College Student Tells Congress About Her Parents' Deportation: "It Took Away my Childhood"

March 12, 2019 — On the morning of May 2, 2017, Pamela Quintana found out her mother would be deported to Mexico, where her father had been deported seven years earlier. That afternoon, she had biology and calculus finals at Michigan State University.

Pamela shared her heart-wrenching story of family separation, the injustices of the American immigration system, and incredible perseverance at two Congressional briefings on Capitol Hill this February. Co-sponsored by the Jesuit Conference’s Office of Justice and Ecology, the Kino Border Initiative and the Center for Migration Studies, the briefings updated Congress on the findings the three organizations made in their 2018 study on immigration enforcement and removal: “Communities in Crisis: Interior Removals and Their Human Consequences.”

Pamela’s testimony was a clarion call to our elected leaders: We must act for comprehensive, family-centered immigration reform because the status quo is tearing our communities apart. Her family had been active members at the Jesuit-run St. Mary Student Parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before her mother’s deportation. We share the story she shared with Congress in full, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Pamela Quintana shared her story of family separation at two Congressional briefings on Capitol Hill last month.

“My mother knew if she worked hard, she could obtain the future she always dreamed about.”

My name is Pamela Quintana, and I am currently a junior at Michigan State University. My father first came to the United States in 1985, and he worked in the fields in California. My mother followed him to the U.S. in 1997. My mother came with a tourist visa to visit my father, but after seeing how different life was here, she knew if she worked hard, she could obtain the future she always dreamed about.

Growing up, my parents implanted in me and my younger siblings the morals and ethics they grew up with. My parents came from very poor backgrounds where resources were scarce, and education was limited. They made it loud and clear that my siblings and I were fortunate to be given the opportunity to grow up in a country where anything is possible through honest, hard work. My parents were able to purchase the home of their dreams in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although it’s a very small house, it’s more than they could’ve ever imagined owning.

My father was a construction worker, and my mom dedicated her time to making sure her children’s needs were met. My mom made sure our days were filled with extracurriculars. She never missed a single practice, recital or parent teacher conference. Her broken English never stopped her from volunteering in our classrooms and at games.

“They would let my mother go in exchange for the deportation of my father.”

In 2010, my mom got detained in front of me outside of our home on my way to school. I remember the day so vividly — not just because it was the first time I saw my mother cry, but because it was the moment I felt fear for the first time. As I walked back into my house, I saw my father squatting down near the window with tears rolling down his face. That was very last time my parents would see each other.

Confused and scared, my father still took me to school. With a million questions running through my head, the same thought came popping up: What would I tell my siblings? At just 12 years old, I had taken on the responsibility of caring for my two younger siblings while my father went to work. In a blink of an eye, my whole childhood was ripped away from me.

My mother remained detained, and after two months passed, our lawyer at the time had come to an agreement with immigration. They would let my mother go in exchange for the deportation of my father.

Standing at the door of my parents’ bedroom, I saw my father struggle to fit as much clothes as he could into a small duffle bag. Crying, he said to me, “Keep fighting for the future your mom and I worked so hard for you to have.” He kissed us goodbye, and that was the last time we saw our father.

“My mom’s annual check-ins with ICE became bi-weekly check-ins.”

For the next seven years, my mom had annual check-ins with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. My mom worked day and night to barely make ends meet. She would clean houses in the day and restaurants at night, waking up at 5 a.m. and not coming home until midnight. The only way she could pay the lawyer was by cleaning their house. Even then, my mom not once complained. At night, my siblings and I would go to work with her and help her as much as we could. Whether it was sweeping the restaurant floor or taking out the trash, we cherished every minute we could spend with her.

Despite her busy work schedule, she made sure that she was still involved with us at school. If you were to go to my elementary, middle, or high school and asked about a woman named Lourdes Salazar, staff would immediately know who you’re referring to.

Pamela Quintana (second from right) with (from left) her sister, mother and brother before her mother was deported.

During the second semester of my freshman year at MSU, my mom’s annual check-ins with ICE became bi-weekly check-ins. While my peers worried about midterms, I had other concerns in mind — what would happen if my mother were to be deported at one of her check-ins? What would I do all the way from Lansing? What would happen to my younger siblings? These questions led me to miss class every time she had a check-in so I could be at home with my younger siblings preparing for the worst.

“In the morning, we found out my mom would be deported. In the afternoon, I had biology and calculus finals.”

On May 2, 2017, two big things happened. My mom had a check in with ICE that morning, where we found out her stay of removal was denied and she would be deported by the end of the summer. The other thing was I had two finals that same day: biology and calculus.

On August 1, 2017, my mom was deported back to Mexico, taking my two younger siblings with her. I left for Mexico with them, and after two weeks of all of us finally being reunited with my father, I came back to the U.S.

While my friends prepared to go back to school, I was busy emptying our home back in Ann Arbor — throwing away and donating all of our belongings, since I could not afford the expenses of sending our furniture to Mexico. As my sophomore year began, I was busy juggling schoolwork with work and, on top of that, looking for someone to rent my house back in Ann Arbor. The second semester became unbearable. I was miserable. Thoughts of dropping out and leaving to Mexico with my family kept crossing my mind. Not because I couldn’t handle being alone, but because the financial burden and responsibilities became too much for me to handle.

“How could I just walk away from all the sacrifices they made to get me here in the first place?”

However, I thought to myself, why would I throw all of this way? Everything my parents had worked so hard for had already been thrown in the trash when I emptied out our home. How could I just walk away from all the sacrifices they made to get me here in the first place? I was determined, and still am, to carry on my parents’ dreams of pursuing an education and being able to live a better life — a life they would have never been able to offer me in Mexico.

From left: Caitlin-Marie Ward (Office of Justice and Ecology); Ted Penton, SJ (Office of Justice and Ecology); Joanna Williams (Kino Border Initiative); Pamela Quintana; Elizabeth Vincent (Office of Justice and Ecology); and Donald M. Kerwin, Jr. (Center for Migration Studies).

Today, my parents live in a city in Mexico. My father works in construction and my mother sells pastries making enough to barely get by every week. Both my younger siblings spent the first year in Mexico. It was hard for both considering the fact that their Spanish isn’t the best. Although they had the support of their classmates, the adjustments were too much for them, leading my sister to have severe panic attacks throughout the day. Just this summer my younger sister made the decision to leave my parents behind and come back to the U.S. to continue her education.

“Now both parents will miss the moment I complete one of their dreams: walking the stage to receive my diploma.”

Deportation has stripped many opportunities away from me. It took away my childhood, took away the memories I was supposed to share with both my parents, took away the chance of my father watching me cross the stage at my high school graduation, and now both parents will miss the moment I complete one of their dreams: walking the stage to receive my diploma.

My parents are honest, hardworking people. They paid taxes, were outstanding parents and were active members of the community. They were in no shape or form threats to this country.

“What would you do if the place you were born lacked essential resources?”

I conclude my story by asking you all to put yourself in the shoes of an immigrant. What would you do if the place you were born lacked essential resources? If there was no future there? Do you really believe people are leaving behind their families — risking their lives crossing rivers and deserts knowing very well that there is a huge possibility of them not making it to the other side — to cause harm? These people are coming over because they have no other choice, because the possibility of death is better than staying where they are.

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