Thursday, April 23, 2009

Deporting the American Dream

This is me, attempting to marry my two disciplines: 
Painting and Journalism.

NEW! Exclusive! Los Disappeared Complete

Editor’s Note: Recent reports have shown that in some states, the number of police referrals to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has nearly doubled in the past year. A report by TRAC shows that ICE has the highest number of referrals for federal criminal prosecution of all law enforcement agencies. In El Salvador, these deportees are affecting the culture of the nation with their Americanized ways, working at call centers and struggling to survive. Josue Rojas is an artist and writer from San Francisco’s Mission District.

Salvadoran deportees, or DPs, have a few things in common: they think in English, they’re young and they’re influential. They’re importers of the culture they carry inside — the niche, regional culture of the American city they grew up in. Be it New York talk, L.A. talk, N’awlins or D.C talk… they speak it. Culturally, they’re intimately in the know of something else that is arguably the coolest thing in the hemisphere: Americana.

In a country celebrated in Central America as one of the region’s greatest friends to the United States (and often paraded as a flagship for development) the DPs' influence spreads. They are simultaneously embraced and rejected. They’re the cool kids that society hates to love — Central America’s most beloved, betrayed bad-asses.

The seven deportees I spoke to were not all members of the internationally infamous MS-13 gang. Instead they were rappers and artists; they worked to remove tattoos and manned phone lines at call centers. They’re marginalized in a marginalized country –– foreign bodies among the harsh antibodies of a prejudiced, hyper-conservative society still dealing with the duality of right-wing conservative culture and a stubborn attempt at a socialist revolution. Coming in by the tens of thousands each year, El Salvador is sweating from the fever of their infection. They’re the ones who couldn’t make it on the other side, yet they’re successful here.

Once you’re deported, you don’t fall into a black hole. Your life continues, and with it your dreams. Disappeared from North America and rejected by the mainstream in El Salvador, DPs emerge with a hybrid culture of their own. They haven’t lost the "American dream" –- they’ve just been deported along with it.


Frank “Fugitivo” Ochoa, 24, was deported from the Bronx in 2006. These days he divides his time between his work as a call-center operator and a local celebrity.

His day job –- a product of American outsourcing -– is working for the San Salvador-based SYKES, Inc., where he answers calls and arranges flight and hotel reservations so U.S. travelers can see the world.

Although grateful to be working in a “U.S. environment” (and to be well-paid by Salvadoran standards), Frank feels that outsourcing exploits his situation. “But what can you do? You’re deported, you got tattoos, you ain’t got no diploma that says you went to school over here…don’t nobody wanna talk to you.”

At night, Frank becomes “Fugitivo: The talk of El Salvador” – a hip hop MC and local reggaeton sensation. His music is featured daily on radio waves across the country.

Fugitivo has arguably every reason to be happy: He’s put on the celebrity pedestal, he has no lack of female fans, he’s got a steady income, owns a home and has a new son. Yet, he struggles inside.

“I haven’t been happy since I’ve been here. People think I’m happy,” he says, his otherwise silly demeanor becoming pensive. “But on the inside, I wanna change everything but I can’t.”

Fugitivo feels his influence is part of his contribution. “I want the kids to see that I made my dreams come true, no matter how I did it…. I did it.” When asked what dream he’s living, Fugitivo replies: “I’m living Martin Luther King’s dream. I’m living Fidel Castro’s dream… I’m living what you’re dreaming.”


Though many DPs are depressed by their new lives, Alex Cornejo, 33, has chosen to make the best of it. He was deported after having spent the majority of his life in Los Angeles, where he grew up in the foster care system and was adopted by a Mexican family. He did not know he was Salvadoran until he was 17 years old. Alex served 14 years in prisons throughout California.

He sees his deportation as a new start. “Too many people focus their energies on trying to make it back. If they focused their energies on making it here, it wouldn’t be so bad.” Indeed, life in a foreign country is better than life behind bars.

As part of the Salvadoran government’s repressive measures against gang activities, tattoos (whatever the imagery) have been used to identify gang members. Even bearers of non-gang tattoos are subjected to profiling. The popular view is if you have a tattoo it means, “You’re a bad man,” says Alex. Nevertheless, he’s made a business out of what’s considered taboo and celebrates his success. Recently, he was voted among the top three tattoo artists in the country and most of his clientele are well-to-do. His business is twofold: It’s a booming tattoo shop as well as a tattoo equipment store.

Appropriately called “Taboo Tattoo,” his business is located in one of San Salvador’s most upscale neighborhoods. He points at a display filled with tattoo equipment and defiantly declares, “This is my pride and joy, because with this, I’m changing Salvadoran culture.”

A new father and family man, it seems Alex has a refreshing take on his DP status, “For what I’ve got here, I’m loving life. It wasn’t easy either… I fought for this. When you fight for something, when it costs you, you appreciate it.”


At 28, Glenda Urías is a mother of five, and having a difficult time adjusting to her recent deportee status -– she’s only been here for one and a half months.
For Glenda, the hardest part about being in El Salvador is “being away from my family. The truth is that I don’t wanna be here… I see other kids and I miss my kids.”

But she is also struggling to find work. “I have so many skills and I can’t use them out here because, maybe my background of deportation or maybe because I don’t know the right people. So I can’t get a job. So I’m sitting here doing nothing, wasting my life away. And what good is that?”

Glenda also has trouble with the culture in El Salvador in regards to the treatment toward women. She’s used to “coming and going as I please.” When asked how people react to her American brand of feminine freedom, she responds, “Well, they have no choice but to react positively to it, ‘cause they know; that’s just how I came and I won’t change for nobody.”

She’s frequently on the phone with her kids and on MySpace chatting with friends.

When asked if during her conversations with her family, she tells them of her true feelings regarding what she’s going through, she responds, “No. I keep that to myself…I can’t tell them the truth, it’s too hard for them.”


Smokey, 26, was born in Chalchuapa, near the Mayan ruins at Tazumál. He has never set foot on U.S. soil, yet has absorbed U.S. gang subculture, as have many other youth who never left El Salvador.

Through influence and interaction with gang-affiliated deportees, L.A. gang culture has traveled and flourished here. “We want to make it known that this thing comes from far away,” Smokey tells me as he deciphers symbolism in artwork he’s done on a mural in his living room. Like the traveling gang culture, the Central American version of these symbols have evolved into a style distinctively it’s own.

Holding pencils in his hands, Smokey says of his work: “The things you see are all things we’ve been inspired to do. We know that, whether we like it or not, we’re in this culture –- gang culture -- and for us, it is a culture. Daily, we live situations, experiences between the homegirls and homeboys or “cholos” as they are called up north… We assimilate these things… we’re a part of it. And right now, that’s what we’re living.”

Of life as a gangster in a country where extra-judicial killings of suspected gang members by police and paramilitary is commonplace, Smokey says, “A lot of times our lives are more trouble that fun. Because of the gang laws and our rival (gangs), but the reality of the situation is far worse that what I’ve just described to you.” His demeanor is meek, mellow. He speaks softly in a Salvadoran country accent despite his hardcore appearance.

Due to his gang affiliation and the tattoos on his face, it’s pretty much impossible for Smokey to walk the streets without being an overt target of rival gangs as well as police and paramilitary, much less secure a job. Smokey has a four-year-old son.

He makes a living painting cartoon figures on wood block cut-outs, using a jigsaw and paints as do many of the homeboys. Their wives and children sell them to tourists at the ruins.

Immigrants Don’t Feel Safe in ‘Sanctuary City’

From New America Media:

New America Media, News Report, , By Elena Shore // Video: Josue Rojas, Posted: Apr 17, 2009

Editor’s Note: Once a beacon for immigrants, San Francisco is no longer seen as a safe place to live for some families. Last summer, Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed undocumented youth to be turned over to immigration authorities. And in the last year, stepped up ICE raids have some families on edge. Residents who spoke at a recent city hearing say they are under siege.

San Francisco’s history as a sanctuary city for immigrants and pioneer in civil rights is being seriously undermined by recent policy changes by the mayor that are hurting a growing number of families. That was the core message at a hearing jointly held by the city’s immigrant rights and human rights commissions at City Hall on April 13 to examine the impacts of federal immigration enforcement on San Francisco communities.

S.F. Immigrants Testify on ICE Raids from New America Media on Vimeo.

“The city of San Francisco has led the nation,” said Jamal Dajani, chair of the Immigrant Rights Commission. The question now, he said, is whether it will continue to be a leader on immigrant rights.

City Supervisor David Campos noted that San Francisco had led the fight for equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. “The chair where you’re sitting is where Harvey Milk used to sit,” Campos said to one commissioner, referring to the slain city supervisor and gay rights activist. “We have a history of taking a stand. We are proud that we have been and continue to be a city of refuge.”

In 1989, San Francisco passed the "City of Refuge" Ordinance, which prohibits city employees from assisting federal agents in making immigration arrests unless required by federal or state law or a warrant. It’s been known as a sanctuary city ever since.

But even in this so-called sanctuary city, immigrants say they are living in fear.

A year ago, in what immigrant rights groups saw as a step backward, Mayor Gavin Newsom changed the city’s policy toward undocumented youth. In July 2008, he began allowing undocumented minors with criminal records to be turned over to immigration authorities.

Claiming that the sanctuary city policy was not meant to protect criminals, Newsom acted after a widely publicized shooting, in which an undocumented immigrant shot and killed a father and his two sons. The incident set off a debate over the city’s sanctuary law that protects undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Since then, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has stepped up raids on private homes.

“We’ve all read about ICE raids, but they are worse than what you’ve read,” said UC Davis law professor Bill Ong Hing, at the hearing. “The fabric of the community is ruined, in many of these communities, because everyone is afraid.”

ICE’s fugitive operations program, which conducts raids on private homes in San Francisco, can now more easily go after immigrants with no criminal convictions, according to Aarti Kohli, director of immigration policy at UC Berkeley’s Warren Institute.

Fugitive operations teams were created in 2003 to remove fugitive aliens who posed a threat to the community. Instead, they have focused on arresting undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions, according to a report released by the Migration Policy Institute. The program’s budget went from an initial $9 million to $218 million last year.

In 2006, the annual quota for each seven-person fugitive operations team increased from 125 arrests to 1,000. And ICE removed the requirement that at least 75 percent of those arrested be criminals. As a result, 73 percent of those captured nationally between 2003 and February 2008 had no criminal conviction.

In this sanctuary city, there have been at least eight raids since May 2, 2008, affecting 54 people, not including their families, according to Francisco Ugarte, staff attorney with the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network. “I say ‘at least’,” he said, “because they are conducted in secret.”

San Francisco is now filled with stories of families that have been broken by ICE raids, and some were told at the hearing. Ivan Carreño recounted how his father, Refugio, was arrested at his home on Jan. 27 and deported to Mexico. His mother, Guadalupe Carreño Castro, will be deported in five months, leaving Ivan and two other children, all citizens, on their own.

“Please bring my dad back and don’t take my mom because I really love my parents and stuff,” Carreño said. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do without my dad.”

Ana Ruth Quintanilla says she has fallen into a deep depression since immigration authorities entered her home on Sept. 11, 2008. Quintanilla was one of six people arrested that day; three were deported, and Quintanilla and two others were released with electronic monitoring devices on their ankles. But Quintanilla isn’t sure if she is one of the lucky ones.

“Whenever I go to the grocery store,” Quintanilla said, “I’m afraid ICE is going to come deport me.”

Amos Lim, a community organizer with Out4Immigration who emigrated from Singapore in 1999, was unable to get legal status through his marriage. “I’m an immigrant and this is my husband,” he said, noting that he and his husband Mickey are one of 48,000 same-sex couples registered as domestic partners in California. But because the federal government doesn’t recognize their marriage, his husband did not have the right to sponsor him for a green card.

Things have gotten worse for immigrants in San Francisco in the last decade, says Supervisor David Chu, who practiced immigration law 10 years ago. He attributed it to a shift in the national climate.

“It is not popular to protect immigrants,” said Campos. But, supervisors noted, San Francisco’s history has been one of standing up for the rights of minorities, even when it wasn’t popular.

The Immigrant Rights Commission, which advises Mayor Gavin Newsom on issues affecting immigrants, plans to use the hearing to push for changes to enforcement practices. “We want to hear from impacted communities in order to recommend more humane federal policies,” said commission chair Dajani, “rather than waste limited resources to create division and a climate of fear.”

Monday, April 20, 2009

"I.C.E. Took my Father" ... The Carreño Case

Of all the cases I get to see, this is perhaps one of the most poignant. It's imperative we stop ICE from committing crimes against families, and against humanity.

Thank you Lupe, for your bravery and love. You inspire us all.

I.C.E. Took My Father from New America Media on Vimeo.

Daring to Change: An Exclusive Interview with Mauricio Funes