Christina Zaldivar shifts through piles of paperwork spread across the kitchen table searching for her husband’s ID. She finds it and drops it into a faded manila folder with dates from the past four years scrawled along the side in faded pencil–dates from his previous ICE check-ins. She picks out a few papers from the stack, all addressed to her husband, Jorge, signed “Sincerely, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” She stuffs them into a drawstring bag, along with a list of relatives’ phone numbers, a phone charger and medicine, and heads out the door.
Christina knows the motions. She is used to having a plan. Every month, she gathers her five kids, loads them into the car and drives across town with Jorge to his mandatory check-ins. When her oldest daughter starts to cry, she turns up the radio. When her youngest daughter asks “what do you think will happen to dad?” she always finds an optimistic answer. When ICE officials threaten to deport her husband, she fights back.
For the past thirteen years that Christina and Jorge have been married, the couple has been fighting for Jorge’s legal residency in the U.S. “We weren’t planning for the fight of our lives,” Christina said. “We were planning for raising our kids and doing what normal people do.” Now, ICE check-ins and court dates are all the Zaldivar children--Francysco, 8, Aanahny, 10, Dyego, 14, Yolanda, 20, and Josefyna, 23-- know. Christina calls this fight her life’s work, estimating that they’ve spent roughly $100,000 on attorney and lawyer fees so far. And still, no answer has come.
On a hot day in the summer of 2018, when the news was filled with stories of family separation at the border and ICE raids, Christina spoke through tears in front of hundreds at a “Families Belong Together” rally in Denver, CO. “All of our stories may have began differently, but if we don’t stand up and fight back, all of them will have the exact same ending,” Christina said between cheers from the audience. The Zaldivars have become near-celebrities in the immigration community of Denver, often attending and speaking at events and rallies. Most of the community is familiar with Jorge’s case and comes out to support him at his monthly ICE check-ins. The rest keep up with Christina’s avid Facebook updates about his case.
At twenty-three years old, Jorge and his younger brother crossed the Mexican border illegally in search of better-paying jobs. Their goal was to support their parents and seven other siblings back home in Mexico City. Jorge found work in Tennessee and moved to Colorado in 2003. In April of the next year, a young Christina asked him to keep an eye on her slippers when she discarded them to join her friends on the dance floor of the bar he was working at as a security guard. A few months later, the two began dating. Christina and Jorge were married in a Denver courthouse in 2005. Her oldest two daughters, whom she had in a previous marriage, signed the witness testimonies, though they were barely old enough to write their names. Jorge became their step-father, though they have always referred to him as papi.
After their marriage, Christina and Jorge immediately began their I-130, known as a Petition for Alien Relative, the first step to a spouse gaining legal residency in the U.S. “Being a citizen, I already knew that it was going to be a process to get Jorge his papers,” Christina said. “But in the past everybody would just say ‘oh, we went to (the U.S. embassy in) Juarez, and I just assumed, being young and naive, we were going to be the same.”
In October of 2007, Jorge, a pregnant Christina and their three children drove from their home in Denver to the U.S. Embassy in Ciudad Juarez for Jorge’s “final appointment,” usually one of the final step to obtaining residency. But instead of getting the final paperwork completed, Jorge was denied re-entry into the U.S. by an official who felt the evidence presented was not sufficient enough to clarify a disposition of a felony charge from 2001. Jorge had been arrested for theft upon receiving, a felony in Colorado, but the case had been dismissed before he was charged. Still, according to Christina, the official denied Jorge because she said she “didn’t believe an illegal immigrant could be in the U.S. for ten years and not have committed a crime.”
Jorge had no choice but to return to his childhood home in Mexico City while Christina and her children returned to Denver without him. During the drive, Josefyna recalls her mother playing Aventura’s “Our Song” over and over on the radio, faintly singing “If tomorrow you feel lonely it’s okay, te prometo princesita volvere, please stop your crying, se me va el avión, when you miss me, pon nuestra canción.”
When they arrived in Denver, Christina and her children slept in Jorge’s bed most nights, often falling asleep FaceTiming him from Mexico. “It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” Christina said, recalling trying to explain to her children why their father could not come home. “They call it en muerto en vida--the living dead. They’re there, but you can’t see them, you can’t touch them, you can’t feel them, you can’t smell them.”
In December of 2007, Christina received a phone call from Jorge’s mother in Mexico City, saying he was coming home. “Home? What do you mean, isn’t he there?” Christina had asked. “No,” his mother replied. “He’s going home to Denver.” Christina understood. He was going to cross the border illegally, in the middle of winter.
Jorge arrived a few weeks later and was reunited with his family. He had missed helping his kids with their Halloween costumes and a family Thanksgiving, but he refused to miss Christmas or the birth of his first daughter. “Whether it was wrong or right, he did the best he could regardless of what the government says,” Christina said. “When we married, he took his vows seriously. He knew he wouldn’t be doing them justice by living in Mexico, away from his family.”
Just a few weeks after Aanahny was born, Jorge slid off the road into a guardrail. When law enforcement arrived, he was arrested under Colorado’s Senate Bill 90, otherwise known as the “show me your papers” law. Under this legislation enacted in 2006, law enforcement was required to decide if immigrants might be undocumented and report them to federal immigration authorities. After being held for over three months in the ICE detention facility in Aurora, CO., Jorge was let out but placed into deportation proceedings.
For a decade, Jorge was continually granted postponements to deportation by ICE officials during his routine check-ins. Like many others, he was able to avoid deportation as long as he continued attending his regularly scheduled appointments.
On January 20, 2017, the couple watched in disbelief as Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. “I just remember being shocked, and knowing that this would change things,” Christina said. Soon, the administration changes brought a wave of crackdowns on immigration policies. The Trump administration expanded deportation priorities to anyone who had crossed the border illegally. Jorge’s previously annual extensions began decreasing to six-month extensions, and then one-month. At times, ICE officials would give Jorge only two to three weeks before Christina would have to pack up his drawstring bag and drive the family back to the facility for another check-in.
At home, the family watched the news as ICE officials began arresting people outside of courthouses and schools. Christina comforted her close friend, Brenda, after her husband was arrested at his job and deported. Her kids started falling behind in school work. Josefyna gave up college to help pay for her father’s legal fees. “It’s not fair what the government is doing,” Jorge said. “They don’t care about the well-being of families. A lot of people are suffering for the smallest things.”
Christina and Jorge began drilling their kids on safety procedures, preparing them for every scenario. “I had to teach my kids not to open doors, to know their rights--all these things that an adult can barely fathom, I had to teach to my eight-year-old son,” Christina said. When the family was searching for a new house, instead of looking for big backyards and room to play, Christina recalls her children looking for places that they could hide their father if ICE officials ever threatened to deport him. “My mind kept going back to Anne Frank,” Christina said.
On a warm day in July of 2018, Christina packed Jorge’s drawstring bag once more and the family drove to the ICE facility in Denver for a routine check-in. Josefyna started to cry as an Ed Sheeran song faintly played on the radio. LAter, she explained that the song had reminded her of the love song that her mom had played the whole trip back from Juarez.
The family knew that in just a few short weeks Jorge’s most recent extension would be up, making him extremely vulnerable to deportation. Still, they expected the check-in to be uneventful and hoped that ICE officials would grant him another extension. But when Christina and Jorge entered the building, their children started to worry when the usual 15-minute routine lasted over an hour.
When they finally exited the building, the childrens’ cheers were interrupted by a frantic Christina, explaining through tears what had happened. The ICE officials, under the impression that Jorge’s latest extension was already expired, had detained him. The officials handcuffed Jorge and drove him in an unmarked and tinted car passed his children, who were waiting in the grass. He was on the interstate before Christina was able to convince a secretary in the office of their mistake. ICE officials drove him back and set him free, ordering him to appear for a new check-in date three weeks later. “One of the officials told me I should thank them for letting me go,” Jorge said to his kids outside.
The following week, the family sat around their kitchen table with Jennifer Piper, the Denver program director of interfaith organizing for American Friends Service Committee. Together, they made the decision to move Jorge into sanctuary at a local church while awaiting a decision on his case. ICE’s “sensitive location” policy advises against enforcement actions in specific places, such as churches. “I knew he would be so much safer in sanctuary than at home, where he was vulnerable to ICE detaining,” Christina said. “Moving him into sanctuary would give us time to come up with a new plan.”
On July 31, 2018, Jorge packed his belongings and moved into Montview Presbyterian Church in Denver, where members of the congregation had made a makeshift bedroom and living room in the basement. Though Jorge planned to stay several weeks, maybe months, his youngest two children, Aanahny and Francysco, refused to leave his side, staying the night in the church basement watching cartoons. When the rest of the family left for the night, Josefyna and Dyego began crying on the church’s front steps. Christina tried comforting them, saying that “he’s much safer living here than at home.” Still, Christina slept on the couch that night, saying she had “no reason to sleep in a bed without Jorge in it.”
The following morning, after calls back and forth with their attorney and several cups of coffee, the Zaldivars got news that the Board of Immigration had decided to grant Jorge six more months in the U.S. They then rushed Jorge to his scheduled ICE check-in. The officials did not know that just twelve hours earlier, Jorge had moved into sanctuary with no plans of coming out.
“I felt relieved at first, but I know that the fight isn’t over,” said Christina, who was already making calls to plan their next step. “I don’t want my kids to ever have to go through that again.”
After a celebratory dinner in the church, the family again gathered around their kitchen table, wondering what to do next. Though ICE officials granted Jorge an extension, his work visa was not renewed, and funds began running low when Jorge could not go back to work. Christina started a GoFundMe and began asking friends to crowdsource money for attorney fees while they planned their next steps.
In February of 2019, the extension given to Jorge by ICE officials in July expired and his stay of removal case was denied. At his most recent check-in on Feb. 27, ICE officials granted him a month long extension, but ordered him to return in thirty days with a plane ticket to Mexico as proof that he will be permanently exiting the country.
As the family tries to enjoy the time they have, Christina looks at houses in Mexico online, debating whether or not she will move there if Jorge is deported. She says she has been getting emails from Aanahny and Francysco’s teachers letting her know that they are behind on homework and missing too many days of school. “Can you blame them? No kid should have to go through this,” she said. She knows that as a mother, she has to be there for her kids--to babysit for Josefyna, to help Yolanda pays off her credit cards, to make sure Dyego takes his back medicine, to braid Francysco’s hair, to comfort Aanahny. “Having to dissect my family is something I never thought I would have to do as an American citizen,” she said. “So, I can’t just move to Mexico without making sure all my kids needs are met.”
Despite the news, Jorge and Christina are determined to keep up their fight. Christina says that their love for each other and their kids has sustained them. “Just for that alone, this fight is more than worth it,” Christina said. “And I’m going to come out winning in the end, because I started with him and it’s going to end with him.”