MESA, Arizona — There’s not a lot of reasons to celebrate Christmas at Maria Montoya’s home this year. Ever since her husband, the father of her five children, was deported, she is more concerned with paying bills than buying gifts.
But Montoya heard on a Spanish-language TV station that a church in Mesa would be giving toys to the children of deported parents and decided to check out the event.
She wasn’t the only one who responded to the call last Saturday: about 500 people showed up, half of them toddlers and teenagers.
“We were expecting large numbers of people,” said organizer Magdalena Schwartz, a pastor with the Disciples of the Kingdom Free United Methodist Church.
On the face of an increase in the number of parents deported from Maricopa County, the church decided to organize the event “Un regalo, una sonrisa” (A Gift, A Smile) for the first time this year. Arizona is also seeing stiffer penalties for undocumented workers and increased cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. This includes a federal program known as Secure Communities, which allows jailers to identify and put a hold on pre-sentenced undocumented detainees who enter the jail system.
“They’re victims of these anti-immigrant laws that have separated them from their parents,” Schwartz said of the kids. “We can’t blame them because their parents chose to come to the U.S. to give them a better life.”Watch a slideshow of the event:
Elvia, 6, one of Montoya’s youngest children, rushed to pick up her Christmas gift: a pink box with a huge notepad and some color markers. She held it as if someone might take it away.
Her father José Rendón was deported four months ago.
The family had left Arizona in 2008 fearing a new employer sanctions law imposing civil penalties on businesses that knowingly hired undocumented labor.
They settled in La Vegas, where they felt safer. But Rendon found a job in construction back in Arizona and decided to commute weekly.
One weekend he didn’t come back. Montoya expected the worse and spent three days calling hospitals until she got a call from Nogales, Mexico. Rendon had been deported. The Highway Patrol had stopped him on his way home for not having a working light fixture on the car’s license plate.
Montoya decided to stay in the U.S. because of Elvia, who has a heart condition and needs constant medical supervision.
“What are we going to do back there?” she said. Her husband already has a job in Mexico, but he makes so little money that it’s not enough to support the children. She fears the only choice would be for him to cross the border illegally.
Pleasant View Church pastor Arturo López, another of the event’s organizers, said the afternoon was bittersweet, because he knows these children are in need of basic things like food, a place to live and sometimes even clothes.
“There’s great spiritual need, but there’s great need for many of these families to also pay the rent,” he said.
Ileana Maldonado, whose husband was detained by police on his way to work and later deported, was hoping to get her daughters some gifts. They had given her a list: Michele, 12, wanted a bicycle and Gaby, 6, a toy kitchen. Her 2-year-old is too young to notice.
Maldonado has a Christmas wish herself: to be able to stay in the U.S. for as long as possible.
Agustín Camacho, 48, attended the gift-giving with three of his oldest children.
“We’re just coming back from visiting my wife, who is in the Eloy Detention Center,” Camacho, an American citizen, said.
His wife, Maricruz Beltrán, has been detained for almost three months after being arrested for using someone else’s name and Social Security number to work at a restaurant.
“She had only been working there for a month and a half,” he said.
Camacho said they hadn’t realized the seriousness of the charges she could face. She decided to take a part-time job to help out because Camacho’s work as a cook had slowed down. Since his wife was detained, Camacho’s 14-year-old daughter is babysitting the youngest in the family.
He said he has paid thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees but he doesn’t think there’s much hope, since his wife now has a felony on her record.
“I don’t really think there’ll be immigration reform,” said Camacho, who voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain in last year’s elections.
“The government needs to realize these charges are not against her,” he said. “They’re against her children.”