‘Don’t take my daddy’: When the immigration debate hits home

No matter where you sit on the immigration debate, it’s hard not to be moved by what happened to little Adam, an 8-year-old Jewish boy from the San Fernando Valley who watched his father being taken away on the morning of Oct. 18.

Adam was holding his father’s hand as they started their short walk to school. They had barely left their house when five vehicles surrounded them — three black town cars and two silver-gray SUV’s. As a group of men got out of the vehicles and confronted his father, Adam felt his father’s hand being pulled away from his.

Now alone on the street, and seeing his dad being handcuffed, Adam started screaming, “Don’t take my daddy! Don’t take my daddy!” One of the men told him, “Back away, son.”

Meanwhile, Adam’s mother, who had just kissed him and his father goodbye and saw the scene unfolding, ran toward the men who were taking her husband, none of them in uniform. 

“My husband is not a criminal!” she yelled. “Where are you taking him?”

Despite all the screaming and protestations, within minutes the whole episode was over. Adam’s father, the lynchpin of the family, disappeared in a speeding convoy of dark vehicles.

This dramatic scene of a family being torn apart was many long years in the making. It’s a story that encapsulates the heart-wrenching dilemmas confronting America as it decides what to do about its millions of illegal immigrants.

The story began innocently enough about 12 years ago, when a single Jewish woman in her early 30s, Laura Michaelson, met a sweet and attractive single man, Willebaldo Reyes (she calls him “Willie”), at a West Los Angeles gym.

They started dating and fell in love. Laura was conflicted about dating outside of the Jewish faith, but her new boyfriend loved Judaism, and she knew that if they had a family together, the children would be raised Jewish.  

Laura, who is a vocational counselor for people with disabilities, also knew that Willie did not have his immigration papers, but there were some hopeful signs.

Willie was being sponsored by a Mexican restaurant where he worked, and Laura figured that if he married an American citizen, it would surely help.

As she would learn, however, Willie’s situation was a lot more complicated. Years before meeting Laura, he had entered the country illegally from Mexico and started making a decent living doing bodywork on expensive cars. He even got a driver’s license and California ID card. But when his mother fell ill in Mexico, he had to return to take care of her.

It’s when he came back to the United States that he made his first fatal mistake. Instead of re-entering illegally, he took his chances with his California ID card. That got him arrested and deported on the spot. He re-entered the following day (illegally), but by then, his name was already in the system.

This episode haunted him for years. He was grateful that he had several jobs and could send a little money back to his relatives in Mexico, but he knew he was living in the shadows of the law. When he met and fell in love with Laura and dreamed of starting his own family, his fear of being deported became a daily obsession.

This fear was matched only by his intense desire to obtain legal status. So, after they married, had Adam and started building a life together, Willie made his second fatal mistake.

Following the advice of a shady immigration “Notario,” who charged him $4,000, Willie, in partnership with Laura, filed what’s called an I-130, an application for formal entry. His mistake, as any good immigration attorney will tell you, is that he should have waited until he got a response to his Freedom of Information Act request, so he’d know what the government had on him before filing the I-130.

Of course, the government had plenty on him, namely, his fingerprints and arrest record from when he was deported at the border many years back.

What he got on the morning of Oct. 18 was a lot worse than a rejection. He got another deportation.

Laura broke down a few times when she told me the story — but she’s fighting back. She feels her own rights have been violated.

Since that fateful morning, she has been on a mission to bring her husband home, firing off letters to everyone from her local councilman to President Obama. The most hopeful response so far has been a personal letter from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, expressing support and promising to help.

Legally, their chances are not good. The attorneys she has consulted so far have told her that unless the law changes, they’ll have to wait 10 years to reapply for legal entry. That depresses her, but it doesn’t break her will to fight on.

In the meantime, she and Adam spend long hours on Skype staying connected with Willie, who’s living with his mother in Mexico. Adam, who was very close to his father, is having anxiety attacks.

I can imagine that seeing his father’s face on a computer screen is reassuring, but it’s a far cry from the comfort of holding his hand.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.