This article is from the February 2017 issue of The Lookout newspaper. The Lookout is a social justice street newspaper published by the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center. It is available throughout Chattanooga from distributors who are, who have been or who are at risk of experiencing homelessness. A suggested donation of $1 per copy stays with the distributor. You can also pick up a copy at the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center, 1918 Union Ave., Chattanooga TN 37404, or you can get a year’s subscription to the monthly newspaper for $24 by emailing email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Mario’s full name, the full names of his family members and the town in which he lives are not published here in order to protect his identity. Mario and his family fear retaliation given their current situation should authorities learn that they are telling their story.
By Beth Foster, Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center Director
On Wednesday, Jan. 25, President Donald Trump ordered the immediate construction of a wall on the Mexican border and efforts to find and deport undocumented immigrants.
That evening, 500 miles from Washington D.C., in a small east Tennessee town, a server left the restaurant where, for years, he has worked 12-hour days, six days a week.
Police harassment and racist taunts are not new to Mario, an undocumented Mexican immigrant. He’d been arrested four years ago and spent three months in the county jail before being transferred to an immigration facility. After his transfer, his family had 24 hours to raise $10,000 to secure his release and avoid his deportation. They managed to raise the money and since that time, they’ve poured themselves and their resources into finding a way that Mario could legally remain in the U.S.
They’d been preparing themselves for how things might get worse once the Trump regime, with its anti-immigrant policies, took office. While they thought they’d braced themselves for whatever might come, they were still shocked when Mario was arrested just hours after the order was given.
He was stopped on his way home from work.
He wasn’t charged with any other crime, not even a traffic violation. He was arrested for nothing more than driving without a license.
For the next 16 hours, his mother-in-law, his wife, his 1-year-old daughter and his 3-year-old son waited outside the courthouse for his release. One of the women would stay in the car with the children, trying to keep cell phones charged, while the other was inside trying to find out information about Mario.
Finally, just after noon on Jan. 26, Mario had his moment in front of a judge.
“The judge was very kind to him,” Laura, Mario’s mother-in-law said. Because Mario’s family had begun the process of trying to get his documentation, the judge agreed to release him. At the jail, following his court appearance, the family was told he would have to post $1,000 bail to be released.
His wife immediately went to a bondsmen, but that quickly turned into a dead end, Laura said, when the bondsman said, “We don’t work with illegals.”
His wife eventually raised the $1,000, but by that time the judge had once again intervened on Mario’s behalf and told the jail that he’d already made a court appearance and they were to release him without bail.
“It was confusing,” Laura said. “It’s like there are disagreements within the system on how to handle undocumented people.”
Finally, 24 hours after leaving his job on the day that President Trump issued those orders, Mario was home with his family. While they can’t prove the order was directly the cause of Mario’s arrest, the family points out that Mario had been making that drive home from work for years without incident. The local police knew who he was and that he was undocumented.
“The attorney pretty much said that at any time, without just cause, undocumented people can be targeted for papers,” Laura said. “Most local law enforcement will not waste their time harassing them but all you need is one with an ax to grind. It is the legal protection to profile to the highest degree … These new laws are going to be written in a way to continue with justified federal backing of racist harassment.”
It isn’t just the police. They’d seen things go from bad to worse in their small town even before the election. As the anti-immigrant rhetoric heated up during the campaign, people felt emboldened to be outwardly racist in new ways, Laura said.
A server who relies on tips for much of his pay, Mario has brought home less and less money from his job. He would even have people say things like, “Why would someone tip? Trump is going to be sending you back home for free soon.”
“It is just sad.” Laura said. “My son-in-law is a good man. He doesn’t drink. He works ungodly long hours.”
That night, when he was finally back home with his family, Laura heard Mario say words that broke her heart. “He said, ‘I hate being Mexican. I hate that I am Mexican. I hate that being Mexican hurts my family.’”
Mario and his wife met with his attorney a few days after he was released from jail. His wife, a U.S. military veteran and citizen, and his children, both U.S. citizens, are preparing to flee their country so that they can keep their family together. They are preparing to go to Mexico if that’s the only option left for their husband and father.
“He’s trying one last thing,” Laura said of the attorney. “There’s no real hope … He told them times are uncertain and to expect anything and to do all they can to be safe … The only law my son-in-law broke is being considered by law enforcement, and parts of society, not to be a man but an ‘illegal.’”