade graduation was less than six weeks away, but the four girls let daydreams carry them further. They decided they'd live in a five-bedroom house - the extra room for a guest, of course. They'd have parties and go to the mall. There would be Jacuzzis, they imagined, enough for everyone.

On May 9, Deysi Ramirez got the notice she had hoped for and dreaded. After 46 days in prison, she was being deported.

Twelve years ago, she had come to the U.S. the way millions of immigrants had before her, with bus rides from Guatemala through Mexico, then two days of walking, a swim across the Rio Grande, an arranged car ride to some train tracks, an arranged train ride into Texas.

Now she rode a bus to Atlanta, where she signed U.S. and Guatemalan travel documents. The next night, Deysi's arms and legs were shackled, and she rode another bus seven hours to Louisiana. There, four women and 104 men boarded a Justice Prisoner Alien Transfer flight at 8 a.m. It was one of about a dozen such flights that leave the U.S. every week.

At the Guatemala City airport, Deysi noticed a man following her. She walked faster, scared that he was trying to rob her. Hey, what's your name? the man asked.

Deysi turned.

Her brother, Natanael, was a skinny 12-year-old when she last saw him. He was 25 now, with lean muscles and long sideburns.

They took three beat-up buses to reach San Juan Sacatepequez, near the village where Deysi's family lived. The last bus stopped in front of a landfill, leaving them a half-mile walk along a rutted dirt road littered with lazy dogs.

Most who lived in the village, Comunidad de Ruiz, were Indians of Mayan descent. The village smelled like smoke because people cooked outside; few had electric stoves. Garbage trucks didn't service the town, so residents tossed their trash into piles along sidewalks and cliffs.

When Deysi reached the gate of her family's home, she saw the back of a woman. Argelia, her mother, was across the yard, washing clothes by hand.

Natanael called out. Argelia turned. Deysi walked to her. Their eyes filled with tears.

I'm sorry I've been gone so long, Deysi whispered.

Deysi struggled. She was bored after only a few days, and she missed things she had forgotten were luxuries in her village. Instead of flushable toilets and running water, here she turned a makeshift handle and cranked up a bucket of water from a well about 200 feet deep. She had difficulty imagining her children doing the same.

Certainly, this village would be an adjustment for them all. In North Carolina, they had settled into a comfortable life, with health insurance and a 401(k) through work, with public education from the taxes they paid, with pizza as a treat every weekend.

Here, her Guatemalan family was among the 75 percent in the country who lived in poverty, thanks in part to a 36-year civil war that displaced almost 1 million people. Schools were free only until the sixth grade, and affordable health care in their village came only from Christian missionaries, who offered it free with a sermon.

Deysi decided not to get a job yet. If the children joined her from Monroe, Ray wanted her to concentrate on finding a school. He could send money until he eventually joined them there.

There also was a new option to consider.

Leave Kayla with me, said Ray's sister.

Silvia lived in Union County, N.C., in a middle-class neighborhood with an American husband and a family.

She had been in the U.S. for two decades, first on a work permit, then as a permanent resident after she married. She was now studying to become a U.S. citizen.

Silvia had done well in her adopted country. She trained new employees for Tyson Foods, and she worked part time for an insurance company. On the weekends, she had a profitable booth at the flea market, selling soccer apparel and quinceanera dresses that she traveled to Mexico at least twice a year to get.

Here, Silvia thought, was opportunity. Kayla could have a bright future if she stayed, starred in school, went to college. What kind of future would Kayla have in Guatemala?

Silvia thought it disrespectful to ask Deysi such questions - but she whispered into Ray's ear: Our younger sister was deported two years ago. She took the kids to Mexico for a year, and they all came back. Why couldn't Deysi do the same?

If you make Kayla leave, Silvia warned, you're going to cry tears of blood.

Leave Kayla here, Ray thought.

But he couldn't bring himself to say it to Deysi.

Instead, he hinted at his feelings, talking to her about the quality of schools in Guatemala, about how well Kayla was doing here. Privately, he worried about more.

He wondered how an 11-year-old American girl could adjust to the poverty of Deysi's village. Even the littlest things would be jarring. Here, Kayla could walk barefoot into a room to shower, to go to the bathroom. In Guatemala, she'd have to go outside, through the mud, to an outhouse.

But this decision, Ray thought, was Deysi's to make.

He knew that she missed her children.

He knew she was worried that they weren't missing her.

He didn't tell her that Sandy had started calling Silvia "mom."

By June, Deysi and Ray were fighting more often. Deysi had been gone from North Carolina more than two months, and distance was wearing down their trust.

When Deysi's cell phone stopped working, Ray thought she was avoiding his calls. Friends told him that if the children went to Guatemala, Deysi would forget about him.

No, Deysi said.

Ray provided her with a love she never saw between her parents. That love, that family, was the most important thing to her.

Deysi cringed, though, when she thought about the education Kayla might receive in San Juan Sacatepequez. She searched for bilingual schools, the closest of which was a 15-minute bus ride away. The school cost 300 quetzales, or almost $40, for registration, then half that each month for tuition. Deysi didn't know if she could afford it.

She thought about her childhood, her brief education, how she had to get a job at 14 years old. Still, she recalled growing up happy. Poverty doesn't bring you down, she remembers thinking.

She couldn't abandon her children.

She told Kayla, Forgive me for what I'm about to do.

She told her to start teaching Sammy and Sandy how to read and write in Spanish.



Charlotte Observer reporters spent four months with Kayla Ramirez and her family. The reporters attended school with Kayla, and interviewed her relatives, her teachers and principal, her mother Deysi's attorney, the arresting officer in Deysi's case, legal experts, and officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Reporters examined California and North Carolina arrest records, court documents and immigration records. No dialogue appears within quotation marks unless a Charlotte Observer reporter heard it. When scenes are reconstructed, reporters talked to all participants.

When a participant's thoughts or feelings are described, they are done with attribution to the memory of the participants.

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