Every immigrant comes to the United States in search of a better life. As an immigrant myself, I dare say that is almost unanimous. For much of the world, America represents freedom, prosperity, creativity, and opportunities to live one’s dream in life.
What happens to people after they arrive in this country is a different story. Like much of life, if you have money and an education, you are more likely to make it and thrive even if you originally entered this country without proper documents that allow you to stay permanently. Education and money lead to connections and opportunities that, more often than not, result in a set of circumstances that transforms one’s stay permanently and legally in the U.S.
This, however, is not usually the case for those that lack both money and education. Life becomes a series of survival challenges from one trap to the other — some manage to survive and make it, and some stay in a permanent state of vulnerability. That was the story of Ingrid Encalada Latorre, a 34-year-old Peruvian woman who came to the the U.S. 17 years ago. “When I immigrated in 2000 to America, I was looking for the American dream and following my aunt who is a U.S. citizen. Before I left Peru, my impression of America was it was the place where I can find good opportunity for education and work,” Encalada Latorre, who will be deported unless she is pardoned by Colorado Governer John Hickenlooper, explains. He denied her pardon request last month, but advocates hope he will reconsider.
Encalada Latorre followed her dreams upon her arrival. She enrolled herself in a community college and took four classes a semester. Every day, she would go to school from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. After that, she would clean homes to earn some under-the-table cash to help her pay for her out-of-state tuition and living expenses. The pay was not good and she knew the only way she could make enough money to pay for her tuition was to get a more lucrative job.
To study or not to study — to follow her dreams or not to follow her dreams — were the choices she was confronted with. She chose to keep on trying and that led her to the first in a series of decisions that would put her from one vulnerable position to the next. “I couldn’t study or fulfill the dreams for why I came to the U.S. So I was presented with the option of purchasing documents in the street that would give me Social Security and allow me to get a better paying job to continue my education,” Encalada Latorre explains. Such arrangements worked, but only temporary.
At first, the documents allowed Encalada Latorre to get a job in a nursing home, which came with better pay. Taxes were deducted from her paychecks, but, following the instructions from the person who sold her the documents, Encalada Latorre never filed for any tax returns. Years later, in 2010, “the local sheriff came to my workplace and arrested me there.” The papers Encalada Latorre had purchased apparently belonged to someone else who was alive and collectiong state welfare. When Colorado officials noticed the discrepancy between the welfare payments and the income reported for the name listed on the social security documents, she was told she didn’t qualify to be on welfare. An investigation made it clear that Encalada Latorre was earning money by using someone else’s Social Security number.
Ingrid was jailed for three months until her friends collected a bond for her early release and right after that she was taken to prison at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office known as ICE. By then, Encalada Latorre had two children Brynt, 9, and Anibal, 2. Both are U.S. citizens.
She was released so she could take care of her children while awaiting trial. That led to the second of Encalada Latorre’s misinformed decisions. She followed the legal advice of a lawyer who helped her get out of prison for the forged papers by having her agree to a plea deal, advice that her current immigration attorney says “made her deportation a foregone conclusion.” That led to a felony conviction for criminal impersonation, which makes her case with ICE hard to argue and expedited her deportation process.
Time passes, legal fees piles up, the expenses of raising young children add up, and Encalada Latorre stopped pursuing her education. But after 17 years in America, Encalada Latorre sees herself as an American in her heart — even if her papers say otherwise. She is one of 6.5 million undocumented women in America — people who are becoming primary targets of the new administration’s deportation policy. Undocumented women are the lowest hanging fruit targeted by officials as they are easily found — whether through reporting domestic violence or while dropping their children off at school or even as they obey the law and report their status to ICE on a regular basis.
Conservatives say Ingrid and women like her have entered the country illegally and deserve to be deported. Liberals say she simply does not have the proper documentation, but she has been in America for 17 years, has two children and her deportation and separation from them will lead to a fracture not only in this family but in the larger society. When a country starts separating families from each other, ripping mothers apart from their children, a new story of anger and resentment will emerge — one that will need to be addressed at some point. Beyond conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, this is an issue of American values. Is America the country of generosity or is America a country that tears families apart? Is America the country of opportunities and chances, or is America the country that is intolerant? Is America kind and beautiful or is America punitive?
Encalada Latorre has indeed made several bad decisions and illegal ones, to be sure. In the context of her reality though, this is a woman who is trying to survive for a better life for herself and her children. “At one point, my life became about survival,” she explains. Amid her vulnerability, she was trapped by those who take advantage of vulnerable people — from the person who sold her the illegal papers to the bad advice of a lawyer. Throughout it all though, Encalada Latorre kept on working and contributing to this country in all the ways she knows how — positive contributions not negative ones. Her cleaning American homes is something that touches the most intimate aspects of America. Her deportation from the American home brings a harshness to this country contrary to its reputation of acceptance and kindness. That is why people enter America. That should never be why people leave America.
For now, it is Encalada Latorre’s life and that of her family that is at stake. Denver Sanctuary Coalition, an American organization founded and run by U.S. citizens, is supporting her appeal for the pardon that would allow her to stay in the U.S. with her two children. Other groups, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, see Encalada Latorre as part of the fabric of American society and Colorado community and her deportation would be ripping that fabric apart. When asked if she has any message to President Trump, Encalada Latorre said, “We all come to this country to work hard. Our goal is to work hard. And I hope he will understand that and that he will lead the fight for amnesty and immigration reform.” Can everyone move beyond party lines to hear the plight of a mother for the goodness of America?
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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