Just as they did when they were kids, Francesca, Margie and Mary—now women of a certain age—still sit together rolling meatballs gabbing away like there’s no tomorrow.
Their mom who grew up in Italy had to steal the fat cut-offs from the meat trucks, just to salvage some actual meat among the fat. They made their own cheeses, wines and bread when they could. Things were difficult in Italy then.
Their father, Marco Palumbo went to sea at 13 to escape the draft for Mussolini’s army. When he got to New York he jumped ship carrying his belongings in a pillow case. He made his way to Rockford Illinois where he met his bride—their mother—working in the back of Lyndy’s restaurant. The restaurant owner—a first generation countryman—sponsored their naturalization and stood by them as they gained legal status and eventually full citizenship.
They married, move to San Diego, raised a family, and for more than 50 years operated their family restaurant—Marco’s in Coronado—in a bank building with tall columns just down the street from Hotel del Coronado.
The girls grew up kitchen slaves rolling meatballs since the age of nine—but it was good too. There were many celebrities like Dick Van Dyke, Penny Marshall, Rob Reiner, Charlton Heston and Pearl Bailey who regularly made their way down the street from the hotel.
Every immigrant has a story to tell about coming to America and so do their children—unfortunately far too many of those stories are not as warmly remembered.
Meghla and Mubina, girls of Bangladesh decent—American citizens by birth—haven’t seen their mother since they were infants. Meghla was still being breast feed in 2007 when early one morning I.C.E. took their mother away in handcuffs with chains on her feet forcing her to walk down the stairs and into the parking lot where she was placed inside a van and taken away.
Their father Liam with their mother Mita, owned and operated a motel in Anaheim where the girls were born. Both parents had gained lawful permanent resident (LPR) status and as “Green Card” holders were allowed to live and work permanently in the United States.
In many respects, LPR status is one step shy of American citizenship. However, unlike being an American citizen, an LPR is subject to removal from the United States for a violation of relevant immigration laws regardless of the length of residency or, as in Mita’s case, even having mothered citizen-children.
In the wake of 9/11, rumors ran rampantly through the Muslim community. Mothers like Mita, whose immigration status had begun legally, increasingly feared appearing at residency interviews as stories of immediate removal circulated through her church community. No hearing, no waiver, no rights. Indeed, persons are often arrested at an immigration building, waiting for a naturalization or residency interview, or even while applying for asylum.
Fearing deportation and leaving her children behind, Mita failed to appear at a scheduled immigration hearing and an order of removal in absentia was sought. A multi-agency task force continued to zero in on other members of her community.
Still hoping to locate her lost driver’s license, Mita obtained a California Identification Card. She mustered the courage to set an appointment with an immigration judge planning to ask for a reinstatement. It was only 20 days away when I.C.E. busted through her door.
While at the DMV she had marked the box stating she had never before obtained an Identification Card or Drivers License—a material false statement in the eyes of the prosecutor who sought prosecution for Perjury—a crime of moral turpitude. His position was admittedly intended to create permanent immigration consequences.
In fact, Mita had never before obtained an Identification Card though she had a Drivers License which was lost. In both circumstances, Mita used her true name.
Mita quickly learned that the establishment in America was the same as elsewhere. She discovered that politics are not just a way to govern, but also served to justify unfair agreements. She began to comprehend how so many men had turned to violence throughout the world because of injustice.
She felt kidnapped, humiliated and observed that most of her cellmates shared the same feeling. As time passed, she learned the repetitive hours of prisoners’ count, the hour of recess, the long lines to the cafeteria for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Moments of privacy—taken for granted by most—were lost to group showers and toilets that offered none.
Outside the walls of her prison were the children that needed her and a loyal husband who struggled not to project his disillusionment from the long deprivation of her liberty.
Mita will tell you that liberty is not a right—it’s a state of living. When her liberty was lost, not only did her body feel trapped, her soul asphyxiated. She longed for the proper place that she could say a prayer. She missed her loved ones terribly.
After 27 years, American immigration reform is gaining momentum and seemingly being embraced by our political parties. The contrasting stories of the Palumbo girls and Mita’s family are meant to illuminate the value of being warmly remembered and putting humanity at the center of our immigration politics.