Immigration activist turns attention to children hurt by family separation with a new book

Jul 11, 2022, 4:45 AM

PHOENIX — Ángeles Maldonado knows very well how it feels to live in fear of being separated from her parents.

She was a teenager when her dad, who was undocumented, was picked up during an immigration raid at the auto shop where he worked near downtown Phoenix. He was taken to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office a few miles away.

“I just remember waiting long, long hours at the facility,” she said. “Just waiting and waiting to see what was going to happen and being really afraid that he wasn’t going to come back.”

Her mom, usually a reserved person, refused to leave and insisted that he be released. It was the first time Maldonado saw her mom that way.

“She told them we weren’t leaving without my dad,” Maldonado recalled. “She was so strong and heartbroken all at once.”

Maldonado felt her biggest fear was unfolding before her eyes. She did not want her dad ripped away from her family and deported after years of hard work in the U.S.

The same fear haunts many children of immigrant families, including the main character in a children’s book Maldonado wrote, titled ”¿Dónde Está Papi?” or “Where is Daddy?”

Set to be released Aug. 20, the book tells the real-life story of a young girl from Phoenix named Akemi whose dad is also undocumented and detained.

While Maldonado feels grateful that her dad was ultimately released, Akemi didn’t have the same fate. Her dad was deported to Mexico when she was 7 years old.

Maldonado met Akemi in 2018. Then 8 years old, she started participating in protests, pleading to be reunited with her dad and denouncing immigration policies that separate families like hers.

“I was moved by her experience and wanted to find a book or resource to help her, and other children I have seen in tears, process the situation they’re going through,” Maldonado said.

Not seeing many books that did that, she decided to write her own.

“¿Dónde Está Papi?” recounts Akemi’s experience. It includes the day her dad missed her eighth birthday, the car rides to visit him in jail and her desire to “break down the wall with a giant stick like a piñata” so she could be with her dad again.

The book was also heavily influenced by conversations that Maldonado, now a mother of two boys, had in Arizona from 2017 through 2019 with more than two dozen children between the ages of 5 and 9. All were from mixed-status families and some had a family member deported.

“When I was doing these interviews, I was trying to understand the impact of the immigration enforcement practices that were happening in Arizona and how that affected children,” Maldonado said.

A Children’s Rights Issue

Maldonado knew these practices all too well. She had been involved as an activist in the immigrant rights movement for more than a decade. She spent years opposing former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for his immigration enforcement that targeted Latinos.

Maricopa County’s jails were – and continue to be – top destinations nationally where local law enforcement works with ICE to identify people facing criminal charges who may be undocumented. It’s something that Maldonado continues to speak out against.

When Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, those Arizona practices were amplified.

Things looked grim for immigrants as the possibility of Congress passing a comprehensive immigration reform that would lead to the legalization of millions of undocumented people came to a halt. Instead, President Trump instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy that separated families at the border.

Maldonado’s activism at that time led her to participate in several civil disobedience actions. In 2017 she was arrested in Phoenix for blocking an ICE van that was transporting a mother who was being deported.

Two years later, she and 15 others were arrested outside the Phoenix ICE office. They were protesting the mistreatment of migrants, including children, housed in ICE detention centers.

As she interviewed children for her book, Maldonado said it was beautiful to see that they “knew that there was this injustice that was happening and these laws were fundamentally immoral and wrong.”

“I wanted to expose that and provide an outlet to have these conversations with children and instill that sense of pride for who they are,” she added.

One of the children Maldonado interviewed was a young girl whose dad was in jail because, as she put it, “He did something bad.” But she wasn’t sure what it was and felt uneasy talking about it.

“I could feel how it was hurtful to her,” Maldonado said. “Once she felt that it was safe, she started saying that she did think it was unfair.”

Some of the other children confided they felt resentment toward their parents for bringing them to the U.S.

Maldonado said she shared a similar feeling as a child. She was 8 years old when her parents brought her and her two sisters from Mexico. They came to Arizona seeking work and better education opportunities.

“Growing up, it became really clear early on that we didn’t really belong in a way,” she said. “I saw my dad struggle with language. I saw the way that people would treat him or look at him differently.”

“He would attempt to say certain things in English and people would make faces or be like, ‘What, what?’” she continued. “I felt embarrassed. I was like, ‘Why are we even here?’”

Maldonado said she was “ashamed” of who she was and “angry” at her parents for uprooting her.

In school, she didn’t talk about her family’s situation. She tried to be well-behaved and mostly avoided speaking up, even when other kids made derogatory comments about Mexicans.

Maldonado said her parents would tell her: “Your job is to do good in school so that you never have to go through the things that we went through.”

But things changed when she graduated from college. She started getting involved in the immigrant rights movement.

“I no longer wanted to be like the good girl or the good child,” she said. “I wanted to speak up and name things for what they were.”

Maldonado also began researching and writing about immigration, race and resistance. She went on to earn a PhD in education and wrote her dissertation on the immigrant rights movement in Arizona during a time when workplace raids, deportations and protests were rampant.

Maldonado explained that, through her activism and research, she has learned to view immigration as “a children’s rights issue because when they’re attacking immigrant parents, they’re actually also attacking the safety of children and their right to their parents – their right to have that safety and protection.”

In addition to her academic writing, she is the CEO of a law firm in Phoenix that focuses on serving Spanish speaking communities in the areas of criminal, immigration and personal injury law.

She is also the founder and executive director of The Border Crit Institute through which she studies and writes about migration, policing, rhetoric and resistance.

The non-profit research and educational institute also promotes Border Crit Theory, which is a new academic discipline and theoretical framework Maldonado proposes to conduct research in the borderlands.

A Journey of Reconnection

Edward Dennis was new to the immigrant rights movement when Maldonado asked if he could provide illustrations for “¿Dónde Está Papi?”

Dennis said he felt a sense of “imposter syndrome” after reading Maldonado’s manuscript. Not only was it different from the work he was used to doing, but he wasn’t as connected to his Mexican roots as Maldonado.

“Should I be doing this? Am I allowed to?” he questioned himself.

A third-generation American, Dennis grew up in Maryvale in the 1980s and 90s. It was Phoenix’s first suburb. Over the years, the Latino population there grew.

But when high crime rates started plaguing the tight-knit community, Dennis’ family decided to move.

“The violence got pretty bad there,” he said. “I think at that time it was ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country. We got out of there just because my parents feared for our safety.”

The family moved to a nearly all white neighborhood in Peoria. Dennis started fourth grade at his new school. He said he remembers there were “absolutely no colored kids at my school, so it was pretty scary.”

“It didn’t feel good to be at a new school where you don’t look like anyone there and you don’t see anyone that looks like you – no teachers, no staff,” he said. “I think the only person that actually did look like me was the janitor. He would say hi to me.”

From the way he talked, to the food he ate, Dennis started changing as a way to fit in.

“I didn’t know that stuff was happening to me, especially when it comes to speaking Spanish,” he said. “I exclusively spoke Spanish to my grandparents. Coming into fifth grade, I couldn’t speak Spanish at all.”

That carried on to adulthood. But when Maldonado came to him and asked if he could illustrate her manuscript, he saw it as an opportunity to reconnect with his roots.

He started researching his great grandparents who came to the U.S. from Mexico in the early 1910s. It not only helped him come up with the images for “¿Dónde Está Papi?”, it also inspired him to write and illustrate his own book, “The Boy from Mexico.”

This book is based on the true story of one of his great grandfathers and his journey to cross the border into the U.S. from Mexico as a 14-year-old boy.

“It’s a journey of self-discovery for the character and it turned out to be one for me too,” Dennis said. “I was finding out that the more I researched my own family, the more I learned about people in my own family.”

With both books, Dennis said it was a challenge to come up with age-appropriate images that “don’t water down the words.” He explained it’s easy to see how images of jails and families separated could be distressing for children.

“We don’t want to scare children – we want to educate them,” he said. “But we also want them to feel emotion and from that emotion make a decision. Is this right? Is this wrong?”

Dennis added he hopes the books will serve as the “first line of dialogue on how to talk to your children about immigration.”

Maldonado has similar desires for her book. She wants it to be a resource that facilitates discussions between parents and children about immigration, deportations and the pain being inflicted by family separations.

“I hope that it is a resource for children – that they’re able to see that they’re not alone in this situation,” she added. “Also, it’s an opportunity to have more of these conversations so that we are aware of what’s happening, and we can do something about it.”

“¿Dónde Está Papi?” costs $30 and is available for purchase online. Part of the proceeds will go toward Akemi’s college education.

This story was originally published by palabra.

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Immigration activist turns attention to children hurt by family separation with a new book