Every night that the girls get home from soccer practice, do homework and eat dinner may be the last time they get to do this with their mom.
They all know this.
So every moment this week is being savored and remembered. They take extra walks together. Catia Paz's husband cooks all of her favorite dinners. And she always agrees to read one more story to her daughters, 6 and 8, at bedtime.
The worst part? None of this has to happen.
Paz, 32, is facing a separation of at least 10 years from her husband and children because of political whim. And if you've recently supported the crackdown on immigration, please read on to see what that looks like in this small living room in Northern Virginia.
Paz has until Friday to self-deport.
Not because she committed a crime.
She's a high school graduate (3.1 GPA) and an active church member. She's worked at the same Nordstrom for the past 11 years. She's on the snack rotation of her daughter's soccer team. She could be any suburban mom.
But because she was 17 when she escaped her war-torn home town in El Salvador — not the cutoff age of 16 — even a miracle deal on the "dreamers," those covered by the controversial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, wouldn't help her.
The rest of her sprawling extended family — all 65 of them — have legal status.
"I know they want the bad hombres out," Paz said, sitting in the living room of the tiny home in Woodbridge, Va., she and her husband bought last year. "I want them out, too. But I'm not one of them."
She knows the arguments, hears the hatred. People saying they support immigration but only legal immigration.
"For their families, when they came, there weren't all these papers. It wasn't so hard," she said. "It is all different now."
Paz crossed the border illegally 15 years ago to escape the violence in El Salvador and join her parents, who were already in the United States. The immigration system learned about her presence in the country when her father applied for permanent residence under an act welcoming refugees from Central American violence. Instead, the parents got temporary protective status. Her sister got DACA protection because she was 16 when she came, but Catia got nothing; she'd arrived too late to qualify.
In 2011, an immigration judge ordered her removed from the country. She fought to remain, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement granted her multiple stays from 2012 to 2015, an agency spokeswoman said.
She was enrolled in ICE's alternatives-to-detention program, but in September, when she checked in, she was given an ankle monitor and a deadline — self-deport by Oct. 13.
If she leaves, she can't return for 10 years. So that means if her daughters, Genesis and Alison, stayed they would be 18 and 16 before they could see their mother again in the country of their birth.
Paz could just stay and hope something will work out, that the tide of popular opinion will turn, that a last-minute appeal by her lawyer will come through, that lawmakers, who are nearly all descendants of immigrants, will belatedly recognize what they are doing to families such as hers.
"But then, I'd always be scared," she said. "They could grab me and deport me anytime. I don't want my kids to see that. And if I stayed, I would be a criminal."
"I'm not a criminal," she said. "I want to keep a clean record."
One of Paz's friends in a similar situation decided to stay. She simply couldn't leave her small children, so she stayed past her self-deportation date, hoping to go undetected.
"But a police officer pulled her over one day. She was taking her kids to school," Paz said. "He said her back light wasn't working."
The woman was sent to a detention facility in another state, then immediately deported. She didn't get to say goodbye to her kids.
"She finally had the kids sent to her," Paz said. "But that's not good, either. They are American citizens who now can't even go to a good school."
So that's her dilemma. Does she hunker down and try to eke out as many days with her kids as possible, knowing she can be arrested and deported any minute?
Does she take them with her to a war-torn town, costing them the education and opportunities they'd have in their own country, in exchange for a childhood with their mother?
Or should she just keep her clean record, kiss her husband and kids goodbye and get on a plane Friday?
This is what she and her husband, German, talk about every night, after the girls are in bed.
He works construction, and he can get off early and pick them up every day after school, he offers. He already does the cooking, so that part won't be hard. But, but. It's all so hard.
Does any of this sound like our country to you?
I left their home the other day sad, but mostly furious. How can we tear apart good families like this one?
Catia Paz is not alone. There are 4 million parents like her who would have had a temporary, three-year reprieve with President Barack Obama's 2014 Deferred Action for Parents of Americans executive order.
"Felons, not families," Obama said, explaining who would be deported and protected under his order. "Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids."
But no. It was challenged at the Supreme Court, and, in June, the Trump administration rescinded the executive order.
Now Paz must decide: Be a mother or a criminal? And we must decide: Who are we?
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