by Heather John Fogarty

Editor's note: the names of family members have been changed for privacy purposes

Diane had been vocal at protests to end detention and family separation, made countless calls and wrote letters to her congressmen in Duval County, Florida. But Diane felt she needed to do more. “I signed up for a webinar on sponsoring families through Episcopal Migration Ministries and listened to people’s stories,” Diane recalls. “What people are doing is so wonderful and inspiring.”

“They’ve been with me ever since..."

She applied to become an asylum-seeker sponsor and a week later she got the call from Freedom for Immigrants. A family of three was being detained in Texas, with their five-year-old son who has hydrocephalus. ICE would release the family, but only if a sponsor was found by the end of the week. “I happened to be a retired nurse, so I said ‘yes,’” Diane says. ICE called her three days later on Memorial Day at 5 o’clock in the evening, and said she’d need to be responsible for the family’s airfare from Texas to Florida in two days’ time. Diane called her contacts at Freedom for Immigrants and RAICES who arranged and paid for transportation to Florida. She immediately began assembling a support group to help her navigate medical and relocation expenses, and find a lawyer. Using Google translate, she printed out welcome signs in the family’s native Portuguese. At ten o’clock that Wednesday evening, May 27, she met the family at the airport with a warm meal awaiting them at her home. “They’ve been with me ever since,” she says.

“They didn’t slip across the border,” Diane says. “They approached the Border Patrol seeking asylum. They were escaping extreme violence.” António and Isabel had been living in their native Angola when they received a threatening call demanding the equivalent of $10,000 or they would be killed. Shortly thereafter, Isabel went into early labor with their son, Gabriel, resulting in a three-month stay in the NICU. As António was leaving the hospital one day after visiting Gabriel, he was kidnapped, taken to a warehouse and beaten unconscious. He recalls being told: “This is your last chance. Next time we’re killing your family.” His body was discovered bloodied on the side of the road by a taxi driver, who returned him to the hospital, terrified. After calls to the police were met with indifference, António and Isabel fled Angola, seeking legal asylum in Brazil. But there, they were confronted with more violence over the next few years. They made the decision to join the caravan marching from South America to the U.S. border. Along the way, Gabriel, who was then four years old, suffered cardiac arrest and landed in an ICU in Central America for a month. Fortunately, his heart had not suffered damage; the extreme heat while marching had spiked his temperature causing cardiac arrest. When it was safe to continue, the family pressed on for the U.S. border. Once in ICE custody, an entirely new set of challenges awaited them.

The impact of detention has been especially traumatic for Gabriel. “When they first came to stay with me, Gabriel had an intense temper tantrum anytime he didn’t have eyes on one of his parents,” she recalls. Thanks to therapy through his new school, Gabriel is now adjusting and making friends. “He’s like a different child!” Diane says, hopefully.

Not only was it humiliating, the shackle was causing physical distress.

Eight months later, Gabriel’s parents continue to struggle with hurdles toward gainful employment and a path to citizenship. It wasn’t until two days after Diane had first met the family at the Jacksonville airport that António told her the reason he wore long pants even in the summer heat was to hide the ankle monitor ICE had affixed. Not only was it humiliating, the shackle was causing physical distress. “He had to wear long pants during the summer in Florida. The lawyer said they could do odd jobs, but they could not be on payroll. So he can garden, which he’s having to do in long pants.”

After their applications for work permits were denied three times, with each time the application fee amount changing, Diane with the help of a lawyer, was finally able to get their applications approved, and the couple went in for biometrics, such as fingerprinting and recording height and weight. They were then told approval could take between two to five months before their work permits and a social security number could be issued. In the meantime, Isabel required exploratory surgery, which she was told she was unable to receive unless she paid $10,000 upfront because the hospitalwould not approve a payment plan without social security numbers. Thanks to contributions to a GoFundMe site and many individual donations, Isabel was able to have the surgery and is currently undergoing treatment.

"Do not trust GEO or ICE."

Last month, representatives from GEO Group—the private prison giant—knocked on Diane’s door. “GEO said that because the family was on the ATD [Alternatives to Detention program] they needed to come to the ICE detention center to transfer to Texas from Florida.” Diane emailed their lawyer, who insisted on accompanying them to the detention center. Once there, ICE refused entrance to Diane and the lawyer. “Do not trust GEO or ICE. The game is they transfer people from detention center to detention center, and they do it so quickly the lawyers can’t track where they are,” Diane says. After much negotiation, their lawyer was able to gain entrance, by which time ICE had affixed an ankle bracelet to Isabel, saying they would remove the shackle if the couple had smart phones. The lawyer was able to block a transfer back to Texas. “If they didn’t have a lawyer, they’d be gone,” she says.

Diane’s next step was to acquire smart phones for António and Isabel. “They’re undocumented, I understand Immigration wants to track them.” Even so, it took more intervention from the lawyer as well as a physician’s note stating Isabel could not have the surgery while wearing an ankle monitor. António had to relinquish his passport in order to have his monitor removed. “They have smart phones now, there’s no reason to keep the ankle monitor on,” Diane says. “Each week they have to take a selfie and send it to ICE.”

She remains hopeful with the new Biden administration that barriers toward receiving work permits will ease. “They are still waiting on approval of their work permits,” she says. “It has been a long wait.”

“Good things are happening."

Diane says finding a support group is essential to hosting asylum seekers, and finding a lawyer is invaluable. “We’re in Florida, the most conservative state in the universe, and I couldn’t have done this without my Super 8,” she says of her support group. “They are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and they all rallied around to help me find a lawyer through Jerichoroad.org, start a GoFundMe page, and contact me frequently to be sure all was ok. One went to a food bank to set up a monthly delivery. It turns out the food bank has been very helpful. I live alone, and it’s expensive for a family of four.” RAICES uses a Harvard physician group to contact all families they place to learn about their experience in the detention center and to identify health needs. The physician who conducted the phone interview with António and Isabel reached out to a friend who is a retired public health officer in Duval County. That friend was able to walk Diane through the process to access Medicaid for Gabriel. A volunteer connected her with Child Find, which evaluated Gabriel and was able to place him in a Pre-K suited for children with special health needs. Another member of her Super 8 group contacted Learn to Read to set up English Zoom sessions for Gabriel. “Good things are happening,” Diane says.

"I encourage anyone who can, to consider hosting, and to find a support group.”

Even with all of the bureaucratic obstacles and the frustration of dealing with ICE, Diane says hosting the family has been the most rewarding experience. “I’m so glad that when I look back, I can see I did something,” she says. “They’re an incredible family. I encourage anyone who can, to consider hosting, and to find a support group.”

Heather John Fogarty is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work appears in publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Marie Claire, the Hollywood Reporter, and has been featured on NPR. She currently teaches journalism at USC Annenberg.