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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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She was deported 15 years ago. This week, she reunited with her kids in Washington


SEATTLE — Brother and sister walked arm in arm to see their mother. Nervous, eyes welling with tears, Claudia and Kevin Loza seemed to be holding each other up.

It had been 15 years since their mom, Claudia Cifuentes Loza, was deported to Guatemala. Her daughter was 15, Kevin, 11. The siblings hadn’t seen her in person since.

Now, Cifuentes Loza was arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, finally allowed to return to the United States after receiving a green card. Her children and more than a dozen other loved ones reached the escalator where she would appear, and waited.

“That’s her!” someone called, and Kevin raced up the descending escalator. They descended together, embracing. Cifuentes Loza reached for her daughter, who had fallen trying to get up the escalator, and the three stood locked together for a long time.

The Wednesday airport scene reflected phenomena both common and rare. Cifuentes Loza was among almost 360,0000 people deported in fiscal year 2008 during a peak period for such removals, encompassing the end of George W. Bush’s presidency and the beginning of Barack Obama’s, according to data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Last fiscal year, the federal government deported roughly 72,2000 people.

Long family separations frequently occur as a result of deportation. Since 1996, the government has barred people from returning to the United States for 10 years if they live in the country without authorization for a year or more, as did Cifuentes Loza, who brought her kids and a younger brother across the border unlawfully in 1998. While she subsequently married a U.S. citizen, that didn’t prevent her deportation or the decadelong bar, as often happens.

What’s relatively unusual, however, is for people to find a legal way back to their families in the United States.

Sandy Restrepo, Cifuentes Loza’s lawyer and co-founder of the immigrant advocacy and legal organization Colectiva Legal del Pueblo, says she sees one or two family reunifications a year.

After the hugs, tears, presentation of flowers and balloons, and finally wide smiles among Cifuentes Loza’s family, the 50-year-old issued a plea at a small airport news conference: “Please stop separating families.”

Her younger brother Cesar Cifuentes Figueroa, who has remained in the United States since coming here with his sister when he was 13, added a message for families like his: “Don’t lose hope. Just keep fighting.”

That can pay off, as this family’s case shows. But broader policy questions remain unresolved. Repeated attempts at changing the immigration system, most recently pushed by President Joe Biden, have stalled. Enforcement measures like the 10-year-bar continue to generate debate.

“Nobody wants to see families separated,” said Ira Mehlman, a Seattle-based spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which promotes tough enforcement. But, he said, “These laws were put in place to deter people.”

So Congress members thought when they enacted multiyear bars for immigration transgressions, said Muzaffar Chishti, a Migration Policy Institute senior fellow. “They were not looking at the flip side of this.” Many people were undeterred, and “in the process, all these heartbreaks will happen.”

In fact, despite Cifuentes Loza’s joyous return, her family’s tangle with the immigration system is not yet over, in part because her eldest son was also deported and is still trying to come back.

“I guess I’m next”

Cifuentes Loza first set her sights on the United States after Hurricane Mitch swept through Guatemala, destroying her home. Her husband, helping with the rescue effort, disappeared. They had operated ice cream trucks together, her brother recalled.

She believed her husband was dead (though she later learned he was alive), Restrepo said. Bereft and looking for economic opportunity, she gathered her children — Edwin, 9, Claudia, 6, and Kevin, 2 — and headed north with her beloved teenage brother.

They took taxis and buses through Guatemala and Mexico, crossed a river into Texas (Cifuentes Loza remembers it as the Rio Grande, her brother as a stream), and walked in conditions so extreme that Cifuentes Figueroa said he and his sister thought they would die.

They made it onto a bus headed for Washington, where they had a relative, according to Cifuentes Figueroa. But a routine stop by immigration officials pulled them off the bus and into detention.

They were released for “humanitarian reasons to keep the family unit together,” a 1998 Department of Justice document noted — with the proviso that they return for a court hearing in El Paso, Texas, with a date “to be set.”

Cifuentes Loza, living in Washington, said she never heard a date. Her lawyer at the time, who later was disbarred in part for failure to communicate with clients, didn’t tell her, she and her current lawyer said. (The former lawyer could not be reached for comment.)

With the family failing to show up, a judge ordered Cifuentes Loza and the kids deported.

For years, the order sat in the system, unenforced. Cifuentes Loza settled in Shelton, worked in a lumber mill and remarried, to an American citizen who works in seafood processing.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement found her outside her home in 2008, talking to her husband while he worked on a car. Officers took her to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma (now the Northwest ICE Processing Center).

Her kids were at school. But a few days later, officers returned when Edwin and Claudia were home. Officers stopped Edwin, then an 18-year-old high school senior, as he left the house to pick up their younger brother from school. They took him to the detention center.

Claudia, seeing the officers outside, hid in a closet for hours.

“I guess I’m next,” she thought.

She and Kevin went to stay with extended relatives to avoid ICE, but in time returned to their stepdad. Their uncle, then a landscaper in his 20s, moved out on his own.

Cifuentes Loza spent nearly eight months in the detention center as she unsuccessfully fought to reopen the case resulting in the deportation order. In September 2008, she was flown to Guatemala.

Immigration authorities initially released Edwin with an ankle bracelet so that he could finish high school. Then, he too was deported.

Grieving someone who’s alive

When someone dies, family members grieve. Claudia said losing her mom to deportation was different.

“You’re still grieving your mom, but she’s alive.”

Meanwhile, the teen was trying to focus on school and becoming a surrogate mother for her 11-year-old brother. Her stepdad, she said, was preoccupied with fighting for his wife’s return.

While the separation took a toll on their marriage, Juan Loza often visited Cifuentes Loza in Guatemala. He was working during the airport reunification but planned to meet up with the family later.

As for Kevin, he said, “For every birthday, I pretty much always had one wish: just to be reunited with my mom.”

Cifuentes Loza, living in Guatemala City with Edwin, bought birthday cakes and blew out candles while on the phone with her children in the United States. When video calls became prevalent, they could finally see each other over screens.

But it wasn’t the same, Cifuentes Loza said, speaking Spanish while her kids interpreted in a video call on the eve of her flight to the United States. She wondered if she would ever hug them again.

The kids couldn’t visit because the outstanding deportation order applied to them, too, and they likely wouldn’t be allowed back in the United States.

Cifuentes Loza, who in Guatemala went back to school to become a cosmetologist while Edwin ultimately got a job as a tour guide, considered having her youngest two join her. But the children’s future, she concluded, was better in the United States.

In 2012, Obama launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, providing legal protection to many children who came to the United States as children. Claudia and Kevin qualified.

Claudia, now 30, works at a nonprofit as an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault victims. Kevin, 26, works as a landscaper with his uncle in what has become a family business. Cifuentes Figueroa, 38, married an American citizen and is applying for a green card.

Eventually, that path toward permanent residency also worked for Cifuentes Loza. After a decade passed, she was eligible to apply on the basis of her marriage. Then it took five more years for her application to work its way through the backlogged immigration system, slowed even further by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Edwin has applied for a green card, too, citing his stepdad’s citizenship. He has lower priority than a citizen’s spouse, Restrepo said, and is still waiting to be approved.

Claudia and Kevin also live with uncertainty because DACA does not confer permanent status, and conservatives have long tried to do away with the program. Claudia now has a daughter who’s 11, the same age Kevin was when their mom was deported.

“My biggest concern,” Claudia said, is “the same history, repeating all over again.”