The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I can’t take that place.’ An Arizona family struggles with a mother’s deportation.

Jacqueline Rayos-Garcia, 14, and Angel Rayos-Garcia, 16, sit with their father in their home on Feb. 15, in Meza, Ariz. (Conor E. Ralph/For The Washington Post)

The house was nearly silent as the father stood in the empty kitchen, pulling apart pieces of store-bought rotisserie chicken. He would have to learn to cook at some point, but not tonight. It was hard enough mustering the energy to get through the meetings with activists, the phone calls with lawyers, the restless nights.

For his first time making dinner for his kids since his wife, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, was deported, this would have to do.

“Do chicken tortas sound all right?” he called out to his children, Jacqueline Rayos-Garcia, 14, and Angel Rayos-Garcia, 16, who lounged in their bedrooms, working on homework they had missed in the past whirlwind of a week.

On Feb. 8, their mother checked in for a routine appointment with immigration officials in the Phoenix area. Authorities had known she was undocumented since 2008, when she was arrested for using a fake Social Security number for work. Every year for eight years, she checked in with officials, and each time they released her back to her life here. But during this visit, three weeks ago, she wasn’t allowed to leave.

The following day, the 35-year-old mother was deported to Mexico, a country she hadn’t known in the two decades since she left at age 14 and moved to the United States with her parents. Her two U.S.-born children joined her in a shelter across the southern border in Nogales, spending their last few days with her before she traveled south to start a new life with her relatives in Guanajuato, 1,200 miles south of the Arizona border but seemingly a world away.

For years, immigration authorities gave this Arizona mother a pass. Now she has been deported.

For years, the uneven enforcement of U.S. immigration policy was a frustration to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and to many citizens who believe in the simple principle that those who break the law should be punished. But the deportation policy that President Trump has put in place ended countless local accommodations made for people such as Garcia de Rayos, small exceptions meant to ensure that those living in the country productively, if illegally, could remain with families of citizens. The new reality has created a lack of predictability as new enforcement waves have led to deportations like hers.

Federal agents conduct immigration enforcement raids in at least six states

Her kids returned to their Phoenix home, but it suddenly felt different, empty. People like their mother apparently weren’t welcome here. As a country reevaluated its position on undocumented immigrants, they would have to reevaluate a life without the one who mattered most to them.

Their father — who allowed himself to be photographed but asked not to be identified by name because he, too, fears being deported — looked to his right at the dinner table, where his wife, “Lupita,” would usually sit, sharing a glass of Coca-Cola with him.

Her lunchbox sat on the kitchen counter where she left it after returning from her custodial job two days before she was detained. The Christmas tree stood in the corner, adorned with a snowflake ornament Angel made in the second grade, “Mom” scribbled on one side. Hanging next to it was a three-foot painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Finishing her chicken sandwich, Jacqueline, an aspiring doctor with braces and long brown hair, extended her arm and rested her head on it as she peered out the window longingly.

Her mom would usually come back from her cleaning job at about 4 p.m., ringing the doorbell over and over to alert the family — and their white poodle, Daisy — that she was home. She would head to the kitchen, and soon the smell of cooking oil and the sound of pots and pans and Christian music would fill the family’s one-story, three-bedroom home.

And at night, she would go to each of their bedrooms and give them the blessing that always made them feel safe: the sign of the cross and a kiss on the cheek.

“Is everything okay at school?” the father asked at the dinner table. When their mother’s not around, they speak English.

“I get distracted sometimes,” Angel said. “Sometimes I start writing and I write down the wrong words.”

“You need to focus,” his father said. “You know, they offered counselors to help.”

“We’ll see how it goes,” Angel said.

‘Go pack a bag’

The morning after Garcia de Rayos was detained, her husband and children were in the middle of a television interview in their living room when the phone rang. They had been left in limbo, unsure whether she had been deported or was being held in an Arizona detention center.

Given the chance to make a phone call that morning, Garcia de Rayos realized she had just one number memorized — her in-laws’ landline, the phone number she would always call when she and her husband were dating. The husband’s mother called him to relay the message, and he told the rest of the family in the living room: Lupita was in Mexico.

Still in front of the cameras, Jacqueline tried to keep it together. Her eyes began to fill with tears, but she kept them in. As soon as the cameras pulled away, her dad turned to her and said, “When we’re done with the interview, go pack a bag to take to your mother.”

Jacqueline had never had to pack for a trip, except for brief family road trips to Disneyland and the Grand Canyon when they were younger. No one in their family had ever been on an airplane, and Jacqueline dreamed of the day they would take a vacation to Mexico together.

She went to the garage to look for the family’s lone suitcase. Opening it, she saw a collection of her mother’s things — balloons, games, pens and other prizes she gave to children when she volunteered at church carnivals.

Surrounded by boxes of childhood Barbie dolls and clothes, Jacqueline finally had a moment alone. It all came pouring out. She quickly wiped her tear-streaked face, not wanting the reporters in the living room to see her cry.

She stepped into her parents’ bedroom and packed the essentials: her mother’s clothes, a rosary, a Bible. And two photographs — Garcia de Rayos with the children, with their dad.

‘Lose people in the process’

When former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio lost his bid for a seventh term in November, Arizona immigrant rights advocates thought the state would finally see a turnaround for undocumented immigrants. Arpaio’s department became well known over a decade for workplace raids and such policies as the hotly contested law commonly called SB 1070, which required police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there was “reasonable suspicion” that they were in the country illegally. One of the raids swept up Garcia de Rayos in 2008.

Out went Arpaio on the same Election Day that Trump came in; many immigrant rights activists in Arizona refer to the new president as “Arpaio in the White House.” With the recent immigration raids in major cities, and Trump’s immigration executive order prioritizing all undocumented immigrants with criminal records, immigrant communities across the country are fearful.

“There’s a high level of anxiety,” said Francisca Porchas, organizing director for Puente Arizona, a rights advocacy group in Phoenix. “It’s re-traumatizing for a county that has experienced a Trump-like regime for 10 years.”

Puente’s weekly meetings for undocumented community members have doubled in attendance in recent weeks, and the group has been inundated with calls. Many undocumented immigrants who make regular check-ins with immigration authorities have been asking Puente staff if they should skip their appointments, largely because of what happened to Garcia de Rayos. Puente does not encourage them to skip their meetings but notes the risks.

“The sad part about it is we’re going to find out how it works but lose people in the process,” said Puente family coordinator Natally Cruz.

Garcia de Rayos’s family attended a class at Puente’s offices two weeks ago. About 50 families gathered to learn what steps they would have to follow if ICE agents came knocking on their door. Garcia de Rayos’s deportation had them worried that their families would be similarly separated.

Should undocumented parents be instructing their young children about what to do if ICE shows up at their home? Yes, parents should tell them to stay silent, a woman told the crowd. Should they be worried about immigration officials detaining their older children, even if they are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals? “I feel like they’ll take them too!” the woman shouted.

Outside, after the meeting, a smaller group huddled in a circle under the dim lights, quietly discussing what they had all read in the news that day.

“The situation is getting serious,” one said.

Garcia de Rayos’s husband knew the answers to all the questions the families asked. He’d been through this twice: the week before, when the van drove away with his wife inside, but also in 2008, after Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies raided Garcia de Rayos‘s workplace, Golfland Sunsplash. They later arrested her and other employees on charges of suspicion of identity theft and using forged documents to obtain employment. She pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal impersonation, a low-level felony, and was jailed for six months.

Under the Obama administration, authorities prioritized the deportation of people who were violent offenders or had ties to criminal gangs. Garcia de Rayos, a nonviolent offender, was never deported, though her case remained active. Trump’s executive order on Jan. 25 expanded the nation’s immigration enforcement priorities to include any undocumented immigrants who had been convicted of a criminal offense. ICE officials have said that Garcia de Rayos was detained based on a Justice Department removal order that became final in May 2013, finding that she had no legal basis to stay in the country.

Supporters of Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration have pointed at her felony conviction as a legitimate reason to deport her. Some conservative writers have claimed that immigrant rights advocates have used her public removal — and the protests surrounding it — to make the mother a political ­martyr.

But to her husband and children, Garcia de Rayos is no criminal. She made up her Social Security number to help provide for her kids, her husband says, a choice that many undocumented immigrants resort to across the country. She had been fighting to have the conviction overturned, alleging that the original raids were unconstitutional.

“Does it hurt for us to be separated?” her husband said in Spanish at a weekly church prayer service. “Of course it hurts. We’re destroyed inside. . . . Sometimes God’s plans are different than ours.”

His faith makes him certain his wife will someday be able to come back. He believes they just have to wait.

He thinks about what the next few years of high school will be like for the teenagers, without a mother in the house. He worries most about Jacqueline, barely on the cusp of womanhood, a time in her life when she most needs the advice of a mother.

“I can’t fill that hole,” he said. “I can’t take that place.”

Her mother had been planning a quinceañera — a traditional Mexican celebration for a girl’s 15th birthday and coming of age — and had already booked a banquet hall for the party, set for October.

Garcia de Rayos was especially excited to make the party happen because she never had one herself. Mother and daughter picked out the colors of the tablecloths and knew exactly the dress she would buy: A pink, puffy ball gown with a sequined top.

“We were going to go get it measured,” Jacqueline said. “But we never had the chance to.”

Jacqueline doesn’t want to have the party anymore: “That’s the least of my concerns.”

Her mother feels sadness, mostly at night, when she thinks of the dinners she’s missing with her family. But she also wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“I don’t regret it. I always showed up for my appointment,” she said by telephone from Mexico, noting that going to meet with immigration officials was the right thing to do, even if it had consequences. She wasn’t trying to slip away or skirt responsibility. “I knew they could have arrested me. But this was as much for me as it was for everyone else.”