Jacobo Gabriel-Thomas participated with the Worthington, MN-based ‘Abuelos Y Nietos Juntos’ organization in a 2013 panel discussion on immigration hosted by Archbishop John C. Nienstedt at the University of St. Thomas (see video of event here).
The Experience of One Guatemalan Immigrant
by Jacobo Gabriel-Tomas (PDF Version)
On Tuesday, July 16th of this year, four days after two of my children returned from their visit to Guatemala with Abuelos y Nietos Juntos, I was stopped by a police officer. The officer told me he did so because one of the passengers in the backseat was moving around, and he thought we might be drunk. None of us had been drinking, and the officer didn’t have a complaint about my driving.
I have a valid U.S. driver’s license and I wasn’t issued a ticket for the stop, but the officer ran my driver’s license number, and I was asked to report to the Homeland Security Office in Sioux Falls, SD the next day. I wanted to cooperate, and so I did go to Sioux Falls the next day. There I was detained for deportation, based on a deportation order issued 11 years ago.
I have been in this country for 20 years. When I first came, I was given permission to be here and was issued a work permit. I had a case for asylum because of the civil war in Guatemala, and I was glad to escape the fear of violence and war in my country. While I was waiting to find out about the asylum case, a peace treaty was signed in Guatemala in December of 1996, and my case for asylum was canceled.
The problems of poverty, violence, and oppression in Guatemala didn’t end with the peace treaty and the end of the war. By this time I had been in the U.S. for almost four years, and I knew that a chance for a better life was here. I was able to work, earn a decent living for my family, and I wanted to be able to stay in my new home. So I hired a lawyer to help me, and began the process of requesting legal status here in the U.S. I was able to reside here while my case was being decided. I went to court three times from 1997-1999, but eventually I lost my case. Then there was an appeal, again with no success. In the fall of 2002, I was given 30 days for a voluntary departure.
This was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. By this time I was married, and our first son had been born, and my wife was expecting our second child. We both wanted to stay here and continue our life here—to make a good life for our children. I didn’t comply with the order, not because I didn’t want to follow the law, but because I knew that if we returned to Guatemala, our future would be bleak. We wouldn’t have the opportunity to send our children to school, and since finding a job there is so difficult and wages are so low, we would certainly fall into poverty and would struggle to even put food on the table for our family. There was still violence there, and much of it was (and still is) directed towards people who have lived in the U.S., because of the misconception there that we had been working here, and because of that, we are “rich”. Unfortunately, there are not immigration remedies for people in our situation. It was a frightening and difficult decision, but like many other undocumented immigrants, we decided it would be better to live in the shadows here than to go back and put our family at risk.
For the past 20 years I have lived here, working and paying taxes. I don’t have a criminal record. I have worked at the same job for the past nine years (at a hog farm—a job that is difficult and dirty), and after my incarceration, my employer welcomed me back to work the very next day. My wife and I have four children now, and all of them have been attending Catholic school and are very good students. Our faith is the sustenance of our lives. We have a deep faith in God, and we are part of a wonderful community in our home parish. We trust that even in the difficult times, God will care for us.
This past summer, after I was arrested, I was jailed for a month. At one point, I was going to be deported within a few days, but with the help and support of friends, along with people I’ve never met who were working with my lawyer, I was able to avoid that deportation and eventually was issued a stay of deportation for six months. In December I will have another chance to argue my case in court. Most immigrants in my situation are not fortunate enough to have the support that I had, and many are deported quickly, without the kind of help I received. Staying here with the opportunity to eventually become citizens means everything to my wife and me. If immigration reform allows us this opportunity, we would be happy to pay fees and comply with the requirements. Our children are U.S. citizens, and it is our dream that we will have that opportunity as well. We hope that someday, we can contribute to our community and to this country openly, without fear of deportation and arrest. We pray for many of the things we can’t do now, including going back to Guatemala to see our parents before they die. But this is our home; we wish to stay here and live here for the remainder of our lives, with our children. Our lives are here.
As of November 2014, Gabriel-Thomas had deportation proceedings started against him. His lawyer is currently appealing the decision and is requesting a stay of removal.
***To sign a petition in support of Gabriel-Thomas’ stay of removal, please visit this website.***