IN COMING DAYS
• Saturday: Business boycott: Hispanic businesses in Dalton urged to close today
• Sunday: Immigration and schools: Tough laws may mean fewer students
DALTON, Ga.—Instead of thinking about how she is going to fill her summer, Leslie Valladares has been busy packing her and her siblings’ belongings.
The life they built in Dalton must fit in suitcases that weigh less than 50 pounds each.
The 13-year-old and her two younger siblings are leaving today on a plane from Atlanta, returning to their native Mexico to eventually reunite with their mother, who is in an immigration detention center in Georgia.
Leslie’s mother, Veronica Segura, was stopped at a checkpoint in May.
“We were taking my brother to his soccer game, we went over a hill and on the other side we saw the orange cones,” said Leslie.
A month later, the mother of three is being processed for deportation. There’s no set date for her return and her children will stay with family members until she gets back.
The Valladares children are not the only ones leaving the Dalton area.
Residents and community leaders that work with the Hispanic community say tougher immigration law enforcement and the economic recession continue to push people out of the city and into neighboring states or even back to their native countries.
Leslie and her siblings are leaving the same day Georgia’s new immigration law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, goes into effect.
A federal district judge put the most controversial sections of the law on hold this week. One would allow law enforcement officers to investigate the immigration status of criminal suspects. The second would punish people who, while committing a crime, knowingly transport illegal immigrants.
But other provisions take effect today, including one that charges people who use counterfeit or false information to get a job in Georgia with aggravated identity fraud. They face up to 15 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
COMING TO U.S.
The Valladares family migrated illegally to the United States in the early 2000s. First came Erick Muñoz, the father, then the mother and, four years ago, the children.
Everything was going fine until the morning of May 21 when they ran into the checkpoint, Muñoz said from his home, his three children sitting right next to him. He is staying in the United States.
A police officer asked Segura, who was driving, for her driver’s license. She showed her Mexican driver’s license.
A few minutes later, Leslie said, the officer told her to call someone to pick them up because they were arresting her mother.
“I didn’t want them to take my mom,” said Cristian, 9, who remembered crying when they detained his mother.
Segura told Leslie to take care of her siblings.
“I will and I love you,” Leslie answered.
Family separation is one of the unintended consequences of road checks, said America Gruner, president of the Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton.
“[The Valladares children] are a symbol of what happens very frequently to many families,” she said. “People who have no violent criminal records nor are a danger to the community are being detained and deported.”
But the Dalton Police Department doesn’t do anything related to immigration, said the department’s spokesman Bruce Frazier. The road checks are to address traffic and crime problems within the city, he said.
Georgia made driving without a license an offense that must be fingerprinted, he said, so the officer has to arrest the individual and take them to jail. And, because Whitfield County participates in the federal 287 (g) program, which trains local police to enforce U.S. immigration laws, officers automatically check the immigration status of everyone booked into the jail.
“Those situations, where people end up being processed by ICE with families here, those are sad situations, but there’s no way our officers in the field know what’s going to happen to that person once they reach the jail because, frankly, in the field there’s no way of knowing who is illegal or legal,” he said.
The month that the Valladares siblings have spent without their mother has been hard, the children said.
“My mom used to take me to my soccer games and now I usually get there very late because my coach has to pick me up,” said Cristian.
Leslie had to mature very quickly. She now cares for her siblings after school, which is no easy task, she said.
“They don’t do what I tell them,” she said. “They do what my mom says, but I’m the sister.”
Jan Pourquoi, a local business owner and a legal immigrant from Belgium, said that, on an individual basis he feels sorry for illegal immigrants, who he refers to as “victims of economic abuse,” but they are breaking a law and it is their choice whether they want to be separated or not.
“The illegality they got themselves into is one of their choice,” he said. “We should not be made feel bad about the illegal activities they got themselves into; we are not responsible for their consequences.”
Muñoz came to Dalton from Mexico City to work in the carpet factories in 2002. He went from earning less than $2 an hour in Mexico to more than $7 an hour in the United States, he said.
“We come here to work, to become better persons,” he said.
After only four years of living in Dalton, Cristian and Jennifer, 7, the two youngest children, feel more comfortable speaking English, while Leslie easily switches from English to Spanish, both flawlessly.
Leslie and her siblings want to stay here, but she said she would like to be here legally.
“I’m not going [be filled with] fear that one day my dad or my brothers or me are going to have to go back. I don’t have to be thinking that,” she said.
But for now there’s no way she can stay and there’s no way she can get “papers,” as she calls having a legal status.
For now, they’ll have to take comfort with taking their most precious mementos from Dalton — their “student of the month” diplomas from Dalton Middle School and their soccer medals and trophies and the fact that they’re back with their mother.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...