By Miguel De La Torre
We often say our immigration system is broken, but seldom do we contemplate how our immigration system is breaking lives.
Sandra Lopez is just one life to be crushed under the immigration grinding mill. She came to this country when she was less than a month old. Her mother married an American and began to create a new home in Tucson for her daughter.
Sandra flourished in school, excelling in her studies and graduating from Amphitheater High School as an honor student. Barely speaking Spanish, Sandra was a typical American teenager until she wanted to attend Pima Community College. Lacking a Social Security card meant she would be unable to achieve her dream of studying medical science. Instead, at 19, she took a menial job at a local meat market.
On Sept. 1, 2010, a friend asked her to mail a package for him. He was late to work and just needed a Good Samaritan to help him out. Sandra did this friend a favor, going to the local Fed Ex store. Paying the cost with the $100 her friend gave her, she received $14.59 in change and went on her way.
Upon leaving the shop she was stopped and arrested because in the package, unbeknownst to her, was 3.4 pounds of marijuana. Charged with a Class 3 felony (possession of marijuana for sale) she plea bargained to secure the proceeds of an offense ($14.59) and was sentenced to time already served in jail.
During her trial, the judge asked her if either of her parents were American citizens. Assuming he meant biological parents, she responded no. The judge said she had no relief and told her to sign a form (which she didn’t understand) that authorized her deportation.
That night, she, like so many vulnerable women, was deported to a dangerous border town after all the social service aid offices were closed. Sandra found herself in Mexico with about $30 in her pocket. If she had known to say that her stepfather is a U.S. citizen, she would not have been deported and her nightmare could have been avoided.
On March 9, 2011, Sandra arrived in Nogales, Sonora, with limited Spanish skills and knowing no one. Sandra was deported to a country she never visited. Immediately, some women offered her food and shelter in exchange for prostituting herself. “Mija, we will help you survive and get back across the border,” they promised.
She approached a police officer to ask directions to the local humanitarian aid station, but instead the officer attempted to take advantage of her in exchange for his protection. She wandered the streets staying close to the border, as if that infernal wall which snakes across the landscape could provide some sense of security. Still, it was the closest she could get to home. At nights she slept in empty cargo cars by the train tracks close to the wall.
One night, she decided to use her precious cash to pay for a room at a flea-bag hotel. That night she noticed through her window some mafioso pulling up to the hotel with girls younger than herself; some seemed to be preadolescent. All appeared to be drugged by the way they staggered. Through the thin walls she could hear these girls scream for help as they were being abused. She barely slept that night, fearful the men would break down the door to come for her.
The next day she left penniless to again wander the streets. A week had gone by and this frightened teenager was growing desperate. It was then that a tall strange man accosted her with a knife, grabbing her from behind. She broke loose and ran for her life. She ran toward home, as fast as she could, up the vehicle lanes of the DeConcini Port of Entry screaming for help, seeking asylum.
Instead she was charged with a felony for illegal re-entry after a deportation, violating the protocols established for asylum seekers. Since her arrest in 2011, Sandra has spent almost three years at Eloy Detention Center fighting her immigration case and, in a sense, fighting for her life.
The flower of her youth spent behind bars due to a broken immigration system, she endured constant humiliations, strip and cavity searches and being constantly taunted by guards who called her names.
The irony is that due to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, none of this needed to occur, if not for the felony of illegal re-entry. The other conviction which would also have prevented her eligibility was reduced this past October to a misdemeanor.
But she didn’t illegally re-enter the U.S. She was seeking asylum. She was released on a $6,000 bail about a month ago. Her case is pending, but there is a real possibility that she could again be deported.
I sat down with Sandra to discuss her ordeal, cognizant that my own daughter — whose father at one time was also undocumented — is the same age as Sandra. Sandra recounted the story of a fellow inmate who after a month at Eloy couldn’t take it anymore and hanged herself.
I asked Sandra what kept her going. Her face lit up as she began to tell me how three years of constant prayers provided the serenity and the presence of God to endure constant degradations.
No young person who grew up in this country, whose parents paid taxes — regardless of their faith tradition or lack thereof — should undergo what Sandra has suffered. Unfortunately, Sandra is but one story among thousands of lives being broken by our immigration policies.
But recognizing that this is a Christian news service and that Sandra is our sister in Christ, I have to ask — what is your response to your sister’s plight? She is Jesus, in the here and now, knocking at our door asking to be let in. Only those who let him/her in, as per Rev. 3:21, will get to sit on the throne of victory.
No question Sandra has paid a heavy price, but woe to those of us who continue to ignore the greatest human-rights violation that is occurring today in this country, on our southern borders.