There’s nothing special about the Arma family. They’re like countless other American households, with parents working hard to raise their kids right in a blue-collar sunbelt immigrant community in Phoenix. And sadly, when immigration agents came to take away the Guatemalan-born father of three, Edi; when his 11 year-old son tried to defend his father and was pushed away, and watched his dad whisked away to detention in what might have been their last seconds together–there was nothing unusual about that, either. It’s happened hundreds of thousands of times in just the last few years. The epidemic of family separation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been a pillar of President Obama’s immigration policy, proudly presided over by the very same politicians who are now crafting a “reform” plan that purportedly aims to fix the broken system and “secure the border.”
On the cusp of what might a long-awaited break in the impasse on Capitol Hill on immigration legislation, Edi’s story remains tragically typical, and no matter what Congress decides, there’s a good chance it will be repeated again and again in the name of the endless mantra of “security.” But with a little bit of good fortune and the hard work of a national network of activists, the Arma family became the exception. They were rescued by a groundswell of protests and petitions, online and in the streets, and a few days ago, Edi Arma returned home to his family, safe, at least for now.
It’s a perverse testament to the upside-down world that our immigration system has created: it’s actually a small miracle for Edi’s family to stay intact, instead of falling into the monstrous statistic of households arbitrarily ripped apart by a government obsessed with “security.”
In an interview with Democracy Now!, Edi recalled his time in detention as his case was stuck in limbo and community members frantically rushed to stop his deportation proceedings:
The communication isn’t easy, so I wasn’t able to constantly talk to my family. I didn’t know what was going on. I wasn’t able to let them know what was going on in there with me. I rarely communicated with them. It was hard. But the most frustrating thing was the fact that I wasn’t able to be with my kids and thinking and having that thought of possibly never having—never being able to see my children again. I think that was the hardest thing. But thanks to all the movement and the organizations and the activists that were out there who helped me without knowing me, I’m here now.
Photographer Diane Ovalle has chronicled the campaign to keep the family together, away from the bluster of immigration politics and Senate floor speeches.
In the coming weeks, lawmakers and the President will engage in a carefully choreographed political waltz to assemble a reform package that is palatable to the Washington “stakeholders.” The business lobbyists, the law-and-order conservatives, unions, mainstream reform advocates, and civil libertarians will all bargain at the policy-making table, and the nascent reform plan will likely be another flaccid compromise–laden with hard-line enforcement tactics; various schemes to skim “talented” skilled immigrant workers and promising students; perhaps establishing a guest worker program to keep cheap labor flowing into farms, factories and other grueling job sectors; and some convoluted “path” to legalization for a filtered-down group of undocumented immigrants.
Most of the Beltway arguments over immigration reform will deal with the economic “benefits” versus the “costs” of regularizing immigration status for millions of undocumented workers. Some will address panic over porous borders by demanding further militarization of the already-garrisoned dividing line between the U.S. and Mexico. Others will express unabashedly racist fears about “assimilation,” the “browning” of the American landscape, and the social implications of the nation’s demographic destiny.
None of that matters to the Armas. They’re asking for something that is far simpler than any of the reform proposals, and yet absurdly hard to attain: the security of staying together and knowing they won’t be forced apart again.
Next time you hear a politician talk about “security,” don’t think about borders. Think about Edi.
All images copyright 2013 Diane Ovalle, an Arizona-based freelance photographer and community organizer.