Father's Day Far Away From Dad

Jun 13, 2013

As Father’s Day approaches, many kids are making plans to spend special time with their dads. But some Connecticut young people will be far away from their fathers.  A surge in deportations under the Obama administration has affected tens of thousands of American kids. WNPR brings you the story of a Norwalk teenager whose dad was removed to Colombia two years ago.

"It all started when I was in 8th grade. I was 13 years old. We were in New York and my dad got a phone call from a neighbor saying that a police officer was looking for him."

Gabriela Espinosa describes the day her father was picked up by Immigrations Customs and Enforcement. 

"When he got back there they said, 'Its not us. Its immigration that’s looking for you'."  

So began a journey for Gabriela and her family, as her father spent months in detention, was released for a time, and was then eventually deported to Colombia. 

"I remember it was like 7:00 in the morning. I was getting ready to catch my bus to school. It was really hard saying goodbye to him and then going off to school like nothing was going on. I felt for the past six years I've been wearing this mask with a big smile on my face, but in reality I’m just so sad inside. I miss my father. He’s my best friend."

The now-19 year old Gabriela will be a sophomore at Eastern Connecticut State University.

She’s one of the tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen- kids across the country who have lost a parent to deportation.

Speaking by phone from Manazales, Colombia,  Gabriela’s dad, Alex Espinosa, says that he first came into the US after his father died in the late 1980s. 

"1989, I was  like18, 19 year old.  I was like a teenager. I got detained in Texas by immigration. But they release me."

He was released under a government program, known at the time as "catch and release" where detainees were told to get out of the country by immigration control. Espinosa says he never understood this order, and that lawyers working on his case made mistakes. 

He moved to Norwalk, Connecticut where he became a cabinet maker. He worked for the same company for 18 years, married, had two children, bought a house, paid taxes.

And with no criminal record, and immigration rules shifting so often in the 80s and 90s, he assumed that his legal status would one day be resolved.

"I find a good job and was I so happy because I have my family. We tried so hard to educate my kids. We tried so hard to keep my family together."

David Dickson is an investment banker in Greenwich, Connecticut  who has helped the Espinosa family find better legal help.

"The phrase illegal immigrant I always thought meant you set a hard and fast rule: if they’re illegal then they ought to live up to their responsibilities and if they can be made legal, that’s fine.  If they’re not, there are a lot of good citizens that are legal. Then I come into what’s happened to this family and I look at it totally differently."

Dickson says he’d expected government officials to examine the particular facts in the case and make decisions accordingly.

"But what surprised me is that our government wasn’t willing to bend in the face of what seemed to be obvious solutions. And two, the devastating impact that the decisions have had on a close knit family."

In a report to Congress last year, the Department of Homeland Security estimated that more than 46,000 parents of US born children were deported during the first half of 2011.  Right now, researchers in Texas, California and Mexico are studying the effects of deportation on U.S. born citizen-children of undocumented immigrants. 

Some families move abroad to stay together, but Alex Espinosa says he will not move his family to Colombia.  

"No never.  Its very dangerous over here. Its very dangerous. In two years, I got robbed here a few times. This is not a  place for us to live here."

In Connecticut, Gabriela says she’s been forced to grow up fast.

"While my friends were, you know, on myspace editing their pictures, I was on the computer paying a mortgage, learning how to balance a checkbook. And I really felt like my childhood was rushed."

Since her dad’s removal, Gabriela says he’s missed some of the most important years of her life.

"My prom, my graduation, me going off to college. And it really breaks my heart that my dad is going to miss all those years for my brother as well."

She says she thinks about other teenagers raised in families split up by deportation.

"How they don’t give us a chance. And you know that’s why we come to this country. To have a chance.  But if we’re being denied this chance, then where do we go?"

Had he been able to stay in the US, her father would have qualified for the path to citizenship under the bill currently being debated in Congress. But because he was removed, Alex Espinosa is required to stay out of the US for at least ten years. 

Daughter Gabriela says as politicians in Washington debate the future of immigration reform, she hopes they’ll consider the plight of young people growing up in families separated by deportation.

For WNPR, I’m Diane Orson.