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Barred: Local families grapple with the effects of losing a family member to deportation 

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It's been a little more than a year since Susan Valerio left her friends, a job as a medical assistant, and her boyfriend behind in San Diego to take over as the head of the household after her mother, Neofita Valerio-Silva, was deported in January 2018.

Her father, Carlos Bernal, was deported the year before Neofita. For more than a decade, Susan's parents had continually notified the ICE office of their presence in the country, renewing temporary work permits over and over again. In both cases, Immigration and Customs Enforcement simply notified them one day that they didn't have a lawful reason to stay in the country.

With both her parents gone, Susan, 24, stepped up to continue providing a home for her siblings—her now 18-year-old sister, Grecia Valerio, and 21-year-old brother, Johnny Valerio—in Grover Beach.

Susan told New Times that it hasn't been an easy transition for her, but she doesn't have a lot of time to dwell on her emotions.

"I can't stop and just fall apart; I have to work. I knew that from the beginning, because when I was in San Diego and everything was happening, I was having all these emotions about my mom and my dad, but I couldn't really feel that completely. I had to focus on what I needed to do," Susan said.

Right now, she's coping with her parents' absence and dealing with the responsibilities left behind. She feels that there aren't many people who understand what she's going through.

The immigration discussion became an even hotter topic when President Donald Trump took office in 2016 with a campaign promise of enforcing immigration laws to protect American communities and American jobs. In 2017, the Trump administration enacted a travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries. In 2018, nearly 2,000 immigrant children were separated from their families due to not crossing at a legal port of entry. In 2019, the administration suggested a policy of busing illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities.

Trump tweeted on April 13 that Democrats must change the immigration laws fast: "If not, sanctuary cities must immediately act to take care of the illegal immigrants—and this includes gang members, drug dealers, human traffickers, and criminals of all shapes, sizes, and kinds. Change the laws now," the tweet stated.

Locally, Latinos with legal status and those who are undocumented are feeling the effects of the broader discussion and the stigma of being seen as an immigrant.

click to enlarge REUNITED (from left to right, Grecia, Neofita, Carlos, and Susan) Ten months after Susan Valerio's mother was deported, the community helped her and her siblings board a plane to visit their parents in Mexico, Susan said. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN VALERIO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Susan Valerio
  • REUNITED (from left to right, Grecia, Neofita, Carlos, and Susan) Ten months after Susan Valerio's mother was deported, the community helped her and her siblings board a plane to visit their parents in Mexico, Susan said.

Families such as the Valerios aren't the only ones dealing with the consequences of having a deported family member. There are other families dealing with the trauma of being separated and assuming the roles that the deported have left behind. In order to support the families left behind, agencies and community groups are working to get them the right information and resources to get through.

Picking up the pieces

When Susan's mother, Neofita, was detained and deported to Mexico, neither her husband nor her children got to see her during that process. Six months after Neofita was left in Tijuana, Mexico, she boarded a plane to Alcapulco, Mexico, with a ticket Susan purchased. Susan said her mom wanted them to visit her—but she was more desperate to figure out how she could get back to the United States, to her home in Grover Beach.

"It was kind of like I had this pressure from her that I had to figure it out and I had to get her back," Susan said. "Not in a mean way—it's just that she really didn't want to be there, which I understand it was really hard for her to not be here."

Susan hasn't been entirely alone in this. Her siblings go to school and have part-time jobs. Grecia and Johnny help out from time to time with groceries, but they need the majority of their income to make their own ends meet.

When Susan left San Diego, she resigned from her medical assistant position in order to move. Since then, Susan has successfully secured a medical assistant position on the Central Coast. With that income, she's tasked with taking care of the utility bills, the mortgage on her parents' house, and any other necessities that she and her siblings might need.

She doesn't mind the work. Susan said going to work every day is her escape from thinking about her family's situation because she's able to focus on the patients and their needs.

"I've always dealt with depression and anxiety, but I just feel like lately it's gotten harder and harder to deal with. The stress from work I can handle, but the stress from my family and having to deal with all that, that's through the roof sometimes," she said.

In October 2018, with financial help from family friends, Susan and her siblings went to Mexico to visit their parents. Neofita and Carlos are currently living in an apartment 30 minutes from the Juan N. Alvarez International Airport in Acapulco. Carlos is working to support himself and Neofita. Susan said her mom hasn't found a job yet because it's difficult to find a job in Mexico and Neofita is still holding onto the idea that Susan will figure out a way to get her back.

During their trip to Mexico, the family visited with each other, saw their extended family, and checked out the neighborhood. Susan said her mom looks the same, aside from a little weight loss. Her dad, on the other hand, looks like he's aged and lost a lot of weight.

"I feel like when he was [in Grover Beach] he got to work and then do things he liked, and now, he's just working and surviving out there," Susan said.

In January 2018, Susan filed an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative—a form that helps a relative immigrate to the United States. A couple of weeks after her trip to Mexico, she received an approval through the mail for her petition. It came with instructions on the next steps: File and submit an application and await another approval to bring her mother back. Susan said she reached out to the lawyers who've been on her parents' case. That's when she received the news that her mother had been barred from re-entering the United States for 10 years.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, a person could be barred for 10 years if you depart the United States after having accrued one year or more of unlawful presence during a single stay, regardless of whether you leave before, during, or after removal proceedings. The website states that "unlawful presence is the period of time when you are in the United States without being admitted or paroled or when you are not in a period of stay authorized by the secretary."

Susan's lawyer said even if her petition had been approved and she did the necessary paperwork, her mother would still be barred from re-entering until the 10 years were up. Neofita filed an appeal for her work visa in 2006 with the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), and it was denied; she filed for a petition for a review of the BIA's decision in 2008, and it was denied. A year later the BIA denied her motion to reopen her immigration case, and an immigration judge ordered her removal.

"My mom does know [that she's barred], but it doesn't feel like she has accepted it," "She has a lot of faith that something will change, and she will be able to come back soon, and we all try to hold onto that because we don't want it to be true either," Susan said.

Under pressure

Susana Lopez's office, like many professional offices, is white. Except for a corner bursting with the color of books and stuffed animals with a small table that's large enough for a child. Lopez is a bilingual licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma-informed and healing-centered psychological intervention for individuals in at-risk communities. As the co-founder of Resilience Psychological Collaborative, she works with clients who deal with issues related to life transitions, including immigration and acculturation processes, pediatric medical conditions, and family disruptions.

She's been practicing therapy since 2005.

click to enlarge HOLDING UNIVERSALITY Susana Lopez is a clinical psychologist who shares her story of being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. with the hope of uplifting others who are going through the process of changing their documentation status or pursuing a visa to stay with their families. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • HOLDING UNIVERSALITY Susana Lopez is a clinical psychologist who shares her story of being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. with the hope of uplifting others who are going through the process of changing their documentation status or pursuing a visa to stay with their families.

"It's been different because the political climate has changed. We've always been in a climate that we're not very accepting of people that are not the same as us or has had similar experiences as us," Lopez said.

With time, she said, the fear has gotten worse with new proposed legislation that has created more anxiety in communities. When she started working with individuals from the Latino community, the source of stress for many was adapting to a different community with different cultures and intergenerational differences between parents and their children.

"As time has evolved and families have been separated, there is a fear of someone coming to your house, knocking on your door, and deporting you," Lopez said.

Because of this resulting and lasting fear, she sees clients who have adjustment disorders, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She said they are natural consequences of an abrupt family separation.

Even if families do experience separation and get reunited after a number of years, it still disrupts the family dynamics.

Lopez said if a mother is taken away when a child is 8 years old and returns when the child is 11, the mother might treat the child like he or she is still 8.

"The child thinks, 'Wait a second, I'm a pre-teen. You can't treat me like that,' and then there's a strain in the relationship. It's not all, 'Oh we're finally together; it's the happy ending,'" she said.

Lopez has also worked with refugees who recently arrived in the United States seeking asylum. She said such cases are different because these individuals are often fleeing from violence and danger, so they have trauma from that experience. On top of that, those individuals also experience the trauma of not being accepted here, while navigating society, the education system, and legal system.

While every client has a unique story, Lopez said she sees a lot of overlap in the stress that families are experiencing.

Her clients, she said, tell her that the fear of being deported or not being accepted has changed the way that they see the world. They don't feel wanted or supported.

"If you don't feel safe in your own home, you're not going to feel safe anywhere else. So you start questioning people, putting up more boundaries between yourself and others. You start losing trust in people, in the legal system, and in our country," she said. "Especially if you see the news and you see people that are supporting things that are not in line with your own story."

When Lopez learned that she was undocumented, it changed the way she saw the world.

Born in Mexico, Lopez's family brought her to the United States when she was just a year old. It wasn't until she was in high school, ready to apply for colleges, that she found out she didn't have the Social Security number or green card that she needed for her applications. She said it completely transformed the way she saw herself and everything else.

"I remember feeling dehumanized, you know quote-un-quote 'an alien,' that I almost lost myself in the process, and then I had to remember, 'No, I'm not an alien, I'm a human,'" Lopez said.

That barrier wasn't going to stop Lopez from following her dream of studying psychology. She took a psychology class in high school and immediately became interested in how the brain works and family dynamics. After learning about her documentation status, she wanted to find out how psychology played a role in her life experience.

"For me, at that age, I also wanted to learn how do people overcome when things go wrong in life, when stressors like these are happening. How do people still go to work, how do people have families, or how do people achieve their dreams—I wanted answers to all that," she said.

Lopez is now a citizen of the United States and sometimes shares her experience with her clients. She does it to show them that they're not alone and there's hope in their situations. If someone is going through the legal system to change their status or renew a visa and is experiencing any type of trauma or other symptoms (anxiety, depression), they don't have to go through it alone.

"Immigrants tend to be very resilient, because if they weren't, they wouldn't leave everything from their home country to come here," Lopez said.

She said building human connections with family and friends who can be supportive is a good way to cope with the stress. If an individual has lingering legal questions, they should seek legal assistance from nonprofits, private lawyers, case managers, national organizations, or county organizations.

Lopez said she tells her clients who are parents that it's OK to talk about their worries, stress, or situation with their child. But the parents should also share their hopes, dreams, and their plans to get through this hard time.

"You don't have to pretend you are superheroes all the time. Resilience means to overcome adversity, so it means that you have to try and make a better impact on your situation," she said.

Eliminating fear

Sitting at a long table in Nautical Bean on Parker Street in SLO, Douglas Pillsbury, Gina Whitaker, Mary Lynn Crandall, and Solina Lindahl talk and eat their lunch. The group is called Allies for Immigration Justice, a band of educators, retired educators, and social activists.

click to enlarge KEEPING IT TOGETHER Cortney Upthegrove is working to hold her family together after her husband, Juan Murguia, was sent back to the Mexico because of his undocumented status. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CORTNEY UPTHEGROVE
  • Photo Courtesy Of Cortney Upthegrove
  • KEEPING IT TOGETHER Cortney Upthegrove is working to hold her family together after her husband, Juan Murguia, was sent back to the Mexico because of his undocumented status.

They met because they were part of a larger group attempting to help a local family from Guadalajara, Mexico. Whitaker said a woman and her son were fleeing from their country and seeking asylum in the United States. She and her four colleagues were half of the eight people who answered a call to the community looking for individuals who could assist the woman. That was two years ago, Whitaker said, and since then they've taught the woman how to drive and helped her find an affordable place to live, get her son into a preschool, and get a work permit that allows her to stay in the country.

While they successfully helped the woman find a way of life on the Central Coast, she still struggles to balance the cost of living in the area.

"There are so many obstacles," Whitaker said. "They're the same obstacles that any of us who try to relocate is challenged by."

With this experience, Crandall said the four of them wanted to do something more, look at the larger issues, and work with the community.

"Our focus is education and outreach. What we would really like is for people to start taking a closer look at the complexities of the issue and not just the sound bites that they hear on TV," she said.

In order to get the community informed, Allies for Immigration Justice has held informational panels, a film viewing and discussion of Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, and have been working to collaborate with local organizations to get resources and information out there.

The group is working with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) to establish an interfaith coalition between northern Santa Barbara County and southern San Luis Obispo County.

They also work with First 5 Health Access Training Project, which held an event on Jan. 31 called Supporting Immigrant Families, a forum for SLO County family-serving providers. The topics included information for parents to help them manage family stress and information for families about immigration policy proposals.

Joel Diringer, a retiring attorney with more than 30 years in the nonprofit, health, government, and philanthropic sectors, spoke at the forum about how someone could become a charge of the public. The term "public charge" is used by U.S. immigration officials to classify immigrants who are denied entry due to their dependency on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.

Diringer said the administration has proposed new public charge rules that

could make it harder to get legal permanent resident status if applicants use certain government programs, have less income and education, and are in poorer health. Public charge only affects individuals applying to become lawful permanent residents, seeking to extend or change the category of nonimmigrant visas, or who are lawful permanent residents who leave the country for at least 180 days.

During the process of applying for a green card, the government looks at an individual's circumstances and using public charge is one factor.

Changes haven't been made yet, but the need for government assistance that could cause someone to become a public charge has discouraged some people from looking into services that could help them, he said, such as receiving cash support (such as CalWorks and Supplemental Security Income) or Medi-Cal long-term care. The proposed changes would include services from CalFresh, Section 8 housing assistance, non-emergency Medi-Cal, and Medicare Part D low-income subsidies.

"I think the administration accomplished its purpose, which is just creating more fear and anxiety among immigrant populations," Diringer said.

He said that false information gets out to communities, and, to be safe, adults are rejecting services such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to avoid becoming a public charge. Those decisions not only affect the parent or guardian, but the child who might have been born in the U.S. and is in need of certain services. Diringer and other local organizations are working to get the correct information out there for those who need it.

Tough decisions

In 2005, Cortney Upthegrove moved to Cambria and met her husband, Juan Murguia, a year later.

"We met in a bar, you know how you meet everybody," Upthegrove said with a laugh. "We hit it off."

She knew Murguia was undocumented but didn't think twice about his status or how it could affect their lives later on. Three years later, her son was born and the pair made the decision to get the paperwork so Murguia could apply for citizenship. Upthegrove can only describe the process as horrific—the constant waiting, the paperwork, and the cost.

They knew that he would be sent back to Mexico. They just didn't know how long he would be sent back for.

Upthegrove said Murguia initially crossed the border illegally with his brother in 2001, from Mexico into the United States, when Murguia's brother was stopped at the San Ysidro Point of Entry in San Diego by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. Murguia didn't want to leave his brother behind so he went back and essentially turned himself in to the agents. That's what triggered the bar, she said.

Upthegrove said when her husband went to his appointment at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, he was asked whether he'd ever been arrested in the U.S. and how long he's been in Mexico. He was detained when he crossed the border for the first time and that was enough to bar Murguia from returning to his family for 10 years.

"The thing about all that is I acknowledge that my husband broke the law. Here's a newsflash: Everybody that's in this country illegally broke the law," she said. "They still broke the same law as my husband, ultimately, though it's punishing us."

When her husband first went back to Mexico in 2014, Upthegrove was faced with either moving to Tijuana or staying in the Cambria area. She moved to Tijuana for a little while with her husband and their son, but found it difficult to get a job in the area because she doesn't speak Spanish. She also couldn't keep a job in San Diego if she had to cross the border every day, because she said the wait time to get checked before crossing was unpredictable. But Upthegrove was offered a job on the Central Coast that paid enough to fund the travel to visit her husband and was flexible enough that she could visit him often.

She was visiting him almost every month while their son, JJ, stayed with Murguia in Mexico. But Murguia decided to go back to school, so he could find a better paying job, and Upthegrove took JJ with her back to Cambria.

"The thing is that one of us is always the loser. If I go back to Mexico and work in San Diego, I have to cross the border every day which is highly stressful," she said.

The situation has put a tremendous strain on Upthegrove's marriage, but she's determined to figure out how to make it work.

"I'm so hard-headed, and my priority is my son, and I'll do what's right because I see the bigger picture," she said.

But she feels that it's the immigration policy barring her husband from coming back that's really impacting her family more than anything else.

The Valerio family is also feeling the effect of the immigration policy separating their family for 10 years, but the siblings are learning to get by together. Susan's sister Grecia was accepted to San Francisco State University and will be attending in the fall. Her brother Johnny is graduating from Allan Hancock College and staying in the area to work. Susan said she's going to continue working on her mother's case and figure out a way to bring her back home.

"We are still trying to do everything we can to get her back, and it feels impossible sometimes, but it's not something we will give up on even if it takes a little longer than we would like," she said. Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at


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