These Lives Matter: Families belong together at the holidays

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I recently prepared a collection of documents to be filed with the immigration court in support of one of our cases. Among the documents were pictures of our client with his family, including one of him with his three children and Santa Claus, and one in which they are all decked out with New Year’s hats and noise makers. Looking at the pictures, I thought, “C’mon, how could anybody deport this guy? They’re so cute!”

That client was one of the lucky ones. Although he was subject to mandatory custody and had to be detained away from his kids for several months while fighting his case, he was able to prevail in court and will be spending this Christmas and New Year’s with his three young children and his mother who considers him her best friend.

The holiday season means different things for people from different backgrounds. People celebrate depending on their religious or cultural background. However, it seems like one thing everyone can agree on is that this season is about family. It is a time to spend with family, to appreciate family, and to give of yourself for your family. They’re not perfect, they may drive you crazy sometimes, but on a fundamental level, across cultures and traditions, we all recognize the importance of family in our lives and in our society.

Working with detained immigrants has increased my appreciation for my own family many times over. Every holiday, every visit, even every phone call I am ever more aware of how fortunate I am that my family is not under attack. I worry about my family like anyone does, but I do not have to worry that ICE agents will be knocking on their door at four in the morning and handcuffing them while they’re still bleary and half asleep. I don’t have to worry about them sitting in dirty detention centers with inadequate food and health care. I may wish I had a few more dollars to buy them presents, but I don’t have to worry about spending $25 just to talk to them for 20 minutes. I don’t have to take out pay day loans to try to bond them out of custody. I don’t fall behind on my bills because a member of my household is detained.

Of course these are concerns that many people, who otherwise are not all that different from me, are dealing with this holiday season. Someone they love is caught in the detention and deportation machine. There are a lot of kids whose dads or moms won’t be there to take pictures with Santa or ring in the new year. It’s the kind of trauma and separation and loss that doesn’t just affect one season of their lives but will impact their entire lives.

Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year. Normally every Tuesday at least one deportation flight leaves Chicago filled with fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. As Christmas is a federal holiday, the flight next week will probably take place on Monday or Wednesday, but there is no doubt that it will take place. If no one you love is going to be on it I hope you’ll take an extra moment to be grateful.

Elizabeth Kalmbach is the detention and due process coordinator for Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, where she organizes Know Your Rights visits and provides legal consultations to immigrants detained at six county jails in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Kentucky.