Thursday, October 23, 2008

Disappeared in Philadelphia

“Some people have disappeared on their way to work.”
It is one sentence among many during an interview I am conducting about outreach to immigrants in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The people sitting at the table with me are a priest, a nun and a layperson – all remarkable advocates for the communities they serve.
I wonder if they notice that the sentence makes me flinch.
When I was 15, my family moved to the United States from Guatemala – a country that was then escalating from civil war to genocide. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared during those years – on their way to work, or school, or the corner store. I can’t hear a sentence like the one that opens this piece without thinking about life in those days – of how our ordinary routines were flanked by fear, limned by caution.
“What do you mean, ‘people have disappeared?’” I ask. “In Philadelphia?”
“Let me see if I can get someone to talk to you about it,” Sister Lorena says.
Several weeks later I find myself in the rectory of a church in Philadelphia of which I am not a parishioner. Erica, a 26-year-old woman dressed in jeans and sneakers, sits across from me, her 5-year-old son fidgeting on the sofa next to her. They’re not parishioners of this church either. Sister Lorena has brought us together here so I can hear about Beto, Erica’s 18-year-old brother.
The story begins on Thursday, March 15, 2007. Erica shares an apartment with her three sisters and two brothers. She is still asleep that morning when Beto gets up to go to work at the restaurant where he is a cook.
Usually he leaves for work in the early morning and doesn’t get home until 1 or 2 a.m. He speaks some English, and Erica describes him as “tranquilo” (even-tempered) and “muy cumplido” (reliable).
On that day, he wears a jacket and carries a backpack. He has his cell phone on him, and his pay for the past week, some $500 in cash, by Erica’s accounting. He calls from the subway platform on his way to work, speaks briefly to one of the family members and ends the call by saying he’ll call again later.
At 1 p.m., a co-worker at the restaurant calls the apartment.
“What happened to Beto?” he asks. “He didn’t show up for work.”
The family tries to find him. They call the police, who ask for a description, what clothing and shoes he was wearing. One of the family members runs a photo of him down to the station.
They worry that he might be hurt or dead – that his girlfriend’s ex has killed him in some fit of jealousy. The next day, they seek her out and she refuses to open the door or answer any of their questions. It seems to confirm their worst fears.
Still, they spend the rest of that day, and Saturday and Sunday also, posting flyers with his photo, and asking around whether anyone has seen him. They call hospitals and inquire about every John Doe. At 3 a.m. on Sunday, a friend of the family, utterly desperate, calls Sister Lorena.
“None of us thought about ‘la migra,’” Erica says to me, referring to Immigration and Customs Enforcement by its nickname. “It hadn’t even crossed our minds.”
But it crosses Sister Lorena’s mind. At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, March 19 she calls the York County Prison where most undocumented immigrants from the Philadelphia area are taken.
By the time they ascertain he was taken there, he’s already gone.

What happened to Beto?
Erica recounts the detention story Beto tells her when he is finally able to make a call to them: He’s on the platform at 15th and Market waiting for his usual train. He notices Philadelphia police on the platform checking people’s backpacks, but doesn’t think much about it.
At some point, a policeman approaches him, asks him what time it is. When he hears Beto respond, the policeman asks him if he has documents proving he’s a legal immigrant.
Beto, Erica continues, tells the policeman he has papers, even though he really doesn’t. He is loaded into a van with 15 other young Latino men from the train platform, and taken to the local precinct.
The police turn him over to immigration authorities in Philadelphia. There, the I.C.E. agents take his watch, his jacket, his wallet and his cell phone.
Before Beto is shipped off to the detention center in York, his wallet is returned to him with approximately $100 of his original $500. He has to plead with them to get his cell phone back.
He’s not at York long. Within days he’s taken first to Texas, and then to Arizona, where he is finally able to contact Erica. He’s on his way to be dropped across the border -- Ciudad Ju├írez, Sister Lorena guesses – to find his way back to their hometown in Puebla.
“Another waitress where I work [as a busboy] knows someone who was picked up the same way, at the same station,” Erica tells me when she finishes recounting her brother’s story.
Then simply, with no drama: “I no longer take the trains.”

Nothing but questions
As I try to find my way through a section of Philadelphia I don’t know after my two-hour conversation with Erica, I’m struck by her poise. She’s managed to tell me her brother’s story, as well as her own (look for subsequent blog entries) calmly and with a self-possession I don’t feel after talking to her.
I seethe with questions.
Are there really police staked out at certain train stations in Philadelphia doing immigration checks?
On what basis are people being asked to present documents – on that train platform or anywhere else in the city and suburbs for that matter? Their “Latino” look? Their accents? Their “immigrant” backpacks?
Are immigration officials temporarily confiscating the cell phones of detainees to deprive them of legal counsel? Or to pull the telephone numbers in the memories of those phones so they can chase down other potential “illegals?”
Mostly I ask myself how anyone endures the anguish of having a loved one disappear so inexplicably. As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, this is not a new question for me. What is new is that I’m asking it in the United States.


  1. I really didn't think that this would happen, not in Philadelphia. How can we call ourselves civilized when we are doing the same things other dictatorships are doing? Will the next step be coming into the home in the middle of the night?

  2. Everyone seems to forget how this country was founded on immigration. The government is very anti-immigration at the moment, and across the board. My friend dated a girl from Japan for 4 years while she was going to school here. After she graduated, they married, and she got pregnant. They wanted to deport her because he didn't make enough money (the government felt), so I actually had to sponsor her, so that she could stay. My boyfriends sister just married a Bosnian man. He had a work visa that was valid for 2 more years when they married. Now the INS have taken their wedding album, and put them through several court cases, they have spent over $6000 on lawyer fees, and it is still under investigation and he may yet still be deported.
    people easily forget their roots...I am only 3rd generation in this country myself.

  3. I work near the USCIS branch on Callowhill St. in Philadephia. One evening in August, as I was driving down 17th St towards the Parkway, I saw a long line of men - Latino looking men- being escorted from the building into a big van. Their hands were behind their backs... handcuffed? I don't know... I guess... It was such a sad sight...

  4. Anonymous,

    It is likely they were being taken to the correctional facility in York, Pa., where most individual undocumented immigrants are taken for detention. When whole families are detained they are taken to a correctional facility in Berks County -- one of the "family" detention centers for the nation. Can you imagine? What if instead of grown men what you had seen were children and mothers lined up to get into the van?
    Keep seeing. Keep witnessing.


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