Young Catholic takes stand against deportation of undocumented residents

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | May 7, 2014

Family separation caused by deportations is unjust, says Leza

GREEN BAY — While the momentum for immigration reform has waned on Capitol Hill, deportations around the country are on the rise. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the pace of deportations has risen from about 70,000 in 1996 to 419,000 in 2012. More than 4.5 million undocumented immigrants have been deported in the past 15 years.

Marisa Leza, a member of St. Philip Parish in Green Bay, believes family breakups resulting from deportation of undocumented immigrants is unjust. Her father, Jesus, pictured on her sweatshirt, was arrested and deported to Mexico last March. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)
Marisa Leza, a member of St. Philip Parish in Green Bay, believes family breakups resulting from deportation of undocumented immigrants is unjust. Her father, Jesus, pictured on her sweatshirt, was arrested and deported to Mexico last March. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

These numbers are just statistical data for some observers. But for Marisa Leza, a member of St. Philip Parish, the crackdown on deportations is personal. Her father, Jesus Leza, was arrested during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) roundup on March 14 in Green Bay and deported to Mexico, leaving his wife and four children behind.

Marisa, 23, who works as Hispanic outreach coordinator at Notre Dame Academy, wants others to know that separating families who have lived in the United States for years, sometimes decades, is unjust. “All the suffering and all the pain from the separations needs to end soon,” she said.

She and other immigration reform advocates say that immigration laws need to allow the estimated 11 million undocumented residents a legal path to citizenship.

Leza participated in a May 1 March to Stop Deportations in Milwaukee, sponsored by Voces de la Frontera. She wrote a guest column published April 29 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that described her father’s arrest and deportation. In an interview with The Compass, Leza said she hopes the Obama administration will authorize a deferred action on deportations, similar to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) he issued for young immigrants in 2012.

DACA provides undocumented immigrants — those under age 31 who entered the United States before age 16, who have lived here continuously for at least five years, who attend school or have graduated or earned a GED or served in the military — with an opportunity to remain in the country and apply for work permits and driver’s license.

When the Obama administration enacted DACA, Marisa and one of her brothers applied and received legal status.

“It permits you to be here legally and have a job and not be deported,” she said. “After those two years, you have a chance to renew it for another two years.”

Leza, who graduated from Notre Dame Academy in 2009 and St. Norbert College last spring, said she must renew her legal status in June.

Her family is typical of many families that migrated from Mexico. They left Saltillo, Mexico, in 1995 and moved to Rockford, Ill., where her mother’s brother lived.

“My dad worked in factories while living in Rockford for six years,” she said. “Then my family decided to move to Green Bay because my dad had found a better job in the dairy industry.”

In 1998, Marisa, her parents and younger brother returned to Mexico for an uncle’s funeral. At the border, they were not allowed back into the United States. Her two older brothers were in Illinois, “so we entered the country like the majority of the 11 million undocumented have done — crossing the border illegally,” she said.

The fear of deportation led her father to flee the scene of an automobile accident in 2012. “He was scared and he was in shock,” said Leza. “He did not have a driver’s license.” About 30 minutes after the accident, he called police to take responsibility for the accident “because he felt guilty and thought it was the correct thing to do.”

This incident led ICE to target him for deportation, she said.

When he was deported, Leza said he was handcuffed from his feet to neck and not fed for more than 12 hours. “He was here for 20 years. It’s a country that he considered his home. Whereas now, he is left in ruins,” she said. “He has to start all over in a country he no longer considers his home.”

While it’s too late for her father to benefit from immigration reform, Leza is advocating for new laws and a deferment on deportations.

“Right now, it’s kind of frustrating to see how the House (of Representatives) hasn’t been able to come up with any sort of bill or hasn’t presented anything,” she said. “I know the bill in the Senate did pass. I think Obama does have the power to not only grant the deferred action that he did for the youth, but for the whole 11 million undocumented. Since there is a lack of will from the House to pass a law that allows 11 million to be here legally, I wish he would do that. … That wouldn’t bring my dad back, but I believe that families should be kept together and not be separated.”

Leza said she talks to her father by telephone every day. “I just wish he was here. It’s a lot of suffering and pain, but we have to be strong and keep moving forward.” Her mother, she said, is devastated, “but we have faith that one day we are going to be reunited.”

She would like to see church leaders, particularly bishops and priests, take a stronger stand on the immigration issue.

“I think that would make a lot of difference in the country because it’s not just the (undocumented) people suffering. It’s the whole community. I just believe that the more people (advocating for immigration reform), the bigger the message that is going to be spread.”

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