Against the odds, Enedis Flores is holding it all together.
After her husband, Ramon, was deported to Mexico three years ago, Enedis and six of their children moved from their stable middle-class life in Vancouver down to Chula Vista, Calif. — just over the border from Tijuana, where Ramon now lives and works.
It’s been a rocky road. The family is surviving, but it hasn’t been easy. It still isn’t easy.
Speaking through a translator, Enedis addressed more than 100 people who came to “Bridging the Border,” a forum hosted by The Columbian on Thursday evening at the Vancouver Community Library. The event shared a name with a December series of stories published by The Columbian that followed the Flores family as they sought to reconcile their new reality: a family split apart, with lives lived on opposite sides of the border.
“I started college, and I am looking for a job right now. I pay for the rent only with the help that I get from my older daughter, who is also in college,” Enedis told the crowded room in Spanish. Luz Gonzalez, one of the panelists who participated in the forum, translated.
“I hope in the future to be able to have a stable job and to finish school and seek assistance so my husband can get a waiver so he can return to the U.S. with the rest of the family,” Enedis continued, as tears welled up. “All of this has caused a lot of damage to my children. They used to be happy children, and all of this has affected us a lot.”
Thursday evening’s forum included remarks from Enedis, as well as a presentation from Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and a four-person panel of local experts on immigration issues.
It also included a screening of a short documentary produced by Columbian Assistant Metro Editor Jessica Prokop and Photo Editor Amanda Cowan, who traveled to the border to spend a week with the Floreses over Thanksgiving. The intensive reporting was made possible through grant funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Arrested in a motel sting
The Columbian first learned about the Flores family three years ago, after a routine business trip for Ramon’s grocery business ended in his detainment and deportation.
Ramon, who had lived in Vancouver with his family since 2009 and in the U.S. undocumented for more than 20 years, checked into a Motel 6 in Everett. The motel then gave his name, included on a list of all current guests, to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
He was detained on Valentine’s Day in 2017 and deported to Mexico the following September. Ramon left behind a wife and seven children, all legal U.S. citizens, who have since been working to rebuild their lives after losing their father and primary breadwinner.
As Ferguson told the crowd Thursday evening, his office would come to learn over the course of a lengthy investigation that Ramon was picked up via a practice that violated state privacy laws.
The motel would provide ICE with a full list of the guests, agents would single out Latino-sounding names and run them through a database, and anyone suspected of living in the country illegally was detained.
“They’d go up to the counter, and they’d say, ‘Hey, looking for the guest list tonight,’ ” Ferguson said. “No warrant, no probable cause, no nothing.”
In all, approximately 80,000 names were illicitly provided to ICE agents at six Motel 6 locations in Washington through this practice. At least three people have been deported as a result, Ferguson said — likely more, he added — and 4,400 people so far have said they’ve experienced some harm as a result of the disclosure.
“This case really pissed me off,” Ferguson said, drawing laughter and some applause from the room. “Part of my job is not to have emotions drive how we handle a case. That said … there is nothing wrong, I think, to feel outrage about a corporate process like that.”
Motel 6 eventually settled two lawsuits for $22 million. The suit brought by Ferguson’s office settled for $12 million.
Families like the Floreses have yet to see any of the settlement money. The process of divvying up the settlement money will likely start some point after July, Ferguson said.
Hearing from local experts
Thursday’s forum also included a panel of local experts on immigration, with Vancouver immigration lawyer Mercedes Riggs, Clark County Latino Youth Conference founder Diana Avalos-Leos, former National Youth President of LULAC Lindsey Luis, and Gonzalez, head of the Latino Community Resource Group.
They spoke of their experiences as immigrants or first- and second-generation Americans. Riggs, who knows the minutiae of immigration law, spoke to some of the false ideas an average citizen might have about immigrating to the U.S. It’s an enormously complicated, lengthy process, Riggs said, often with strenuous residency and sponsorship requirements. It takes years.
“I think some people have this misconception that you can just march on down to the U.S. immigration office,” Riggs said.
Avalos-Leos said that she’d worked with the Flores family when the kids were enrolled in Vancouver Public Schools.
“It broke my heart to pieces when I heard that this situation happened to them,” Avalos-Leos said.
To read The Columbian’s full series on the Flores family, visit projects.columbian.com/2019/12/22/a-family-divided/. A GoFundMe for the Floreses can be found at gofundme.com/f/1uqg473lc0.