When she looks at a picture of her three children, Mary’s eyes well up with tears. She won’t celebrate Thanksgiving with them. She won’t be there to watch them open presents at Christmas, and it’s possible she may never see her children again.
Mary has been the victim of decisions she had nothing to do with.
Her parents moved her to the United States from Guatemala when she was only five years old. One of six, she grew up in rural Georgia, knowing only the culture and customs of America.
“This is my home. This is where I grew up,” says Mary. “I don’t know anyone from Guatemala, and wouldn’t know where to go if I was forced to go back.”
At nineteen, Mary married an American citizen and the couple had three children, but citizenship was never granted for Mary.
“I tried to apply when my husband and I were living in Fort Pierce, Fla., but they said in order for him to sponsor me, he had to show proof on his income tax return that he made enough money to provide for us. We were low income and he was not able to do that, even though at the time we only had four-month-old Gavin. We had a free lawyer, but she dropped us when my husband moved us back to Georgia. She said we were out of her jurisdiction. Once we got to Georgia, we were not able to afford another lawyer.”
The new family welcomed two more children, still with high hopes of living the American dream. They may not have had money, but they had love — or so Mary thought.
“After the first two years together, my husband changed. I suddenly saw a different side of him — an angry, violent side. He never hurt our children, but the day he hit me, I knew I couldn’t take it anymore.”
After an intense argument, the two parted ways, with Mary staying behind in an apartment with the children. Things were better for awhile, until Mary lost her job when her company relocated.
“That’s when things got really bad. Me and my children finally got evicted, and even the car wouldn’t start. My driver’s license couldn’t be renewed because my citizenship was no longer in progress, and I had no choice but to let my husband keep the children until I could find a job and get back on my feet. He convinced me to sign a six-month agreement, promising that at the end of the time, I would get them back. I signed it, thinking of it as more of an insurance policy that I would get my babies back.”
That proved to be the worse mistake of Mary’s life. Her husband met a new woman, moved the children into her house and attempted to completely shut Mary out of their life.
Trying to build a life for herself, Mary moved into her brother’s mobile home in Alabama and joined him in the lawn care business. She tried to contact the children, but her husband rarely answered the phone and refused to even let Mary have the children on the holidays.
“On the rare occasions he picked up the phone, he told me I could see them under his supervision if I found someone to take me on the three-hour drive. He wouldn’t even meet me halfway, and when I got there, he sat there with us the entire time. He wouldn’t so much as let me take them out for ice cream.”
Mary’s eyes begin to fill up with tears. “I went for an entire year without seeing my babies, and I’m not going to lie … during that time … I lost the will to live.”
I met Mary through a friend of a friend, and took her to see an immigration lawyer concerning the matter. After she filled him in on the details, he didn’t exactly have good news for us.
He told her she was fighting an uphill battle because her husband had citizenship and he already had the children enrolled in school three hours away. It didn’t matter that, according to Mary, her husband had previously been convicted on criminal charges or that she’d only signed an agreement for six months. Mary didn’t have a leg to stand on without citizenship and money.
To gain citizenship she needed a sponsor, which had to be a relative who was already a citizen. Mary didn’t have that anymore.
Because she didn’t have citizenship, she couldn’t get a social security number, a better paying job or even a driver’s license in Alabama. She said she was “hopeless,” but I never liked that word.
Since her husband was non-responsive and didn’t seem to care whether or not the children ever saw their mother again, I drove her the three hours that very weekend. The oldest boy was nine, the middle girl seven and the youngest boy was only five.
When the children saw her pull up, they ran up shouting “Mommy, Mommy!”
She embraced them all at one time as she burst into sobs of joy. She cried in a manner only befitting for a mother who had been an entire year without seeing her children.
Her husband and a new woman walked out of the house, greeted us coldly, and went back inside while Mary and I sat outside playing with the children for nearly three hours.
As evening poured in on us, I finally motioned to Mary that we had to go. I brought my own daughter along for the journey, and we had another three-hour drive back home.
I could never forget what happened after that. Mary’s seven-year-old daughter crawled up into her lap and asked a simple question.
“Mommy, why can’t I go home with you?” Just like Mary’s, her honey brown eyes were filled with tears. Mary didn’t know what to say, and neither did I.
As they sat there on the porch clinging to one another, the rays of sunshine bounced off of their shiny black hair and illuminated their tear-streaked faces.
“Just ask your Dad,” said Mary, knowing all the while that the answer would always be “No.”
With innocent eyes, her daughter nodded her head. She hadn’t given up hope, yet.
We drove home in silence with the exception of my daughter watching Shrek on DVD in the back seat.
Hot tears streamed down both of our faces as we stared ahead at the road before us. I had never felt so helpless, and was certain, that neither had she. I finally felt like maybe Mary was right after all. Maybe it was hopeless.
Three months later Mary received a phone call from her husband letting her know that the courts had granted him a divorce and full custody even though she was never notified of the court date. Shortly after Mary attempted suicide with an entire bottle of pills.
After being rushed to the hospital, Mary’s life was spared, however she was hospitalized for nearly a week.
Though I got married and moved on with my life, I never forgot about Mary, and I called her one day to encourage her and tell her that I really believed nothing was impossible, and I still believed she would get her children back one day.
“I never thought I could live without my children,” Mary would say, “but I guess I have no choice.”
The last time I called her was after I heard about the passing of Alabama’s new immigration law, HB 56, which was signed into law in June.
The law makes it possible for law enforcement to question suspected immigrants at routine traffic stops and arrest those believed to be in the United States illegally. It requires someone renting a house, buying a car, or engaging in any business transaction to verify their legal status. And, even to obtain utilities, one must have state-issued identification.
While some of the law was upheld by a U.S. district court judge, full enforcement has been temporarily blocked by the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals pending the outcome of an appeal.
With a fear of the future, Mary and friends fled the hostile environment, moving even farther away from her children. She finally found work New York City, and hopes that she can one day save up enough money to get a lawyer.
“I wonder if I’ll ever see them again,” she told me over the phone. The hustle and bustle of New York City was drowning out her voice.
I hope and pray for that reunion to come.