Blanca Ramirez talks about the impact of detention and deportation on families

by Cindy Knoebel

This continues our series highlighting women whose work and activism are helping immigrants caught in the dragnet of our country's immigration system.

Blanca Ramirez is a PhD student at USC Dornstife. A first-generation college student, Ramirez grew up in Orange County, California, the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her doctoral work focuses on the implications of immigration detention and deportation on immigrant Latino families.

Cindy Knoebel: Tell me a little about your family history and how it informs the work you do today.

Blanca Ramirez: Both my parents are immigrants from Mexico. I grew up in Anaheim, CA. When I was born, my mom was an undocumented immigrant. It wasn’t until I was five years old that she was able to get her papers in order. So I didn’t really know about what that change meant or the protections it entitled. But I heard stories in my community, fears that maybe “they” would be coming … it always sounded like a nightmare, like creatures would appear in the night to take us or our neighbors away. My understanding of immigration enforcement while I growing up was very mythical.

Blanca Ramirez

But then as an undergraduate at Cal State Fullerton with a McNair scholarship, I interviewed people who didn’t have legalized status, and it reinforced what I was already learning: that immigration enforcement was a source of violence in many immigrant communities - and within the immigrant community I grew up in. It made real the mythical nature of immigration enforcement.

CK: What were you seeking to discover when you set out to do your research?

BR: It is important that researchers understand what is happening with detainees, but I am interested in the broader effects of detention and deportation. My research investigates how families cope psychologically and financially when a loved one is detained or deported, how these processes affect their legal attitudes, and how these effects evolve over the long-term. Additionally, I investigate what the social and economic effects of detention and deportation are on communities and broader institutions. I knew already through my research that detention is a costly, traumatizing process, and I wanted to study the long-term aftereffects of that process on families and communities.

CK: Was it difficult to find 28 families to participate?

BR: Yes, extremely. First of all, those I approached were often hyper vigilant about who I was and what I was doing, and for good reason. Some asked around in their circle to determine if I was an ICE agent, and if that’s why I wanted to interview them.

It was interesting to me that the people I interviewed tended to not share their experiences with others, perhaps because those who had loved ones detained or deported would only be reliving the trauma. Also, there’s a popular perception that a detained person must also be a criminal, and so talking about relatives in detention risks stigma.

Here’s an example: One of the people I interviewed was in a panel discussion at a college. He shared his own family’s experience and talked about advocating for immigrants and families held in detention and deported. His first question from a member in the audience was “What did your father do to get detained and deported?”

So, in addition to the trauma that detention and deportation inflicts on families, it also makes them feel isolated. Others, including some in communities who have been misled into thinking that deportations are only inflicted on criminals, can chastise and shame without understanding how immigration enforcement actually works

CK: What was the experience like for you personally as you interviewed these families? How did their stories affect you?

BR: I had a two-fold reaction. I heard stories of trauma and hurt and confusion … of these sudden changes in their families. So on the one hand, it further opened my eyes to the emotional violence they experienced. We often think about detention and deportation as taking place at a single point in time, as opposed to the aftereffects that linger long afterwards. Secondly, I felt a lot of admiration for the powerful resilience exhibited by these families and the way they fought to keep their families together and stable, even after deportation occurred. It’s their way of telling the immigration system that even if the laws don’t value family ties, they do.

CK: How did your thinking evolve during these interviews?

BR: I found similar themes as I progressed through them. Basically, the families tended to engage in 3 ways of coping:  providing advocacy, emotional support, and financial support. Children and their parents often attempted to continue family life, even within distressing circumstances where they are limited in resources, experiencing mental distress, and often being physically separated from their loved one. I find that even within these distressing circumstances, families fight to remain together.

Those families who had the opportunity engaged in advocacy while their loved one was detained or as they underwent court proceedings. They sought ways to make it known to the courts that their family life was valuable and worthy of receiving relief. For instance, children wrote letters to the courts or attempted to find support among elected officials. By doing so, family members worked to keep their families together and avoid deportations.

Of course, detention and deportation are also incredibly costly processes. Families pay commissary fees while they are detained, pay for attorneys, and pay to visit their detained loved one. Additionally, the loss of a parent to immigration enforcement usually means the loss of an income. Families experience both a decrease in income and an increase in expenditures, resulting in a financially stressful experience.

Finally, families become each other’s ”emotional anchors.” They help each other deal with the emotional pain. Some children provided an ear to the remaining behind parent, which mattered tremendously. This is especially significant given that families tend not to share this experience with others outside the family unit.

In these three ways, children and parents sought to continue their family life despite the obstacles that detention and deportation brought into their lives. Despite their increased limitations, some were able to continue suturing and healing their families to have a semblance of family life.

Imperial Beach border wall (Photo credit: Blanca Ramirez)

CK: What surprised you the most as you talked to these families?

BR: One was how abrupt of a change in life circumstances detention or deportation are for them. Some had their loved ones picked up and deported the same day without any information from ICE as to what was happening. Families often didn’t know where their mother or father was, how to call them, how to send money to another country, or even why they were being detained or deported. Not knowing their loved one’s deportation case, along with the financial effects, made it all the more difficult to navigate this process and when attempting to obtain legal advice. I think it works to ICE’s favor to keep families confused.

CK: Are there one or two particular interviews that have really stayed with you?

BR: Two in particular. One was an 18 year-old who talked to me of her experience of having her dad deported when she was 9 years old. He was the primary breadwinner for her family. At her school, at the end of the day, the kids could by lollipops for a quarter. She told me she stopped buying lollipops as a way to help out her family.

Another interview I did was with a young woman whose mother was deported to Tijuana during her first college term. So she left school in order to care for her siblings. And then, over time, she also had to take on the responsibility for taking care of her mother who’d been unable to find a job. She had to step away from the opportunity of a college degree to care for her binational family.

CK: What can be done about the impacts of deportation on children?

BR: There are a few ways. My research shows that family members - including children - are actively working to keep their families together despite detention and deportation. We can better support them by following their lead - to actively work to help them help their families. On a broader policy level, Congress should work toward immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship, as the majority of undocumented immigrants have been in the country a decade or longer. They are connected to families, communities, and workplaces. And as my research demonstrates, a single act of deportation significantly alters family life, community life, and brings in long-term repercussions for the nation. Providing this pathway would allow families and communities to become protected from these intrusive and traumatic experiences.  

And then there should be changes to the court system itself in the ways it handles deportation. It does not take into account family ties when verdicts are handed down. Kids write letters on behalf of their loved ones, only to find them ignored by the court. There should be a way to make sure these family ties are taken into consideration by the courts.

The current immigration system has resulted in mass detentions and deportations. While we have some information on the short-term effects of these actions, we now know there are also long-term implications for those affected and for the country at large that we’re just beginning to understand.

On the beach near Tijuana (Photo credit: Blanca Ramirez)

CK: What are you working on currently? Are you continuing to research this topic?

BR: The next step for me is to prepare for my dissertation, which will be on the effects of deportation and detention, with a keen eye on their long-term consequences. I plan to continue to interview families.

Editor's note: You can view Blanca Ramirez' report, "Immigration Policies and Rhetoric: Sources of Legalized Violence," by clicking here.