Cecilia Garcia met her husband, Hugo Velasco, in 1997. He was her brother’s friend and rented a room at his place, and before they got to know each other more, Garcia never thought he’d be the one she’d start a life with.
“I think as a woman you have type of guy that you're going to like, and he was totally opposite of what I liked,” she recalled. “I liked rock and he liked rap so we were really different.”
But they connected over their Mexican heritage and spent the summers there. While Cecilia is an American citizen, her fluency in Spanish connected them even more. From that moment they would then spend the next 23 years together, having their first child and 1998 and four more after.
The one thing that separated them was Velasco’s immigration status. He was an undocumented immigrant and was incognito in the United States since he was first deported in 1998. Two weeks after that deportation he crossed the border back to be back with his family in the United States. In the United States, if you are deported or removed, there is a bar placed that bans you from reentry into the country for 5, 10 or 20 years. Velasco’s 10-year bar prevented him from applying for citizenship and he resorted to living incognito until the bar was lifted. For that reason, Velasco and Garcia never officially married so Velasco would not be a target for deportation through the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
Garcia began the process of applying for Velasco’s citizenship in 2010, putting in paperwork for pardons to adjust his status and hired a lawyer. But in 2012 he was pulled over while driving because of an expired license plate and ICE was called. His undocumented status, previous deportation and illegal reentry into the United States was grounds for a second deportation and another 10-year bar.
“I thought that me adjusting his status protected him, but that was then, and this is now and now I obviously know that that doesn't happen.”
Garcia went to their lawyer the day after Velasco was detained, only to be told that there was nothing they could do. However, the lawyer did tell her to tell Velasco not to sign anything, but ICE did not allow Garcia to talk to Velasco until the next day, and ICE coerced him to sign a voluntary deportation, rendering his rights.
“(ICE) said, ‘If you sign your (voluntary) deportation, it's easier for your wife to adjust your status.’ This is what they do, they lie. It's not against the law for them to lie,” Garcia said. “As soon as he calls me, I answered and I said, ‘Babe don’t sign anything’ and he's like ‘I already did but it's okay, they explained to me...’ and I'm just like ‘ugh.’”
Two years after Velasco was detained, in 2014, he and Garcia wed, having historically the first bi-national wedding. Before Velasco was deported, Garcia described her family as being very close, with camping trips in Texas, Thursday night family dinners and cooking and cleaning together.
"We started from the bottom up, we had nothing and together we built a family, we had a home, you could say we emulated that American dream."
The deportation came as a shock to Garcia and she described the slight “arrogance” she felt that this wouldn’t happen to her family because of her immigration status and efforts to adjust his status. If she had known that this could happen, she would “have had a plan B, a backup plan.”
“(The IIRIRA) is said to keep terrorists out but it's been terrorizing American citizen's families,” she said. “As an American citizen I feel terrorized.”
Since her husband’s deportation, Garcia has fought to take care of her family. Without eligibility for government assistance, Garcia works two or three jobs to provide food and shelter for her family. But she was recently evicted. Additionally, she was unaware that some of her children were missing school, causing Childhood Protective Services to investigate her for negligent parenting.
“When they're telling you that you're a bad parent, you know how awful that sounds?” she said. “That hurt me a lot because I didn’t choose to live like this, it was something enforced.”
The separation of Velasco from his family has also caused mental distress and one of Garcia’s biggest supports since her husband’s deportation has been seeing a therapist. Both of her daughters did not want to walk on the stage at their graduations.
“She didn't want to walk the stage because her father wasn't there,” Garcia said. “I was like, ‘Be happy you're graduating high school as Latina, as a girl.’ She's like ‘What for? My dad's not going to be here.’”
Two of her children have been hospitalized for attempting suicide. Velasco took the risk to cross the border when one of his daughter’s was hospitalized. It was one of two other times he would try to cross and each time he was caught. After seven years of being deported in Mexico, Velasco had his first nervous breakdown, which put Garcia to question more how much longer her family can survive this ordeal.
"I never thought seven years later I will still be fighting for this,” she said. “I thought by then my husband would have been here.”
When Velasco was detained, she didn’t want to go visit him because of the trauma she knew if would cause her by seeing him in jail. In August 2018, 14-year-old Silas Anorve from Las Vegas, Nevada died after he jumped out of a moving vehicle after visiting his father, an undocumented immigrant who was detained by ICE. The fear and stress of his father’s possible deportation to Mexico caused Anorve to commit suicide. Garcia described this instance as one example of how the deportation of love ones impacts a family’s mental health.
“This was the one that was made public, we really don’t know how many Silas Anorves there are, but how many do they have to come up on the news for people to take things seriously?” Garcia said.
Garcia’s 12-year-old daughter has told her “Mom, I recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day and it tells me there’s justice for all. Where's my justice?” Since the deportation of her husband, Garcia has fought for her family’s justice and the justice for others as well. Garcia has helped children whose parents were deported, leaving them as wards of the state and an 18-year-old who had to drop out of college to support her younger siblings after their parents were deported, exposing this issue at the border as also being in “our own backyards.”
“I feel like this is discrimination against people of color and they have to stand up when it's wrong and they have to say something when it's wrong,” she said. “I have to teach my children not to allow anybody to oppress them.”
Garcia knows that the legislative problems are fixable, but the government refuses to do so. Garcia has brought her fight to Washington D.C. to get national attention on the separation of families outside of the borders on a daily basis. She and others in her effort talked to individual state representatives, congressmen and the members of the Hispanic National Caucus to garner support, refusing to wait until the 2020 election. Garcia told her story there in Washington D.C. as she does to many across Chicago with the hope of inspiring others to talk and stand up for this initiative.
Garcia and others presented a platform that includes a renewable three-year visa for undocumented parents of American citizens, dreamers and undocumented spouses. The visa recipients would be vetted and have a background check. When presented to 10 people, eight voted yes and two voted no and their platform will be presented on the floor of the House of Representatives.
While Garcia does not know when she’ll see her husband again, she has relied on the help of her family and church community to get her through this time, with the hope that soon with her efforts and others they’ll be able to be together again.
“We talk to each other three times a day and I never regret falling in love with him,” she said. “When you love someone, you're going to fight for them, you're going to fight for who you love.”