I’ve sometimes thought of D like Haiti personified. He can’t catch a break, and when you think it won’t get any worse for him, it invariably does; after weathering slavery, colonial rule, dictatorships, poverty, and hurricanes – BAM – earthquake. And yet I have never seen D with anything but a smile on his face and goodwill in his heart. I know we say those sorts of things about folks when they’re down on their luck, but I mean it; he is a man who – by all of the protected, white, middle class, American standards that shape my worldview – should be hateful, spiteful, and miserable. And yet, he is unwaveringly kind. He is infinitely generous. He is unfailingly joyful.
And as of Friday, he is also in immigration detention.
Following a totally unremarkable traffic stop in Boston, a rather ambitious police officer decided to take D into custody and call immigration. For those of you who might not have known, local law enforcement does not need an Arizona SB1070 to call ICE. It happens every day, everywhere. Enterprising officers assume it’s their responsibility to enforce laws they don’t begin to understand. They don’t come from departments with 287(g)s, and the more righteous officers don’t think they need them; as far as undocumented immigrants go, these officers are the law and their conduct goes totally unremarked – invisible – just like the lives that they cavalierly dismantle.
D, in his infinite optimism, thinks maybe there’s a chance that he’ll get a hearing, paroled, and permission to stay. While I want that to be true, he is one of the 70% of Brazilians in Massachusetts who lack any path to documentation, having arrived after the last vestiges of compassion were stripped from US immigration law. He will be deported following a month or two in detention.
Waiting for him in Brazil is his loving mother, whom Leo and I met in Belo Horizonte. They might as well be carbon copies of one another: loud, loving, innocently inappropriate, wholly incomprehensible, and undeniably likable. It would be a happy reunion except that she’s the reason why he went to the United States, why he braved death to cross the border, and why he’s endured hardship and humiliation to stay.
Several years ago, D’s mom suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. D’s father – an irresponsible drunk about whom she still chortles in glowingly nostalgic tones – had already left the picture. D worked odd jobs to support his mom. One made him famous in the Belo Horizonte “favela” of São Thomaz.
D made deliveries in a rusted-out, junk heap of a van. His own Brazilian version of Little Miss Sunshine, D could only get the van running if it was going fast enough to engage and slip into gear, so every morning he started his day by pushing the van up the enormous hill a block from his home. From the top of this hill, you can see the intersection below – tiny and distant – but the middle of the hill drops from view, so steep it appears to bend back in on itself.
“Eh meu irmão! Me ajuda aí!” Help me out, brother! D would call to any passers-by as he heaved the van uphill; the neighbors soon learned to make themselves scarce in the morning hours. Once most of the way up the hill, D would clamber into the van and go whizzing down – shifting, honking, and yelling at the little old woman sweeping out her storefront to “Sai da frente!” Get out of the way! The van didn’t have any brakes either. The daily ritual gained legendary status and that stretch of road became known as O Morro do D. D's Hill.
He did anything he had to in order to keep bread on the table. He tried his luck in Rio de Janeiro – and still fancies himself a Carioca – and sold water bottles by the side of the road. Anyone who’s been to Brazil knows that at the even the slightest snarl in traffic, hawkers of all kinds materialize with armfuls of oranges, water, biscuits, and kitsch trinkets. Whenever I saw them in Brazil, I tried to imagine D on the median hollering “água gelada! Um real!” cold water for a buck! It was hard to picture given his immaculate and dignified, if working-class, lifestyle in the US.
Eventually, D had the opportunity to go to the US chaperoning a younger cousin making the trek. He was heartbroken at the thought of leaving his mother, but his brother and sister promised to look after her. He knew that with what he could earn in the States, he could make her much more comfortable than selling water or making deliveries in Brazil.
After D arrived in the US, his siblings immediately began vultureously scavenging of the money he sent for their mother’s care. When D’s mother became too much of a burden, his brother put her in a cab and sent her to D’s sister. D’s sister returned the cab to her brother. Each refused to care for their mother, and in the end, D’s petite, wheelchair-bound mom was left hapless and unwanted in the street.
Finally, D’s aunt took her in. D saved up enough money working in the US to remodel a downstairs apartment in his aunt’s home and found a qualified nurse to care for his mother. She’s been happily accommodated in her little abode for some time now, well-cared for by her nurse and kept company by D’s aunt’s family. After Leo and I visited D’s mom, D confessed to Leo that he thought sometimes about returning to Brazil, that he missed his mother.
“Don’t come back,” Leo told him, “Your mother is comfortable. She is well-cared for. You couldn’t provide for her this well working in Brazil.” D certainly wouldn’t be able to pay for the nurse; from the US he has been able to pay her as much as or more than he himself would earn in Brazil. Without a nurse, however, caring for his mother might prove to be D’s fulltime job in Brazil – without any pay.
Does the officer who took the initiative to call immigration know any of this? Would he care? Despondent during our Skype call today, Leo thought up an especially fitting punishment for the officer, “I want to take that officer and lock him in a room with only videos of D’s mom to keep him company.” Let him look at that tiny, hard-luck optimist in her wheelchair, dabbing at her half-paralyzed mouth with a towel, sometimes confused but never despairing and always singing the praises of her beloved son who would go to the ends of the Earth to ensure that she was well cared for.
I do wish that that officer could grasp the magnitude of what he’s just done to a kind man and his frail mother, peeling D’s clinging fingers off of the ledge of modest financial security and smugly celebrating his fall back into the chasm, into a neighborhood filled with drugs and violence and a life of perpetual, unvanquishable poverty.
I think about two other friends – Y and L for the purposes of this story – whose world came crashing down in much the same way. Y was an Ivy Leaguer and community leader; L was her ambitious partner from El Salvador. I had the rare opportunity to meet the officer responsible for shattering their future. I don’t think he was an ideologue; he ran L’s name because of a seemingly sketchy encounter that was in all truth quite innocent, but when L’s name came back with an “ICE hold,” the officer had no legal choice but to call ICE (L’s hold was from when he was brought to the US as a minor, given an immigration court date, and then taken to another state by his father; L never went to court and a hold was automatically placed on his name).
The officer let Y and L see each other at the station, talk for hours, even hug – minimal in human decency terms but enormous given the context. I will always remember the strapping young officer with the bearing of a family man as he looked at me and asked “but what happens to them now? I mean he’ll get a hearing right?”
“No. He’ll be deported back to El Salvador.” (He was.)
And as I watched the officer looking at the two of them wrapped in a desperate embrace, I felt vengeful righteousness but no small amount of pity; this officer didn’t want to tear apart two kids in love – he never intended it – but given his power, given that he was the catalyst that reduced their dreams to rubble, I felt it entirely just that he see every tear, every sob, every shaking caress – that he understand the consequences.
But there are other officers who never get that close to the consequences. Panicking over the possibility of Leo’s visa being denied (and the resulting move back to Brazil), I sometimes fantasize about storming into the East Boston police station and demanding to see the officer who thought it appropriate to arrest Leo for a $50 driving offense. I imagine myself slapping the Canadian rejection letter onto the table and asking him if he had the slightest notion of the harm he wrought. I would ask him to look me in the eyes and tell me that it was worth it – that his moment of righteousness was worth my graduate education, Leo’s technical education, the potential for a financially stable home, and the opportunity for us to follow our dreams.
But that’s immigration’s butterfly effect.
Somewhere in Boston, an officer stretches his wings, and a hurricane thrashes through lives half way across the world – a frail stroke victim in Brazil, a “widowed” Ivy Leaguer, and an aspiring academic in Canada.