Akronites with undocumented family members face years-long waits for answers

words by Noor Hindi, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti

Months ago, when Winter Storm Harper was forcing schools to close and Akron residents to cocoon inside their homes, 18-year-old Angie Morales worried about her mom.

The North High School student spent months in fits of anxiety and depression, dreading Jan. 18, when a court hearing would determine whether her mother would be deported to Guatemala.

“I was really sad,” Morales says. “I was really in depression for months because I was trying to think, OK, what am I supposed to do without my mom if she gets deported?’”

As the court date approached, Morales’ grades slipped. She couldn’t focus during classes. Teachers and friends at North High School would ask what was wrong, but Morales says she “never told anyone” what was happening. Morales knew her mother would be living in poverty if she returned to Guatemala. But she did her best to keep up with school, sports and DECA Marketing while they waited.

“It was just me trying to battle this,” she says. “I decided to just keep it to myself. I stressed myself out a lot.”

Morales was born in Georgia to undocumented parents. In 2011, when Morales was 11 years old, they left Georgia to visit Guatemala. They stayed there for four years.

In Guatemala, Morales finished fifth and sixth grade, but stopped attending school because it became too expensive. Additionally, getting to and from school would have required four hours of travel time every day.

“Where I lived, it’s very poor. You have to work very hard if you want something.”

Each day, she would wake up at 3 am to prepare food for the family, which mainly consisted of beans and tortillas she made from scratch. Her mom and aunt worked at a coffee plant from 5 am to roughly 6 pm each day, sometimes longer, for little wages.

Morales describes the family’s house as “made out of dirt.” The bathroom was outside, and there was no toilet, she says.

Someone had to be home at all times so the home wouldn’t be robbed.

With no opportunity in sight, Morales’ mother sent her and her little sister, who was 9 years old at the time, back to the United States. For them, the trip was easy, since both girls were U.S. citizens. Morales’ mom, still undocumented, followed them three months later with Morales’ younger brother, who was 3 years old at the time.

Morales says a smuggler helped her mom cross the border.

“For my mom, they guided her through a desert, then led her in the middle of a desert until ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] sees you to pick you up.”

This was four years ago.

Since then, Morales’ mom has been waiting to find out whether she can stay in the U.S. The January snowstorm caused the court to reschedule her trial until 2022.

In mid-March, the family found out that Morales’ mother would be able to legally remain in the U.S. and had been granted a work permit pending her trial.

Morales will graduate from North High School in 2020. After graduation, she hopes to join the military or attend college and eventually own her own business.

Twenty-two-year-old Angie Diaz received the worst phone call of her life two years ago. Her boyfriend, who is now her husband, spoke the only three words that could have completely shattered her.

“ICE got me.”

Diaz had been waiting at home for hours, growing frantic with worry. Her son, who was 1 year old at the time, slept by her side.

“My child was very, very little. My heart break down. I went to the first visit in jail. He told me, ‘I don’t want to give up. Can you fight for me?’”

For two months, Diaz’s husband Luis stayed at the Seneca County Jail in Northwest Ohio. Diaz says this was tough because visitations were limited to an hour and she could only talk to her husband through a glass wall.

Diaz and Luis had been together for about two years when he was picked up by ICE. She and her family were eventually able to raise enough money to pay his $25,000 bond. Soon after Luis was released, his lawyer advised Diaz to file for her citizenship — she had a green card — and get married so her husband could file for naturalization through her.

“It was a lot of things I had to do that year. I remember I was rushing, rushing, at that time,” Diaz says.

Before doing her paperwork to become a U.S citizen, Diaz had to study for a 100-question naturalization test that everyone filing for citizenship must pass, which Diaz says was “very, very scary.” Even the wedding was rushed, since the couple was so focused on Luis’s immigration status and had spent most of their money on his bond.

“I wanted a big wedding. It was nothing that I wanted, to put two balloons and you just kiss and that’s all. No. I wanted something big for us,” Diaz says.

In April 2019, Diaz and her husband visited the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Cleveland for an interview with officers. The purpose of the interview was to prove they were actually in love and not just getting married for the citizenship. USCIS believed them.

Diaz was born in Colombia and came to the U.S. at age 11, after her mother fell in love with a Colombian-American man. She had watched her mother go through a deportation scare and was weary of the paperwork and constant fear.

Diaz says her mother wanted to leave Colombia because Diaz was starting to witness “a lot” of violence around her.

“Where I live, they kill a lot of people. Kids are doing drugs. Young people were smoking, getting into gangs,” Diaz says.

Three doors down from where Diaz lived, there was a house where cocaine was dealt. Often, as Diaz was playing outside, shootings would happen.

“I did not feel safe,” she says. “I would be playing and out of nowhere the people started shooting with their gun. And they were like, ‘you have to go in, you have to go in the house.’ Or sometimes they just come into the house and start shooting.”

Although her mom was ready to leave Colombia with her husband and file for U.S. citizenship, Diaz didn’t want to leave her grandma, whom she still adores.

“It was so hard for me to leave my grandma, and that whole night I was like ‘grandma, I have to leave but I don’t want to leave you.’ It was very, very hard. My heart was in depression when I got here.”

Still, life moved forward. Diaz and her family settled in Medina, and Diaz was enrolled in middle school. Diaz says she didn’t like it at her school because she was one of few Hispanic students, and she was bullied.

Then her mom and stepfather started fighting. Diaz and her mother believed they were in danger. Eventually, Diaz’s mom decided she’d had enough and fled with her children to a women’s shelter in Akron.

Because Diaz’s mom and husband were no longer together, her mother’s green card application was in jeopardy. Diaz says this was a difficult time for her mom and siblings because they had no money and couldn’t speak much English. At this point, they’d been in the U.S. for less than a year, and Diaz still missed Colombia.

They stayed at the Catholic Worker House for two years, where they had food, beds and blankets.

With the help of the International Institute of Akron, Diaz’s mother received her green card. So did Diaz and her siblings.

Diaz also transferred to North High School, which she says she liked more.

“It was like a lot of diversity in there. They understand that you don’t speak English well. They have a lot of people who help.”

In 2020, Diaz’s husband has a trial which will determine whether he can continue living in the U.S with his wife and child. In the meantime, they’re waiting for his work permit so he can start bringing in money again.

“It’s very risky,” Diaz says. “They could say yes. They could say no.”

Akron Interfaith Immigration Advocates (AIIA) has helped both Angie Morales and Angie Diaz navigate the immigration system.

The Rev. Jon Beaty, one of the founders of the group, says the “undocumented are almost invisible” in Akron.

“They keep their heads down. They don’t make waves,” Rev. Beaty says.

AIIA was founded about three years ago when people from the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Hindu communities came together for an interfaith dialogue about immigration at the Islamic Society of Akron and Kent.

Right now, the board includes around 15 people of different faiths, plus a few volunteers. Since forming, AIIA has helped about 30 families. Treasurer Alan Fortnoff took Angie Diaz to most of her immigration appointments, as well as to the Akron-Summit County Public Library to get her passport and to vote for the first time.

“I’m in this until immigration is reformed. Until immigration is fair and viable for everyone that wants to come here,” Fortnoff says.

Fortnoff has taken multiple trips to the U.S-Mexico border with other leaders from the Jewish community. During one of his trips, he was able to see Tornillo Camp, which housed thousands of migrant children before shutting down in early 2019. Fortnoff, who is Jewish, refers to it as a “concentration camp” and says the experience was triggering for him.

He remembers standing outside of the fence at Tornillo and seeing soccer balls the children had kicked across the border. Each soccer ball had the name of a child on it.

“Their names could escape, but they couldn’t,” Fortnoff says.

While at the border, Fortnoff says he met many people who’d come to the border seeking asylum from gang violence. One man from El Salvador had his son of about 5 years old with him. He hoped to start working in the U.S. and eventually to bring his wife and daughters here. Months earlier, gangs had broken into his house, demanded money and threatened to take his children if he didn’t pay.

“That’s a pretty big motivation,” says Fortnoff. “The love for your children. And to walk thousands of miles with your children. They give everything just to get here.”

According to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, violence has driven thousands of refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to the U.S. in recent years. El Salvador was the world’s “most violent country not at war in 2015,” the report says, with a homicide rate of 103 per 100,000 people. For comparison, there were 36 homicides in Akron in 2018, a city of about 200,000 people.

Back in Akron, Fortnoff has been helping families who are moving through the immigration process or have been picked up by ICE during raids.

In June 2018, ICE arrested more than 100 workers at a Massillon meat supplier, according to a Fox 8 Cleveland report. Two months later, ICE arrested 13 workers at Fresh Mark in Cleveland. A few were Akron residents.

Kathryn Ress, who has a background in child mental health, volunteers for AIIA and says she tries to go into the home and help families after a crisis, such as an ICE raid.

“You find out they’re all working really, really late at night and they’re working very hard and they have kids who are trying to get As and Bs. Some of them have medical problems. Some of them are here because the kids have medical problems.”

The people who are most affected by the raids are the children, says Ress.

“Right in the midst of the trauma they can go mute,” she says. “If they’re little kids, they can’t process. They shut down. They become highly anxious. They stutter. And they have a hard time saying much to anybody. They’re very fearful of losing the other parent so they don’t go outside much. They don’t want to play. They’re very, very withdrawn, a lot of them, because they’re scared.”

Mario Morelos, owner of Localingua, a translation service based in Kent, has worked with Ress on translation and interpreting for some of the families. Morelos says his work is a “natural passion” because he’s an immigrant and understands what the families are going through.

Morelos was raised in Mexico City but came to the United States for medical care after a mountain bike accident. He was 22 years old.

“It’s really about adapting culturally,” Morelos says. “You’re missing your friends. You’re missing the environment in Mexico. I felt like I was stuck here.”

Today, Morelos lives in Kent with his wife and three kids. He’s been in the U.S. for more than 25 years.

Morelos has translated for undocumented people who are trying to stay in the U.S, but he says that’s challenging because they don’t always know how to articulate their stories.

“Some immigrants, they are really running from crime. They’re running away from El Salvador, and if they stay, they’re going to get killed. When they get here and they get asked why they’re here, they don’t explain it well,” Morelos says. “Sometimes I don’t think a lot of them really explain the situation. And they’re already very scared and intimidated. They’re with a lawyer and the court and an interpreter and everyone is asking them, ‘Why are you here?’ And they’re like, ‘because I’m hungry.’”

AIIA continues to fight for immigrants in Akron, but they need more lawyers, interpreters and volunteers. Even if you only speak English, immigrant families sometimes need someone who will accompany them to and from appointments. AIIA trains volunteers and puts them through an orientation process.

Ress says support services through mental health agencies are needed too. If kids are undocumented, they often cannot receive services because they don’t have social security numbers, which most agencies require.

In the meantime, 18-year-old Angie Morales continues to dream of a future where borders no longer separate families.

“We’re going through this together because we’re the same. Our families are going through the same struggle. There is a lot of people at the border on the other side of the fence, they’re not alone,” she says. “One day there will be a change.”

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s senior reporter.

Final photo: Used with permission from Mario Morelos.