At 43 years of age, Miranda Zamorategui thought she had everything. She had come to the U.S. from Mexico as a single mother of two. She worked hard and raised all of her children, who found their own success in this country. She was married and, after years of hard labor, the family found steady income doing construction work. They also found a pretty house in Tampa, Florida.
Until the ICE officers arrived.
They came through the doors of the house and handcuffed her in front of her husband, with her children crying in another room. Within minutes she was detained, and soon would be flown to a country she had not seen in almost two decades.
This was in 2007, and she is back in America now, at age 53. But her story is worth hearing. Donald Trump’s aggressive approach to immigration is already evident. In a span of seven days in February, for example, ICE issued 3,083 detainers throughout the United States, according to its most recent report, and the document says that “the number of issued detainers will increase over the next several reporting periods.” Most of those on the list have been accused—but not convicted—of crimes, and most of those crimes would have been tagged as low priority under the previous administration. The list was composed almost entirely of Latin American immigrants.
Miranda’s experience has pushed her to try to help others facing deportation. Using the internet, she assists other immigrants in navigating the U.S. immigration labyrinth. And at a time when the Latino community is in panic, her story resonates with many.
This is what happens when ICE knocks at your door.
Miranda Zamorategui story begins with the rumble of the earthquake that battered Mexico City in September, 1985, an 8.0 magnitude tremblor that left more than 5,000 people dead and caused around $4 billion in damages. The man who is now her husband, Jose Galvan, worked at Principado Hotel, which was destroyed. The economy was devastated, and the couple had to scramble. The U.S. seemed like a good shot.
My husband’s job crumbled with the building. That’s why we decided to cross the border in 1985, right around November. We stayed in Brownsville, Texas. We crossed the river. Back then you could cross like ‘Pedro por su casa’ (a Spanish folk phrase for entering a place as if it were your house). It was very easy to come.
She came to the U.S. with two sons, who had both been born in Mexico. Her family would eventually grow to seven children, with the eldest born in Mexico and the three youngest—two girls and a boy—born in the U.S. Miranda’s mother took care of the children in Mexico, while Miranda and her husband worked in the U.S. to support them.
In 1994, my mother died. I had to go back to Mexico with my boys. But there I learned that a brother-in-law had raped my young sister, and that she was pregnant as a result. He had tried the same thing with me when I was 14 years old. In my case, I defended myself.
While we were there he started looking for my sister, threatening her, me, and my children. I told my sister, ‘we have to get out of here.’
When I came back to Texas, my husband and I fought and I ended up in a shelter. There, I met a lawyer. She told me, ‘Do you have proof of the rape?’. We did. The federal police in Mexico had my sister’s reports. She told us to apply for asylum.
The border is an area that—because we Mexicans live there—jobs are complicated. In any other place, a person working in a house can charge $100 per week. At the bordering cities we do the same job for $50. People on this side are used to paying less for the same job.
Then I saw that a lot of people were going to Padre Island. It wasn’t far from us, like a 15-minute drive, so I told my husband, ‘How about we go to Padre Island and pick cans there? I know they pay good for cans.’ So that became our job for a while. My husband would get in the trash bins and I would collect the cans he found.
Because it was a tourist area, people would throw away whole pantries. Everything that they threw away, I picked up. We were almost living out of the waste.
Sometimes I’d take my boys with me, because it was a beach. My sons, who are adults now, they would run by the shore and we would stay a bit behind and pick the cans up. It’s been a little rough, but I’m not ashamed of saying it. As long as it is an honest way, you can fight and overcome.
In 2002 I had my last daughter. My husband told me we couldn’t keep going like that. We decided to move and went to Tampa, Florida. We lived in a hotel for a while and I had to send my bigger sons to Atlanta, where my brother was living. I stayed there with my three youngest and my niece.
I called my lawyer and asked her to let immigration and know about my change of address but I guess she never did. By then, my request for asylum had already been denied but I didn’t know a single thing. My lawyer never notified me. Immigration had given me an order of deportation. The paper said that I had to leave voluntarily and that I had 30 days to do that. That’s how I became a fugitive, without having the most remote idea. I even requested a work permit here, in Tampa, and they sent it.
My husband, on the other hand, had requested his Green Card in 2005 and became a legal resident on February 14 of that year. We got married and he requested me as a family member.
It was October 11th, 2007. My husband got up at 5 a.m. to go work… It was 5:30 a.m. and I remember my husband running to me, yelling, “Where are the children’s documents?”
It didn’t take long for me to find them. We had lived in fear of this day for decades. I perfectly knew where they were.
My husband ran to the door, with all our documents. As he was going out, ICE was coming in… He just closed the door behind him. He tried to protect us.
The officers screamed at me,
– ‘Open the door!,’ they said.
– ‘No, sir. Do you have some order against me?,’ I asked
– ‘Yes, M’am’
– ‘Can you show it to me through the window?’
I crumbled in that second. He placed the order against the glass and there it was, my full name.
My children were still asleep and I just ran to hug them. I told them, ‘They came for me.’
I opened the door and they came rushing through. There were three, maybe four officers. My children couldn’t stop crying—‘Where are you going, Ma? What is happening?’
The officers took me out and closed the door behind me, so that my children wouldn’t see. They handcuffed me right there, in front of my house.
I couldn’t get myself to stop crying. I remember one of the officers apologizing, ‘Sorry, sorry,’ she would say, ‘This is my job, I’m sorry.’
Once I got to the detention center in Tampa I realized I wasn’t alone. Two of my eldest sons were there. They had caught them before me. I guess you can imagine how I felt then…
As a mother, you can endure whatever for your children but in that second, I felt like it was all my fault. All I ever wanted was to do good by them and here we were.
Jonathan, my middle son, was 18 at the time. They hadn’t found him yet because he wasn’t there with the rest. ICE had already called him and told him that if he came in voluntarily, they would release me.
They tricked him. He was only a boy.
So he called his father and said, ‘Dad, take me to the detention center so that they can leave mom alone.’ He did that, out of love for me.
But then an ICE officer told my husband, ‘No. Neither him nor her are getting out of here.’ He was destroyed right then. He had trusted their word.
The next day my youngest children came to visit. Even years away from that day, they can still remember it in detail. Just imagine how it was: There was this thick glass separating us and the youngest of my girls jumped against it trying to touch me. She was three.
Miranda was taken to Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in Pompano Beach, Florida. BTC is owned by GEO group, the second largest private jail and correctional company in the U.S. Her sons were sent to Krome Service Processing and Detention Center, one of the Federal Bureau of Prisons medium-security facilities. Krome has a long-standing history of complaints of physical and sexual abuses, according to court documents and extensive documentation from non-profits.
Miranda was held there for five days, without knowing what would happen to her sons.
My day arrived then. A guard, she was tall and tanned. She walked up to me:
– ‘Are you Zamorategui?’
– ‘Yes, yes’
– ‘You go home’
– ‘Why? Why are you sending me home?’
But the guard wasn’t referring to her actual home. She meant Mexico.
I remember I started crying. I tried to beg for mercy and I tried to do it in English so she would understand.
‘Who’s ging to take care of my children? Please have mercy on me,’ I cried. She answered that they would be fine.
That day they took us to the Miami Airport. They let me call my husband. In all the years we’ve been together, never have I seen him crumble like that. Never. He couldn’t contain his tears, he was like a little boy.
We were three women on that plane, the rest was crowded by men. There were like 70 of them.
Finally we made it to the border, we were being sent to Reynosa, in Mexico. They just left us there, in the middle of nowhere. I remember crossing the bridge and feeling so weird and helpless…. I don’t know how to explain that feeling. I must have been crying in an awful way, that strangers walked up to me to calm down.
Miranda didn’t go far from Reynosa. She went to Laredo, a nearby city, as she waited for news about her sons. They made it back to her almost a month later. Then they all went to Mexico City. The family was torn apart: her three eldest boys were now in Mexico City; her two girls and youngest son in Tampa, with her husband. The situation was untenable.
My husband got up so early in the morning to go to work and he did shifts that lasted so many hours. He couldn’t take care of our three little kids. So after a while, he sent them to me.
It was so hard for them. Isabel, my eldest daughter, had it worst. Sometimes I’d find her in a clutched in a corner, crying. Emotionally, she was the most affected.
My husband would visit once or twice a year. In one of those visits, he offered to take Isabel with him, back to the U.S. Her eyes were glowing, as if life had come back to her. In that moment I understood that she couldn’t be happy with me. I was keeping her away from her home.
I felt terrible. I always wanted a daughter and she was my first one, but it was too obvious that I couldn’t make her happy, so I sent her back with her father. There were very tough circumstances for me.
Two months later, my fourth son was deported. My family had been torn into pieces: My two eldest children went to Canada when they found a job offer, one of the boys stayed in Mexico with his wife. I had to send my 18-year-old boy to stay with his uncles, in another city, and now my daughter was leaving with her dad. I stayed taking care of my two youngest children.
We were apart for seven years and eight months.
In these years the computer boom came to Mexico. My eldest sons, who were in Canada, sent me a used Mac computer. I started joining online groups and chats about migration. I would ask questions and investigate and learn. These chats were in English and I didn’t understand anything, until I got myself a translation dictionary and started to understand better. I bought a little printer and set up like my own small office in my room.
One day I got robbed. A man took my wedding ring. That hurt me a lot. It was a breaking point, I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I called my husband and told him that this couldn’t go on. More than six years had gone by since he had filed the I-130 (called “Petition for Alien Relative” by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—it is a legal form for citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. to establish the relationship to a non-citizen relative, who wishes to immigrate to the United States). And we still had no answer.
Miranda and her husband met all of the requirements to bring her to the U.S. as an Alien Relative except for one: the Affidavit of Support—a document that an individual signs to accept financial responsibility for another person who is coming to the United States to live permanently. It required a certain level of finances.
My husband didn’t make enough money. It wasn’t only me he had to sponsor, but also our two children. We felt that we were never going back because we would never have enough to meet that requisite.
Months went by and, one day I got a call from my husband. ‘You have a sponsor! You have a sponsor!’ he told me. I broke into tears. He did too.
Jose, Miranda’s husband, had gone to her religious congregation and they agreed to sponsor, not only Miranda, but her children too. The next step was to write and submit their waivers, but her lawyers wanted to charge $9,000 to do that. Another roadblock.
It was impossible for us to gather that amount of money. But I wasn’t going to let down. This was my life and the life of my family.
I decided to make a list of the things I needed for those waivers, what I thought I’d need for them. I asked my husband to bring every imaginable document, from medical visits to light bills, everything. I began to study how this things work. What I didn’t understand, I translated until I did. I wrote letters in English, in Spanish too. I became skilled.
I lost hope sometimes. In the forums and chats people would tell me, ‘Ah but my lawyer did my documents for me. I don’t think they’ll take your documents like that if you’re doing it yourself.’
It took me about a year go gather everything. So that you have an idea, my waiver weighed two pounds. And I did three of those.
In October 2014 I finally sent all the documents.
Seven months went by. It was May 28. I was sitting on the computer with my youngest daughter.
I checked the website. It said: ‘Your case was approved.’
I just broke into tears. I cried so much that I worried my youngest daughter,
– ‘What’s going on Ma? What’s wrong?’, she asked.
– ‘We are going back,’ I replied.
– ‘Is this real?’ —she couldn’t believe what I was telling her.
– ‘Yes, my love. Look!’
We hugged. I will never forget that hug.
I don’t want anyone to live through what I had to live. This scars you. Even today, my family is struggling with the aftermath. My children were so affected by all of this experience. At the end of the day, it does get to you. It really does. Living in separation breaks anyone apart.
On June 16, 2015 my youngest daughter and I got on a plane. She had never gotten on one and asked for the window seat. I remember that, as we took off, she said, ‘Mom, this seems like a dream.’
We were flying over Dallas.