The traffic had slowed. At first, Mariana thought there must be an accident up ahead.
Seventeen members of her family were passing through Lincoln, N.H, after a late-August weekend that had become a glorious summer tradition. This time, they’d rented a cabin for a couple of days, where she and her parents and aunts and uncles and cousins had hiked in the White Mountains, swum, and shared massive Colombian meals.
As they got closer, though, Mariana, 16, could see there was no accident. It was a checkpoint. Border patrol agents were stopping cars on I-93, asking for IDs. They were operating under a federal law from 1946 that allows border officials to stop and conduct warrantless searches on vehicles within 100 miles of the border that would be unconstitutional elsewhere.
New Hampshire is entirely within the border zone. Mariana and her family had few rights. Sitting in the back seat with her cousin, she watched in terror as her father, and then her uncles, were removed from their cars.
“Why are you taking them?” her aunt Maria, who has a green card, asked an agent in charge.
“What do you think?” he replied.
“Because they don’t have papers?”
“Bingo,” Mariana heard him say, weeping as she recalled his derision.
She was next. Agents herded them all into vehicles — 14 members of her family in all, including her mother and her 12-year-old brother — separating the men from the others, taking them to Vermont for processing.
All were found to have overstayed their visas. The women and children were released within 24 hours. Four of the men were held for 20 days. They will all be deported, unless they can convince an immigration judge they deserve to stay.
Mariana’s family knew the Trump administration was cracking down on illegal immigrants, but never expected this.
“We were a little afraid, listening to the news,” said her mother Claudia, speaking through a translator. “But we didn’t think it was going to happen to us.” Agents were supposed to be targeting criminals, not families like theirs, who kept their heads down, working low-paying jobs and raising earnest, loving kids.
Claudia worked as a cleaner before the arrest, making $11 an hour. Her husband Diego did kitchen jobs. It was hard work, but life here was better than being in Medellin, where Claudia’s brother-in-law was murdered, and where gangs demanded protection money. Here, their kids have been safe, and successful.
Mariana, a junior, is driven and passionate, a soccer star at Excel Academy, a charter school in East Boston. She is a stellar student, taking the most advanced levels of every class, throwing herself into projects. She and a few of her cousins are members of the founding class at the high school.
“Those girls are so hungry for every opportunity for their futures,” said Sarah Stuntz, dean of academic programming at Excel. “They’re such a positive influence on their peers, a clear example of what it means to pursue dreams.”
Now Mariana and her family have been lumped in with others detained at that checkpoint on Aug. 27, the ones carrying marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs. Her family has been angry, and embarrassed about that.
“They painted us all in a negative light,” Mariana said.
Her parents both lost their jobs after the arrests. Their employers didn’t want problems with immigration, Claudia said, pulling up a pant leg to show the black monitoring bracelet on her ankle.
Mariana has missed a lot of school, translating for her family, helping her teachers fill out paperwork, dealing with enormous stress. She was struggling with AP biology, and Stuntz offered to reduce her workload. Mariana refused, opting instead for catch-up sessions before and after school. Her grades are heading back up. She never chooses the easier path, Stuntz said.
“I just want to finish high school, go to college, get a good career so I can give to my parents,” Mariana said.
Now she must contemplate a different kind of future, and so must her teachers at Excel.
“If this family gets deported, it’s going to rock this entire community,” Stuntz said. In her 10 years of teaching, she has never had a student arrested by immigration officers, though the school has many immigrants among its pupils The Trump administration has changed the climate in a devastating way.
It used to be that staying out of trouble made you unlikely to be deported. Now agents are liberated to detain anybody, unhampered by considerations of priority or compassion. Previous administrations, including the Obama administration, used checkpoints. Now they’re more frequent, and less discriminating. Drugs, no drugs, it doesn’t matter any more.
Mariana and her family know people believe they have no right to be here, that they should have known their lives here were always at risk when her parents made the decision to overstay their visas.
There was no other way to escape their old lives, her mother said.
“If they could understand how hard it was to live in Colombia, and if they were able to have the opportunity to live there, to see first-hand what it is we experienced,” Claudia said. It would have been too hard to get papers to come here legally.
“You haven’t gone through what we’ve gone through, so you have no right to judge,” Mariana said.
This country is full of people who do judge them, though, and who see cause for hope — perhaps even for celebration — in their pain. We live in a country where millions support extra-constitutional checkpoints, far from the border, to detain families like this, people who came here in the hopes of giving their children what all parents want for their kids: safety, education, lives that surpass their own.
And who are grateful to do the jobs that many Americans won’t do, jobs that pay the lousy wages that make it possible for us to buy cheap strawberries, or work in clean offices, or sit in affordable restaurants, pontificating in comfort and safety on their moral fitness to be among us.
Sitting with Mariana, her mother, her aunt, and her cousins — loving, striving, terrified, tearful women — there was only one thing for this American to feel about all of that: Shame.
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