She paused, then began to cry. “I hope to God it is true.”
Rosalda, a pizza cook who entered the United States illegally, doesn’t want to give her last name for fear of making her family’s immigration calamity worse. Her husband of five years, Arturo, was deported in January after being picked up in a sweep of undocumented workers.
It’s been hard all year, with most of the family’s meager income gone and wrenching “Where’s Papa?” questions from their two U.S.-born children, 3 and 2. But December is even worse.
“We will have Christmas on the phone with him,” said Rosalda. “I can get a card for 30 minutes.”
At a time when political momentum for significant immigration reform seems to be building, the holidays remain an especially difficult stretch for families caught up in the system’s fractured, grinding machinery. After record numbers of deportations in recent years, tens of thousands of families find themselves split at Christmas.
Immigrant aid groups say they brace for extra demands at this time of year, when the strains — and even the celebrations — of the holidays can amplify the financial and emotional stress of having a mother or father in exile.
“It’s a difficult time for them,” said Marianne O’Riley, director of the Herndon Community Resource Center. “We have one grandmother who is trying to take care of two kids, with both of their parents having been deported. They have so little — a lot of times they have to worry about putting food on the table before they can even think about presents.”
Last week, the center had an evening gift giveaway, with dozens of immigrant families stopping by after work to collect a few toys to wrap for their children. Most had provided wish lists to Reston Interfaith, the nonprofit group that operates the facility. The group then asked donors to supply the requested Lego sets and soccer balls and video games.
“He wants a skateboard, but I don’t really know if I want him to have one,” said Marta Portillo, who arrived at the storefront center in a Herndon strip mall with her son Jose, 12, and Alicia, 4. “His father used to buy all kinds of presents. Too many presents.”
But they haven’t seen her husband, an auto mechanic, since he left for work one Friday three months ago. He called from a county jail to say he’d been stopped for a traffic infraction, and authorities discovered he had an outstanding warrant for a missed court appointment from a 2007 immigration proceeding. Just over a month later, he was deported to Honduras.
Portillo had her father move in to help pay the bills and told the kids not to expect much for Christmas. They have a small tree but no lights. She’s taken extra shifts at the Reston hotel where she works as a maid. Sitting under posters extolling breast feeding and immunization at the community center, she rubbed hands that ache constantly from vacuuming up to 30 rooms a day.
“She works like eight days a week now,” said Jose, a peppy seventh-grader at Herndon Middle School.
A few minutes later, it was their turn to collect presents from a back room. The trio came out pushing a cart with a boxed plastic kitchen, which Alicia eyed with interest. Portillo carried a heavy bundle of other presents, not letting the children see.
“A skateboard,” she said quietly, shaking her head.
Deportation has been central to the Obama administration’s response to the immigration crisis. “Removals,” as the procedure is officially known, climbed from 291,000 in fiscal 2007 to 409,000 in 2012.
And a significant number of the deported left children behind, according to new data obtained through Freedom of Information requests by the liberal investigative news site Colorlines. In the past two years, more than 200,000 deportees reported having U.S.-born children, the site said.
U.S. officials say the majority of those deported have criminal records, have been repeat border jumpers or are fugitives from immigration procedures. The deportation strategy, supporters say, has allowed the administration to restore a measure of stability to a broken system while sparing the least-threatening of the undocumented.
“The who of who we are removing really shows our commitment to the security of our communities and maintaining the integrity of our immigration system,” said Gillian M. Christensen, deputy press secretary at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But the policy has stirred outrage among Latino lawmakers and advocacy groups, which say splitting so many families is inhumane and counterproductive.
“We have heads of household being deported and their spouse being left here to go on welfare,” said Cynthia Groomes Katz, a Bethesda immigration lawyer. “That does not help anybody. It’s been like catching a lot of dolphins in the tuna net.”
Katz, along with other advocates, sees some hope for a change.
In June, the administration began offering residency to certain immigrants brought here illegally as children. And Latino voters played a key role in Obama’s reelection last month, creating what many observers say are the best conditions for comprehensive immigration reform in years.
“We all expect comprehensive immigration reform this year, but we’ve been disappointed before,” said Jeanne Atkinson, head of immigration legal services for Catholic Charities D.C.
In 2011, ICE tweaked its guidelines to allow more discretion to prosecutors, and that shift may be showing up in hearing rooms.
“I think the new attitude is to look at more of these on a case-by-case basis; more of the removals are being set aside, for now at least,” Katz said. “We’re seeing few heartbreakers.”
That is small comfort to families already divided.
For Rosalda, the biggest fear now is that her kids could lose both their parents. She would flee with them — to the poverty of her husband’s Honduras or the poverty of her own Mexico, she doesn’t know which — if she felt endangered. Anything but leave them behind alone.
“It’s very frightening,” she said.
It’s been a long time since University of Maryland student Yves Gomez has spent Christmas with his parents, who were deported to Bangladesh and India three and four years ago. Gomez, 20, and his younger brother live with a great-aunt and great-uncle in Silver Spring. They were planning a Christmas conference call on Skype with their parents, who now work in Abu Dhabi.
“We have the tree, we have the presents, but it hurts not to have my parents here,” Gomez said.
At the Herndon center, O’Riley finds it easy to commiserate with women separated from their spouses. Her own fiance, Alexander Revera Aleman, was deported in 2011, three days before they were to be married.
“He was jaywalking on Herndon Boulevard,” she said. “I could have killed him.”
O’Riley, a fluent Spanish speaker who was born in California to a large Irish American family, traveled last December to the remote Honduran mountain town where Aleman lives with his elderly parents. They were married and spent their wedding night in the tiny house with 19 of his relatives. In the year since, they have talked nearly every morning by phone while she makes her morning coffee.
She’s hoping they can negotiate a legal visa for him within five years. But she knows it could be much longer.
“It’s hard not having him around for all the traditions my family has at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” O’Riley said. “That’s what you get married for, to have someone be part of your family.”
She has been saving for another trip to see him and will arrive this year with a box full of ornaments for the tree he has already bought for them. “Lots of Irish harps and angels,” she said. “At least we’ll be together.”
Which, she knows, isn’t the case for many other families.