January 16, 2024
When their dad isn’t home, Walter and Carmen Escobar sometimes call out to him to see if he’ll answer. This week, he’s in Dallas for work, but he’s connected to a video system in the living room so he can see and hear his kids, 14 and 9.
The cameras are a remnant of Jose’s time in El Salvador after he was deported in 2017 when the family wanted him to feel like he was still there. They’ve kept the tradition alive now that he’s back in Houston but travels for his job as a roofing supervisor.
“I don’t ever want them to forget what we went through,” their mother, Rose Escobar, said.
The Escobars were among the hundreds of thousands of families who were torn apart by deportations during the Trump administration. Now, the Biden administration is considering bringing back many Trump-era immigration policies as concessions to Republicans in ongoing negotiations over border funding and aid to Ukraine. The proposed changes include speedier deportations, tighter asylum guidelines, and limits on offering immigrants parole. Some of these policy changes contributed to Jose’s deportation less than a month after Trump took office.
“It’s going to affect Houston families immensely, because we have a very high population of Houstonians who either live in mixed-status families or want to bring a family member over,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of immigrant rights organization FIEL Houston. “We think Congress is looking at this all wrong.”
Espinosa said Congress should focus on immigration reform that reunites families and creates more structured and organized legal pathways, none of which would be accomplished through the current changes being considered by lawmakers.
For Rose Escobar, it feels like deja vu.
“I thought we were done with this,” said Rose. “They’re playing with our families and our feelings.”
Separated through deportation
Jose and Rose met at school when they were 14. Jose had recently come from El Salvador to live with his mother, and they both had Temporary Protected Status, which was granted to Salvadorans after a 2001 earthquake.
But he lost that status within years because of a paperwork error. His mother thought she had applied for both to renew, but in fact, it was only her application that was received. Jose was issued an order of deportation in absentia at the age of 18.
Jose stayed in the U.S., living in the shadows. The couple got married and started a family. Walter was born in 2009.
Then, in 2011, Jose was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement outside the family’s home. Rose, who is a U.S. citizen, launched a nine-month campaign to release her husband and stop his deportation. She prevailed. Jose came home, under the conditions that he could not leave the state and had to check in regularly with ICE.
“I was like, ‘You know what, if that’s what has to happen for us to be together, I’m OK with that,’” Rose said.
The family carried on, and Carmen was born in 2014. Jose checked in with ICE every six months as required. They hired a lawyer to try to legalize his status, but were told he could only do that if he left the country first.
“There was no pathway. It was like we were stuck at a door and couldn’t move forward,” Rose said.
Then, in 2017, Jose was called into a meeting with ICE, even though he had just updated his paperwork. President Donald Trump had just taken office, moving swiftly to issue new guidance for immigration enforcement. That included the expansion of expedited removal, which allows for faster deportations without a hearing before a judge.
“Honey, this doesn’t feel right,” Rose told Jose when they got the notice.
Jose reassured her everything would be OK, and the couple arrived with Carmen at the ICE office as-scheduled after dropping off Walter at school. As Rose waited far longer than during past check-ins, she watched two other women break down as their husbands were taken into custody. At around 3 p.m., a handcuffed, crying Jose was taken away.
Rose had gotten Jose out once before, so she knew what she had to do. She immediately started mobilizing, speaking to immigration activists, local leaders, and the media. But this time was different. Within a few days, Jose called her from El Salvador. He had been deported to a country he hadn’t known since he was a kid. At that time, the Central American country still had one of the highest murder rates in the world, and deportees unfamiliar with the unwritten rules of gang warfare risked making a potentially deadly wrong move.
One time, Jose got lost on his way back to his aunt’s house, and was threatened by gang members who questioned why he stayed on the bus for so long. Another time, he was robbed at gunpoint for the new phone Rose sent to him to video call with her and the kids.
Back in Houston, Rose spent every free minute giving interviews, traveling to speak to politicians, and marching at rallies. Carmen became almost completely mute. She only spoke to her brother Walter. School bullies told Walter his dad would never come back. But he put on a strong face, crawling into the closet beside his mom to give her a hug when she went there to cry out of their sight.
“When you have all that stress on your back, it could drive you to get sick. You can’t function right,” Rose said. “Our main goal is to prepare our kids for a better future. That’s always the main goal, but when we have to grab our families and move, we’re not focusing on that.”
Return of Trump policies?
With border crossings hitting record numbers in December, the Biden administration is receiving more pressure from Republicans to implement hardline immigration policies.
Republican senators have demanded stricter asylum laws, expanding expedited removal, and limiting the president’s parole authority in exchange for approving the president’s request for border funding and aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. These negotiations are ongoing, so the exact policy changes are still unknown.
While some of the policies are aimed at the border and newly arrived immigrants, expanding expedited removal and limiting parole could have the biggest impact on families in Houston, home to an estimated half a million immigrants without legal status. Expedited removal could lead to many people like Jose deported quickly and separated from their families.
Amy Grenier, the policy and practice counsel for American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the speed of expedited removals raises concerns about its expansion.
“A person’s usually detained during that process and there’s no guaranteed access to counsel,” Grenier said.
Expanding the policy could also “compound the uncertainty that mixed status families already face daily and undermine trust in the government,” Grenier added.
During the Trump administration, many immigrants carried paperwork at all times proving that they had been in the country for years, even if they didn’t have legal status. With nation-wide expedited removal similar to the Trump administration’s policy, the burden would be on immigrants to prove to immigration enforcement that they were here legally or had been in the country without documents for at least two years, explained Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council.
“If that person couldn’t prove it, they could end up in a much more difficult situation and potentially facing deportation within a matter of days rather than months or years,” Reichlin-Melnick said.
Limiting the use of parole would also affect immigrants in Houston and other areas outside the border regions. The Biden administration has widely used this authority to encourage a more orderly immigration system, launching a parole program for migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua that has brought at least 200,000 people to the country. Parole can also be used in special circumstances, to allow a DACA-recipient to return to the country or reunite mixed status families, for example. Getting rid of parole would limit the ability of the Biden administration – or any future administration – to use parole in the future, even for the 1.3 million immigrants without legal status married to U.S. citizens.
“It would be a total betrayal to give up the president’s parole authority or bring back Trump-era deportation policies that push American mixed-status families, like the ones we represent, back into the shadows,” said Ashley DeAzevedo, president of American Families United, a volunteer-run organization led by U.S. citizens married to immigrants without legal status, at a December press conference.
Jorge Avila, a U.S. citizen living in Harlingen whose wife, Danielle, was deported to Mexico in 2021, opposes the limits to parole, a tool he sees as one of the few remedies to reunite his family. The couple, who have been together for 17 years, already tried to legalize Danielle’s status through their marriage before her deportation, but were told she could not get a green card without first leaving under a 10-year ban.
“We’re family just like everybody else,” said Avila, who is a member of American Families United. “We’re trying to have memories, to build a better future for our kids. Unfortunately, one of the spouses is not documented correctly.”
Not the same outcome
Jose Escobar got a phone call on Father’s Day of 2019 saying he had been approved to come back to the U.S., ending a two-and-a-half year saga pushing for his return.
Since then, the Escobar family has been able to settle into their new routine: having family movie nights and taking cross-country trips in their RV with no worry of being pulled over and asked for their documents.
Carmen is chatty again. Walter wants to be a lawyer. Jose is around to let Carmen win at UNO games and explain to Rose that Walter’s hoarse voice isn’t a cold, but just his voice changing. The biggest conflict in the Escobars’ marriage is whether to buy Carmen a phone for Christmas, not when they will see each other again.
In April 2023, Jose achieved his American Dream, finally becoming a U.S. citizen and giving the Escobars their happy ending. But Rose knows they are a rare exception.
“It’s not something we wish for anybody to go through, because honestly, it was the worst experience,” Rose said. “And not everybody’s gonna have the same outcome.”
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