The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 29, 2016

A better alternative to deportation raids

January 29, 2016

Rosa Vargas and her three children immigrated to the United States in 2014 to escape violence in Guatemala. They moved in with her brother, who has temporary legal status, and Rosa got a work permit and a job cleaning homes. A few weeks ago, as reported by the Washington Post, Rosa and her kids were detained by federal agents in a 4 a.m. raid on their Atlanta home.

Of the many stories of undocumented families targeted by recent deportation raids, Rosa’s story stood out to me because she reminds me of Pilar, a woman I interviewed in 2013 in a study on transnational families for Swarthmore College.

Pilar immigrated 14 years ago without papers and found under-the-table employment as a live-in caretaker for a family with young children. Pilar received one day off each week but she feared leaving her employer’s house because she might run into the police.

“I remember that in the bus stations, I was afraid of the police,” she said. “I would see the police and hide behind the bus. …They were looking for undocumented people to send back to their countries.”

Her work schedule and her fear of leaving the house kept her isolated, with extremely limited social connections. When her employers mistreated her, she had no avenue to report the abuse. She said:

They had me work from 7:30 in the morning practically until 9 or 9:30 at night, without a break. The law here, for domestic workers, calls for two hours of break in the afternoon. I didn’t have it, perhaps because I never opened my mouth to say, “I have a right.” And more than anything, because the boss my sister worked for said, “I am going to turn you into the police because you are illegal. I am going to turn you in and they’ll take you away.” So perhaps because of fear, we stayed quiet and did what they said. Of course, the immigrant, with the fear that they will report you, can’t do anything.

Today, Pilar is no longer undocumented. She rents an apartment with her sister and brother-in-law, her niece, her husband, and her new baby. With the support of her latest employer, she received her GED, completed nursing training, and now works as a nursing assistant. She’s fully involved in her community, where she attends church, watches her husband play volleyball in the park on Sundays, and goes to her niece’s parent-teacher meetings at the public school.  

What is the difference between Pilar and Rosa? Pilar lives in Spain and could take advantage of the country’s 2005 regularization program, which granted amnesty to more than 570,000 undocumented immigrants, whereas families like Rosa’s cannot dream of such options here in the United States.

Pilar received her papers in 2005 and became a citizen in 2010. Her legal status lets her visit her family in Ecuador and still return to Spain to work, maintaining her relationships with friends and family. Her legal status also offers her additional protections against labor abuses, like the kind she experienced while undocumented.

When I read about the families targeted by ICE in the recent raids, I think of the stark differences between them and Pilar. I think of how Pilar’s child will not face the same challenges as mixed-status families like Rosa’s. But I also think about the resulting effects on the countries receiving immigrants. Pilar’s story highlights the possibilities that open up with education and training and how naturalization can pay off for receiving countries. Her contributions to her community speak to the importance of integration for promoting immigrant mobility.

An agent from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency keeps watch at the side of a house while other agents from ICE are inside in search of a suspect during a sweep to capture illegal aliens with a criminal record in the Boston area, Tuesday, June 13, 2006, in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

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