In the past month, Donald Trump issued executive orders that call for the deportation of any and all undocumented immigrants in the United States. Reporters estimate that would mean the deportation of 11 million people. His administration is uncertain where the billions of dollars will come from to hire 10,000 new immigration agents and build new detention facilities, but new raids and random ID checks have already started. In speeches, Trump defends this plan because, in his words, undocumented immigrants “routinely victimize Americans” and “pose a threat to the rule of law.”
But what will thousands—or millions—of deportations mean for the uniquely American families that have grown up in immigrant homes? What will happen when those people—those brothers, sisters, daughters, dads, moms, and grandparents—are taken from their families?
On today’s episode, we talk with two women who fought to keep their families together—as our immigration system tried to tear them apart. The stories of Paola Benefo and Jhoana Monroy give us an insight into something we don’t often hear about in the political rhetoric around immigration—the human impact of deportation.
• Paola Benefo (whose family photo is featured on this show) wrote an editorial in the New York Times about her family’s experience—read it here.
• Big thanks to filmmaker Anne Galisky for connecting us with people affected by deportation.
• This episode mentions the detention of immigration activist Daniela Vargas—read more about Daniela’s story here.
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SARAH: So what do you remember about the day that your dad was deported?
PAOLA: I was 16, and my dad was very, a always punctual person. He hates the African stereotype of African time or that Africans are late. So he was always punctual. He was picking me up from school when I had National Honor Society meetings. So by the time it was 4:30, for the first in my life, my dad was not on time, and I was freaking out.
SARAH: This is Paola Benefro. Her parents were born in Ghana, then moved to Italy for work, then came to the United States in 2010, when Paola was four years old. Twelve years later, her dad was deported. Three years after that, so was her mom, leaving four daughters alone in United States, the country they’d come to call home.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
This spring at Bitch, we’re exploring the theme of Family Values. If that term makes you cringe, it’s because “family values” is a phrase that right-wingers use, usually as a euphemism for attacking reproductive rights or LGBT people or women or whoever else they’re scapegoating at the moment. But why do they get to claim to represent both families and values? We feminists have really strong values, ones we fight to defend and build our families around.
So here on Popaganda, we’re putting together a series of three episodes to reclaim and redefine what family values can mean.
On today’s episode, I talked with two women who fought to keep their families together as our immigration system tried to tear them apart. Their stories give us an insight into something we don’t often hear about in the political rhetoric around immigration: the human impact of deportation.
[“This Land Is Your Land” in Spanish and English in conjunto style]
In the past month, Donald Trump issued executive orders that call for the deportation of any and all undocumented immigrants in the United States. Reporters estimate that this would mean the deportation of 11 million people. His administration is uncertain where the billions of dollars will come from to hire 10,000 new immigration agents and build new detention facilities around the country. But new raids and random ID checks have already started. In speeches, Trump defends this plan because, in his words, undocumented immigrants “routinely victimize Americans,” and “pose a threat to the rule of law.”
But what will thousands, or millions, of deportations mean for the uniquely American families that have grown up in immigrant homes? What will happen when those people–those brothers and sisters, those daughters, dads, moms, and grandparents–are taken from their families? Well, here’s Paola’s story. She talked with me from a college library. So you can hear a couple sounds in the background sometimes.
PAOLA: When we first arrived here, I was at the airport with my family, and I was four. [chuckling] I was really excited to be in America. I thought I could see Britney Spears, ‘N Sync, Madonna, Celine Dion ‘cause those are the well-known artists from America and Italy that we listened to. So I thought I was gonna meet them like just within a month of being in America. But that didn’t happen. But while we were at the airport, I remember the excitement I saw because there was so much diverse people, like the people with my skin tone, people of different skin tones that I did not see in Italy. And I remember just I actually was going up to one of them, and my mom had to pull me back. She basically settled the mission of why we’re here. She was like, “Don’t get ahead of yourself. We’re here for education. Remember that always.”
SARAH: Her family came to the United States on tourist visas in 2001, then applied for permanent resident status, but their applications were delayed after September 11th. Paola isn’t clear on the details of her parents’ case. She was five at the time, remember. But in any case, they started living in Columbus, Ohio and never went back to Italy. The family’s main mission was to get their four daughters a good education.
PAOLA: Education comes first. Really. No B-s, no Cs [giggles]. If you get Honor Roll, and there’s Super Honor Roll, there was gonna be like, “Why didn’t you get Super Honor Roll,” you know? So that’s the mentality they would place on you just to always achieve for better, higher. So that’s what I did achieve.
SARAH: Paola is a junior a Berea College these days. She’s really excited about biology.
PAOLA: There’s a lot of fields within biology that I’m really starting to enjoy. I like parasitology. I like microbiology. Right now, I’m learning developmental biology. So that’s also a field that I’m interested in. I just hope I can connect all these to what I do in the future. I wanna be a dentist, but I also wanna be a researcher and a teacher. So hopefully that all comes into fruition.
SARAH: [laughing] There are probably that many people who are as excited as you are about parasitology.
PAOLA: [laughs] I know. But the way my teacher taught it. And also I know in America there’s not–as compared to other countries–many people don’t have to deal with parasites as often. But I think if I ever wanna travel, I would like to help other countries, not only America, but yeah. I think that would be something I’d look into to do.
SARAH: Growing up, Paola’s parents always stressed being creative, critical thinkers and to work super hard in school.
PAOLA: But my mom, I always describe her as the cultural, religious side of my life. She was the one who really taught me about my Ghanaian heritage and how to speak my language. And whenever I try to speak English to her, she’d like, [snaps fingers] “Nope. Let’s speak Twi,” because she knew that just like it was good to be multi-lingual, I took pride in that. My father was the educational side to me. He’s an accountant, and so he really emphasized how well we should do in Math and English. And during summer, even when we weren’t assigned summer homework, he would give us books. We actually got to choose books, and then if there were words in there, he gave us a composition book to define those words and then write new sentences with them. Then he would give us–me and my sisters–a spelling bee challenge.
SARAH: Paola was a junior in high school when immigration agents came for her dad. That day, when her dad didn’t come to pick her up after her Honor Society meeting, Paola took the bus home from school, and her family got a call from some of his coworkers.
PAOLA: I guess one of the members noticed that he was taken earlier in the day to a closet to speak to someone. And then another person saw him leaving in an Immigration car. So then they knew that he was taken by Immigration. So my mom went into, I would say, not a panic but just started praying. I was just, I was really just mind-boggled because my dad was…always the safest person. He was just like a homework/kids situation.
SARAH: Did you ever hear from immigration authorities?
PAOLA: I didn’t hear anything from the immigration authorities. I don’t think they care enough to even alert anyone.
SARAH: While her parents were both deported under Obama, the Trump administration has specifically started targeting people who have overstayed tourist visas. People like Paola’s family. She got to see her dad once before he was deported. She and her sisters went to visit him in an immigration detention facility.
PAOLA: It was really just all a blur because I feel like it was more crying than communication [chuckles] because one thing I noticed was that he had lost a lot of weight. He had lost a lot of weight, his eyes were bloodshot, and he just didn’t look like himself. I knew how much he liked to take care of himself and look neat, but no. He was looking rough. And yeah, it was just a hard time. There’s not much I can say I remember from that conversation. I just know that he just kept saying it was gonna be all right, that we should stay focused, and that it would get better.
SARAH: He was deported after about three weeks.
PAOLA: So with my family, we were kind of scared, like should we move? Because who knows where they think we are. So yeah, should we move, or should we go back? I think that was, yeah, also a scary thing ‘cause my mom was for the most part, during my high school finals, I remember my mom was saying that she just wanted us all to move back. Yeah, I was not really wanting to do that because I mean my life was here, and my little sister’s life was here, and my sisters’ lives were here. So only my mom really knew Ghana and I feel like could survive.
SARAH: Paola had only been to Ghana once, when she was three. She thinks of herself as an American.
PAOLA: And I could only think of my little sister as well. She was born here, and she’s the American. Just for her to grow up without parents, I always thought of her and how to help support her and her not to be upset that America was tearing her family apart. So I think one thing my mom did was just always to encourage us that it seems like they’re the enemy, or it may feel like they’re the enemy because we’re hurt, and we’re in pain right now. But know that it’s just them fearing us, and that’s what’s allowing this to happen.
SARAH: That’s so powerful of your mom. Her husband has just been deported, and she’s defending the system to her family saying, “Don’t get mad.”
PAOLA: With her, my mom’s I wouldn’t say Kumbaya, but she’s just a loving person.
SARAH: The biggest change after Paola’s dad was deported was that her family now had to rely just on her mom’s income.
PAOLA: I knew that I couldn’t afford books anymore for classes. So I just always try to find it from the library. So I was using just the library books to get me through school ‘cause my dad couldn’t finance that. And then we actually just realized we should just stop paying for internet and cable. So what I did was just I was just always in the library to get everything else I needed. So yeah, the library really became my home after my dad left.
SARAH: In 2012, Paola able to apply for and receive temporary legal residency under the new Obama program known as DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program is not a path to citizenship for people who arrived here as kids, but it does protect them from deportation. They have to reapply every two years and jump through some other hoops, too.
PAOLA: When Obama passed his executive order, I felt like, for the first time, Americans could understand us and understand this was a way–DACA itself, the program–would be a way to prove to other Americans that we’re not criminals. We’re willing to come out of the shadows and let people get to know us. DACA felt like a lot of Americans’ concerns were met and met in a positive way because we were trying to show you guys we’re not criminals; we’re not trying to steal your jobs. We’re really just trying to be at your side to support you and help make America great. And for the most part– And also when DACA, the day that Obama announced that he’s going to do DACA, it was actually near my birthday. So it was like a birthday present, and I was just so happy. I was overjoyed, and I felt for the first time this is what it means to be American. This is what it means for citizens to speak and the government to act.
SARAH: Then, in 2013, Paola was in the library–of course the library–studying for her college semester finals, when she got a call from a lawyer. It turned out to be her mom’s lawyer. Her mom was being deported.
The lawyer asked Paola to write an affidavit explaining why her mom should stay in the United States. Paola left the library and returned to her dorm room in a haze.
PAOLA: It was like oh, hecks, no. They’re not taking my mom if I could help it, you know? And so I just remember just going straight to my dormitory, turning on my laptop, and just thinking how do I write this? And then I think the main question was why should my mom stay? When I was looking at some examples, it was just like why should my mom stay and reasons why. And I just felt like, oh my goodness. Why should my mom stay? I feel like I was having a existential question like, what is the purpose of a mother?
SARAH: Yeah, like, what do you even possibly say in that situation? It’s so strange to be called upon to explain in very important legal language why you should be able to see your mother.
PAOLA: I don’t think any human being should go through feeling like they have to defend why they need a parent in their life. I just I stared blank at the page for a really long time and then just started writing. I felt like the more I was writing, the more emotional I was getting. And then I was transitioning into, oh my goodness. My mom’s gonna be leaving if they don’t care, you know? I was just thinking in my head, they don’t care. Do they care? They don’t care. How do I make them care? How can I be persuasive enough with just my letter?
At least when my father left, we still had a home to go to; we still had food on the table. But seeing that my older two sisters were already married and out of the house, with my mother gone, it would just be my little sister and I. And of course, I could possibly be her guardian, but I didn’t think I was at that stage in college to be anyone’s parents. Also, I just didn’t think that the way my mom would want my sister to grow up and the vision that my parents both had all of us would come into fruition if I was to be the caregiver of my sister. And I just got into this high-stress state. So I ended up just putting my, I finished writing the letter and just went into my bed. I remember just telling myself I was gonna take an hour break to cry it all out and then go back to studying for my exam. Yeah. It was different [chuckles]. It was not what I expected.
SARAH: The affidavit didn’t make any difference. 60 days later, her mom was put on a plane to Ghana. Paola and her sisters were left with the task of packing up her family’s home. The sisters all slept in one room as they boxed up her parents’ furniture.
PAOLA: In that moment, it was sad. And finding things that you didn’t think you would find and just packing up memories that you don’t know if you would be able to revisit ‘cause it’s all being sent to Ghana.
SARAH: Under DACA, Paola is safe from deportation for now, but she has to reapply for residency every two years, and she can’t travel without special permission. That means she isn’t able to visit her parents in Ghana.
PAOLA: I won’t really be able to be with my mom or my family, united, for a good time, for a really long time.
SARAH: Since Republican politicians describe themselves as pro-family but also support mass deportations, I asked Paola what she thought a truly pro-family immigration policy would look like.
PAOLA: Once they realize how much we’re helping our communities and helping other Americans and how we’re not destroying America by us being here, and we’re not trying to be dangerous to America, we’re not trying to hurt anyone here, I think they should consider that into their policies and then also consider our parents. Because we wouldn’t be able to be contributing members of society if they didn’t take the risk that they did take.
SARAH: OK, Paola, I know this is kind of corny, but since you can’t go visit your parents, I was wondering if you wanna record a message for them here? What do you want to say to your mom and dad if they’re listening to this podcast?
PAOLA: I would say well, I don’t know if I’m allowed to. Do you know if I’m allowed to speak in my own language on this thing? OK…. [speaks in Twi first] Later on, I hope that you can stay strong and that one day we’ll all be united. And Happy Independence Day [laughs].
SARAH: Popaganda is produced by non-profit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is entirely funded by our community. Love our work and wanna pitch in? Become a member. Join hundreds of fellow listeners as a member of the Podcast Pollinators. When you do, you’ll receive a special mug, a subscription to Bitch magazine in print and digital, a snazzy sticker, and Listen Bitch, a brand-new, monthly roundup of all of our podcast shows and music reviews straight to your Inbox. Become a Pollinator today at bitchmedia.org/pollinators.
Hello listeners! So we’re doing this family values series and we want to hear from you. What are YOUR values, and what are your family values? Do you try and imbue your family–whatever family means to you–with confidence? Tolerance? A healthy appreciation for terrible puns? I know it might take a minute to think about what “family values” means to you, but when you’ve got something that feels like an answer, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll feature your voice memos on an upcoming show. OK, thanks.
The image we often see of undocumented immigrants on TV is one of danger. During his campaign, Trump hit again and again on the idea that immigrants are dangerous criminals who pose a threat to the lives of Americans. Remember how he kicked off his campaign with the statement that many Mexican immigrants are “murderers and rapists?” In the year-long campaign, he held big press conferences with people whose relatives had been killed by undocumented immigrants, conveying the idea that immigrants are lawbreakers who could one day murder someone you love.
But that’s just not true. All the statistics we have show that only a small fraction of undocumented immigrants commit any kind of felony. The stat is actually 3%. And plus, native-born Americans are twice as likely to commit a felony than undocumented immigrants. Instead of being murderous threats, most undocumented immigrants live the kind of lives that frankly, Republicans praise in their rhetoric about the American dream: They want a better life for their kids, they want good schools, they wanna own homes.
But it’s hard for immigrants themselves to counter those ideas about being criminals because the threat of deportation looms so gigantic.
Just this month, Mississippi resident Daniela Vargas was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after speaking out a rally about her undocumented status. She’s Argentinian by birth and had been granted protection under DACA, but her status had lapsed in November when she couldn’t come up with the $495 fee to renew her application.
In this atmosphere, 25-year-old Jhoana Munroe is doing something that’s changing her family values. She’s speaking out about being undocumented.
JHOANA: I always knew that immigration–la migra–was bad. My parents would always tell me, “Don’t tell anyone about your status.” But growing up, I was really, really proud of who I was. I was Mexicana. I was someone that was very optimistic. So I would say the truth: I was from Mexico.
My parents, they would just tell me, “You know what? Don’t tell anyone about your status.” I think they didn’t want me to be afraid. They didn’t want me to be terrorized.
SARAH: Jhoana’s parents changed their entire lives to try and make a better future for their kids. And Jhoana herself is a mom. She’s got two kids, age 6 and 4. I asked her to define what she thinks her family values are.
JHOANA: The values that are in my family, there’s a lot of faith. There’s also a lot of hard work that has been passed on to me. And there’s resilience as well. Those are the three biggest values that I think my family carries on with.
SARAH: This is the kind of immigrant story–the kind of family story–that doesn’t fit into Trump’s narrative of why we should be deporting every undocumented American.
Jhoana crossed the border from Mexico at age 5, the day after her graduation from kindergarten.
JHOANA: In Mexico, the part we’re from, there aren’t a lot of opportunities and access to jobs. Both of my parents lived in poverty. I mean poverty the way you see I guess houses built by cardboard. That’s how much poverty it was in Mexico. And it wasn’t until my mom started sending money to Mexico was when my grandparents actually had access to a toilet and water in their house.
SARAH: Her dad came to the United States first. Then her mom figured out how to cross the border with Jhoana and her older brother. They found a woman who would drive Jhoana and her brother across the border and say they were her kids.
JHOANA: And she just told us the basic instruction: Be quiet, don’t say anything, pretend you’re falling asleep. That’s what I did. My brother doesn’t really remember that, but I do. I was pretending to fall asleep and to keep my eyes closed while the guard was flashing a light at us. And then, I think it just happened so fast. As soon as I remember, I woke up in a house with that lady, and the next day, my uncles and some of my cousins came for us while my dad was still waiting for my mom to cross.
SARAH: Jhoana’s family lived in an apartment complex in Beaverton, Oregon that was full of Latinx families. Her mom cleaned houses, and her dad did landscape work. Though her parents didn’t talk about their immigration status at all, she remembers the threat of deportation coloring their lives in a lot of ways.
JHOANA: At an early age, my parents told me not to be so open, and the reality came in because you would see basically some ICE and some police come into these apartments. They would basically do raids. I remember being little and being so afraid of these cops ‘cause they came in with guns. And I’m talking big guns, not just little guns. Immigration had a huge part of our life that we even had a game. It was similar to basically tag. But basically, it was the tagger would be la migra (ICE: Immigration Custom Enforcement), and he that individual would try to tag as many people, as many kids, as he could.
SARAH: When Jhoana was nine, that fear came true: her dad was stopped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while at work and then swiftly deported.
JHOANA: It’s very traumatizing that I just remember my mom laying down and me and my brother on each side. And there was just sobs. So that’s the only thing I remember, but the thing is, my dad then, within a week, he came back.
SARAH: Since then, he’s been living with his family in the United States, but there’s always that fear that he could disappear at any time. They don’t really talk about it, says Jhoana.
JHOANA: They have a very Catholic perspective. So they just tell me, “You know what, Jhoana? You just have to have faith. You have to have faith. Everything will be OK. We’re not criminal. I mean, the people that are getting deported are criminals.” So they always tried to view this side, and they think that yes, they’re really good people. And they are, but essentially, I’m very, very opinionated, and I tell them, “Well, you know what? Right now, they are deporting just about anyone. They can even deport me.” But they are very, I guess, very optimistic right now.
SARAH: That’s so weird that your parents would say it’s just criminals who are being deported when your dad himself was deported.
JHOANA: Correct. Yeah. So I have tried to have these conversation, but I think they have internal oppression, and they have internal, I guess, traumatic scenes of their own that they don’t really like to talk about.
SARAH: When Jhoana was in high school, la migra came after her family again, but not for her dad. For her brother, who was 20.
JHOANA: He was detained, and then I think we all knew what was coming.
SARAH: Jhoana would ride the bus to high school, but her brother needed to drive to work. One random day, a police officer stopped him. When he found that he didn’t have a driver’s license, the officer arrested him. At the time, in 2011, the local police and immigration agents started sharing information under a federal program called Secure Communities. When he was arrested for not having a license, Jhoana’s brother’s fingerprints were sent along to ICE, and he was swiftly slated for deportation. Jhoana went to visit him there, bringing along his young daughter, her niece.
JHOANA: My parents, my family, all put this pressure on me to go see him, and gosh, I hated it. Because you’re essentially seeing someone you love behind bars, and it was very sad. And the saddest time, I think, for me was when I had to take my niece because she, like any three-year-old, wanted to hug and touch her dad. But that wasn’t possible.
There was a certain point where I just wanted to give up school and start working. Start working because I wanted to help out as much as possible.
SARAH: But Jhoana stayed in school, and while her brother was in immigration detention in Tacoma, Washington, Jhoana graduated from high school. On the morning of her graduation, her brother called.
JHOANA: I remember I was putting on my necklace and my dress and my cap and gown, and he said to me how much he wanted to see me walk, [holding back tears] how much he wanted…to see me walk across the stage and receive my diploma. And unfortunately, he couldn’t see me do that. That really crushed me because I looked forward to this day. I admired my brother as much as he did to me. So it was really hard not having him in my graduation.
SARAH: Her family sold their car, and they borrowed money from friends to pay for an immigration attorney. They gathered affidavits and reference letters from teachers and friends. At the time, it seemed pretty hopeless.
JHOANA: There was a point where my family said, you know what? Let’s just let it be. So I fought. I was like, no, we can’t. We can’t let my brother be deported.
SARAH: But something worked. An immigration judge said Jhoana’s brother could be released on $5,000 bail. The family got the money together, and he was released.
Five years later, his fate is still being determined. He could still be deported or not.
JHOANA: But he still has an immigration case. He might be deported. So he’s still working to be here in the United States even though it’s been about five years now. So I’m worried about his situation. I’m worried about my situation. I’m worried about my parents’ situation. I’m worried about my uncles, my community essentially. I am definitely worried every single day, yeah.
SARAH: A few years ago, Jhoana applied to DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But she was denied, likely, she thinks, because of the legal issues around how she didn’t cross the border secretly when she was five; ICE technically let her in when she drove across the border with that woman. Whatever the reason, she’s in limbo, like the rest of her family, wondering what each day will bring.
JHOANA: When I got denied, it changed me because I was always a kid that would be waving the flag, that would be very proud to be in the United States. And I felt betrayed because I love this country. I wanted to be a part of this country. I definitely felt betrayed. And then, in some way, it created a fuel in me, and I started asking questions: Well, why is it that we have immigration? Why is it that my country doesn’t provide the essentials? It started to draw me into politics. So I essentially wanna become a social worker. It has made me stronger. It has made me more resilient as well. And I just need to continue to fight.
SARAH: These days, Jhoana is a college student and works for the campus multicultural center and helps run leadership camps for youth. While talking about her status is really scary, it helps her feel powerful, too.
JHOANA: I’ve noticed that we tend to hide our taboos. Everybody does, right? Everybody doesn’t wanna talk about the time they were maybe oppressed. I mean, nobody really wants to have those conversations. But I believe it’s time for us to speak up and time for us to heal and empower each other because that’s all we have right now.
SARAH: So here’s a question that I don’t have an answer to. What would an immigration system look like that supported families? That supported the kind of values Jhoana named, of resilience and hard work and being there for one another. What would that look like? Because it’s a long way from what we have.
In both these stories, in Paola’s and Jhoana’s, the rules of our immigration system seem arbitrarily enforced. Some people are deported; some aren’t. Some people wait years for a decision; some people are picked up and sent out of the country within weeks. Our presidents, both Obama and Trump, have emphasized over and over that immigration agents aim to go after “dangerous criminals,” but it’s clear that many people who are deported are at the center of their families, just trying a make a good life. To have these parents and children and siblings suddenly picked up and removed is liking ripping a pillar out from under a building. What will happen to our country if more and more people like Paola’s parents and Jhoana’s brother are suddenly taken away?