This article originally appeared on Mundo Hispánico. To read the original article in Spanish, click here.
Lucia Hernandez Soto gets the tortillas ready for the traditional “pozole” soup for Saturday with the meticulous attention to detail and gentle touch that she learned back in her small hometown. As she heats the shredded chicken to add to the soup, she takes the hominy to pour in the pot. An avocado that will garnish the day’s lunch peeks over the corner of the kitchen counter.
For this Mexican woman who arrived from Guerrero some 20 years ago, “pozole” is one of the dishes that fill her most with pride. Her greatest concern is whether or not it will be to the liking of her grandchildren and even any neighbor who may stop by to say hello.
But a year ago, this wasn’t her greatest concern. Instead she worried about where she would live. Where would her three grandchildren sleep safe and sound? How would she face the financial challenges she and the children were going through at that moment?
A Fateful Day in July
Hernandez, 60, has always been a hardworking woman, and after decades of housekeeping in Georgia, she never asked anyone for anything. But as hours passed on July 5, 2017, and she hadn’t heard from Maribel Santander, her 32-year-old daughter, she became afraid.
“It was July 5, 2017. It was late, and I didn’t know where she was. Ever since she left the house that day, I had no clue. It wasn’t until the next day that I found out that she was detained. I kept calling her cell phone and she wouldn’t answer. I became worried because I didn’t know what had happened to her,” recalled Hernandez, mother to nine more children and grandmother.
It wasn’t until the following morning that Hernandez was able to speak with her daughter, who explained that she wasn’t exactly clear why she had been arrested by authorities in Barrow County, about 57 miles north of Atlanta.
According to Santander, who arrived in the United States at age 12 hand-in-hand with her mother and is a beneficiary of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, it all began when she left a house she was hoping to rent for herself, her mother and her three children.
As she made her way home, two local sheriffs pulled her over, made her perform sobriety tests, and arrested her, alleging that she was driving under the influence of alcohol.
The police report filed by the sheriffs claimed that the 32-year-old, “was inebriated and two open beer cans were found on the floor of the passenger side,” while stopped at a gas station at 1170 Carl Bethlehem Road in the city of Winder.
But that wasn’t true. In fact, 90 percent of the statements in the report were false.
Santander’s asserts that she was driving on a main road when a county sheriff’s patrol car pulled her over.
“I was going to see a house because they were offering to rent it to me at a very low price. I stopped at that gas station to grab some cigarettes. When I got onto the interstate, I saw the police behind me and thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’ When I was pulled over, he simply said, ‘I’m stopping you because you’re driving under the influence.’ I even laughed because I said, ‘How? How am I drunk? What are you talking about?’” said the young 32-year-old, who maintained that she had not been drinking that day.
According to Santander’s version, the officer asked her to exit the car and perform sobriety tests.
“I did the standing test and the breathalyzer. (The officer) told me, ‘You have to breathe in and blow.’ I had to do it about seven or eight times. I didn’t understand why they insisted I keep doing it,” Santander said.
That was when the officers talked among themselves and confiscated two empty beer cans that were tossed onto the floor of the passenger seat days ago, taking them away with them, according to Santander’s account.
The report indicated that the officers involved were officer James Doss and another sheriff by the last name Suggs, whose first name does not appear in the document.
“After the test, [Suggs] said, ‘Oh, but she has a Georgia driver’s license.’ Doss replied, ‘Who cares?’ I just kept thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ Then, they took the two beer cans and went off to a corner. They talked for about eight minutes and returned. I didn’t see what they were doing. They told me, ‘You have to blow again,’” the young mother of three explained.
After doing the tests over, Santander was arrested and taken to the Barrow County Jail. There, she thought all she needed to do was pay her fine and she would be free to go, but the officer on duty gave her the worst news and another nightmare began.
Santander spent two weeks in the Barrow County Jail until an officer knocked on her jail cell bars and told her she was being released.
Detained Despite Her DACA Status
“’Change your clothes, you’ve got an immigration hold.’ I thought, ‘How can this be? I have DACA. What did I do wrong?’ Finally, I told them I needed a blood test done to prove that I had not been drinking,” Maribel Santander said. “I was shocked. But when [the officer] came to get me he said, ‘You’re going to immigration.’ I thought, ‘What is happening? I have DACA.’”
Local authorities turned the young woman in to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and she was taken to the Atlanta City Detention Center, where she was detained for an entire year. This was despite the fact that Barrow County does not participate in the 287(g) program, an agreement between local agencies and ICE, which gives local police the authority to fulfill immigration laws and share information about their detainees with them.
However, other local detention centers, which in theory do not collaborate with ICE, are placing immigrants with no legal status in the country on ‘hold’.
This situation began in 2017 after President Donald Trump took over the White House and implemented his strict immigration policies, among them, the ‘zero-tolerance’ policy and changes in the approval process for asylum petitions.
In fact, an investigation by MundoHispanico showed that since 2017, six out of every 10 immigrants who had been accused of committing some type of traffic violation in counties such as Clayton, Cherokee, and DeKalb were unable to gain release, even though some had family members pay their fines.
After being incarcerated, the sheriff’s officers interrogated them and, on discovering their undocumented status, reported them to ICE. Then, the federal agency transferred them to Georgia immigration detention centers in Ocilla, Lumpkin or Atlanta.
This was the case for Hernandez’s daughter, whose DACA also expired after she was detained by immigration authorities and was unable to renew it given her circumstances. “In jail, I suffered from anxiety, depression … One time, I went to the cafeteria and got food and the officer stepped on it because we weren’t allowed to eat in our cells,” she says.
The situation affected the family dynamic. Not only did it affect the young Dreamer, but it also had a devastating impact on her mother. Lucia Hernandez Soto has always lived with her daughter, the youngest of her children and she has always helped in raising her grandchildren.
“Once she was able to call me from jail, she explained everything to me. I got scared. What was I going to do with three kids all by myself? This was the situation I was facing. We didn’t have our own home because we were living with one of her brothers,” the grandmother said.
Hundreds of Families Separated
This is just one example of hundreds of cases of families separated as a result of new immigration policies implemented under Trump.
Although there are no studies revealing which is the majority age range of detainees or deportees, for social workers who work together with the community, the impact that new immigration policies have had on families in the last year is concerning.
“It seems that it is becoming more common for grandparents to take care of the grandchildren,” says Cynthia Roman, managing director of Family Well-Being at the Latin American Association, an organization that has been providing assistance to the Hispanic community of Georgia for more than 30 years.
“Although we do not see as many seniors in our office because the majority of the community is young in age, the elderly community is growing. A large part is undocumented, but if they are raising grandchildren one thing does worry us, for example: They must prove to the Department of Family Services that they have custody of the children in order to apply for food stamps,” she explains.
Another concerning factor for Roman as a social worker is the energy and education levels of many elderly immigrants, which can represent obstacles when attempting to care for their grandchildren. “It’s not necessarily the same energy. Some are uneducated, and it becomes more difficult for them,” she believes.
“Overall, it’s the fear of deportation. It is an enormous responsibility and having to help them at that age is a challenge,” Roman stated.
For Hernandez, her daughter’s detention signified an event that changed her routine, her life, and the lives of her grandchildren, since she had to take care of them alone.
“My life changed so, so much. I had never been in a situation like this. I lost hope. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like my world was crumbling because I had to become responsible for the children by myself, and of everything else in general, along with everything that it takes to take care of them, feed them, take them to school, doctor’s appointments,” the grandmother said.
Hernandez, who had been out of work at the moment due to many physical ailments, said that she never imagined having to face parenting at 60 years old and at this stage in her life.
“I had to get up at 5:30 every morning to get them ready for school, go back and forth with the lawyer, submitting paperwork and documentation, asking all over what I should do with my daughter, who I could go to in order for her to be released. Sometimes I rode the bus, sometimes I walked. I had no money. At times I didn’t even have money to catch the bus, which was only $2.50 … can you believe that?” she said.
‘I Cried. I Didn’t Know What to Do.’
As a result of this situation, Hernandez dealt with episodes of depression, anxiety and loneliness.
“I was stressed, sad. I cried. I didn’t even know what to do. I was so worried about her ordeal. I took care of them before, but only for moments at a time when she’d go to work. But now I basically had to be completely responsible for everything. Take them to school, to the doctor. So many things happened to me during that time,” she said.
Finances were another one of the more complicated factors. “Financially, I was struggling. I had no money, I had to walk and walk even with leg pains because I didn’t have money, not even for a taxi. I was borrowing some money here and there, and also in order to be able to pay for the lawyer, plus the children’s expenses, books,” Hernandez recalled.
She explained that at one moment they were practically left with nowhere to stay. “It was very difficult because at the apartment where we went to live, which belonged to some of my daughter’s friends, they let us stay there so we could live in the living room for a while. But then, it turns out, they left me alone. They went to Miami and I didn’t have any money to keep paying the apartment. The owner of the apartment told me I had to go,” she said.
Hernandez had to get rid of the family’s belongings, move them from one place to another, dispose of them, or give them away. “Everything was gone–we lost it all,” she added.
‘The Children Cried All the Time’
Aside from her own emotional burden, Hernandez had to deal with the young children’s too.
“The children cried all the time. They began getting sick. At school, I tried to pull myself together because you know kids will bully and I didn’t want mine to go through a tough time,” she added.
Hernandez remembered that she didn’t want to hide the truth of what was going on from the children, and she explained the situation with the help of her daughter.
“We had to tell the children because eventually they would find out. And if the principal or teachers asked, what would we say? I don’t really remember it very well, or how I told them, but I think it was their mother. I didn’t know what to tell them or what to do because I knew that they would cry right then and there, and I would cry with them. So when their mother told them, I cried so much,” she explained.
In spite of her troubles, the children never missed a single day of school. “I would take them and never lost hope that she would get out and be with us again, with her children. And thank God there were so many people in the community supporting us,” she said.
Community Support Essential
Being integrated in their community was a key factor for the Hernandez family. After several setbacks with her initial attorneys, who were unclear on how to handle her case, Hernandez sought help from the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), a nonprofit organization with over 20 years assisting Georgia’s immigrant community.
Its leaders found pro bono legal assistance from Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) to defend Hernandez. “I asked for help because I needed my daughter to be released because she is the children’s supporter and mother. They need her. No one can replace a mother, even though I am their grandmother–and I love them very much, but it’s not the same as having their mother,” she said.
Her new lawyers were able to confirm that Officer Doss had falsified the DUI evidence against Santander. Remarkably, she said, the judge removed Doss from his position “and there are charges filed against him because he has made fraudulent claims against other individuals. I believe that investigation is still under process,” explained Hernandez’s attorney, Van Huynh.
He added, “But I believe that it is unfortunate that Maribel and her family suffered the consequences of his actions, and that this put her at risk of deportation.”
Barrow County Sheriff Jud Smith confirmed in a telephone interview that officer Doss had in fact been fired. “After an investigation by our Department of Internal Affairs, we found that he was not credible in the investigation,” Smith explained. “We made the decision of letting him go because he also was not credible in other previous investigations. We are unsure of exactly how he falsified evidence, but we take our jobs very seriously,” he stated.
Exonerated in January—But Held Until June
Santander was released on June 9. Nonetheless, according to her legal representative, she could have been released earlier from jail. “Her charges were dropped in January. ICE kept her detained until June 9. ICE could have let her go sooner but they failed to do so,” said the legal expert at AAAJ. “Instead, they kept her in jail and we had to go through all the legal obstacles just so they could release her.”
Now free, Santander faces a long road ahead with her family. She recently reapplied for DACA and was forced to start over since she lost her home and belongings while she was detained. Today she works in construction to care for her children and help her mother and she assures that she holds no resentment.
“I don’t have everything,” she reflected. “But what’s most important is being with my family.”
For her mother, it’s not so easy to forget. The police’s error changed her life and routine, leaving emotional scars in this period of her life.
“I just pray to God that she can forgive the officer. I hold no grudges, but they did their wrongdoing … they never thought about the pain it would cause those kids, the kids more than anyone,” Hernandez said. “It is an injustice because there was no reason why they would do such a thing.”
Today, Hernandez only wishes to make up for lost time. “Time won’t erase everything. What happened will stay with the children, who dealt with the trauma of thinking of what will happen with their mother. They would go to bed and wake up crying, asking me, ‘Grandma, what about my mom?’ Can you imagine what that feels like?” she said.
For Hernandez, this has been the most complicated and difficult experience she has ever had to face in life.
“It was the most difficult because the world seemed to be come down on me in the blink of an eye and suddenly, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to go to,” she said. “I had no money or people I trusted who could tell me, ‘Yes, I’ll lend you a hand, keep moving forward.’ I never want to go through something like this again.”
Nonetheless, in spite of what took place, Hernandez tries to move forward with her family, hoping for better days, hugging her grandchildren, and watching her daughter succeed.
“If life were to put me in the same position again, I would fight again and again,” she said. “I tell her to get back up every time she falls. I tell her she can do anything. Don’t let yourself be defeated because that’s just how life is. We don’t know why. But we have to keep on keeping on.”
The Most Vulnerable Communities
For Julian Montoro-Rodriguez, PhD, director of gerontology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, the challenges that a grandparent can face while raising children are many. “They are personal challenges implicating their health, as well as family, generational, and cultural challenges, and even challenges to their own values,” he emphasized.
According to Montoro, assuming the role of primary caregiver for grandchildren when parents aren’t around is voluntary in many cases. “Like many caregivers, grandparents experience high levels of stress, tension and deterioration of their physical and mental health as a result of the burden of being the caretaker of another person or parenting children and grandchildren. These negative impacts can increase if they happen in cases of extreme uncertainty,” he added.
In Hernandez’s case, he said, “Her heroic dedication and sacrifice in caring for her grandchildren is a reflection of the standard principles in the Latino culture, which considers family a core value of identity and survival.”
Ultimately, he said, “The path to improving this situation requires decision-makers to develop laws and build a consensus finally to solve the problems and end this kind of arbitrariness.”
Samantha Diaz Roberts wrote this article for Atlanta’s Spanish-language daily, MundoHispanico with the support of a journalism fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and AARP. She is recently became a reporter at Atlanta television station Univision Channel 34.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.