On Mother’s Day, a family divided by a border and immigration policy

In 2013, the Ramirez family moved out of its home in Haltom City.

As Jessica Ramirez, now 31, and her mother, Sara Tapia, made their last rounds around the house, the landlord pointed out a hole in the carpet. He said they had destroyed it and would have to pay for it.

When the two women said it had been like that since they moved in, the landlord threatened to call the police.

“She’s the kind of person that doesn’t care that she doesn’t speak English,” Jessica said of her mother, a previously undocumented immigrant from Mexico. “She will talk to you in Spanish even if you don’t understand her, she doesn’t care. To anybody but my mom, that would have scared them but she turned to me and told him in Spanish, ‘No, I’m calling the police!’ and told me to call the police.”

When the police arrived, the officers sided with the women, saying that the carpet was the landlord’s responsibility. The officers told him not to return until the family had moved out, Jessica said.

“That was one of those times when I was like, ‘Wow, my mom’s a badass,’ ” she said. “She doesn’t let anybody tell her what to do. She doesn’t let anybody put her down.”

On most days, but especially on Mother’s Day, memories like this make Jessica and her sister, Stephanie, 24, miss their mother even more.

Mothers Day 2
Jessica, left, and Stephanie Ramirez, hold a photo of their mom and dad in Haltom City, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Brandon Wade Star-Telegram

This Mother’s Day will be the fourth they will spend without Tapia. Their parents live in Pachuca, Mexico, while Jessica lives with her husband and two daughters in Haltom City. Stephanie lives with their eldest brother Ricardo, 33, his wife and their children in Haltom City.

Tapia returned to Mexico in 2014 after her husband, Gerardo Ramirez, an undocumented immigrant living in the United States, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Because Jessica and Stephanie are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), they can’t re-enter the United States if they leave, and their parents can’t come and visit.

The Ramirez children were all adults when their father was detained. However, according to a study by the Urban Institute and the Migratory Policy Institute, “roughly half a million U.S. citizen children experienced the apprehension, detention, and deportation of at least one parent between 2011 and 2013, based on estimates using Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data.”

“I think what hurts me the most is that if I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again,” Jessica said. “Or if something happens to her and me not being able to go. Sometimes I look at pictures and they’re getting older, and I’m not there for them if they ever need me.”

Parting ways

The Ramirez family came to the United States in 1999 from Mexico City, Mexico. They settled in Phoenix, Ariz., for six months but moved to Fort Worth in the summer of 2000.

During Thanksgiving 2013, Tapia and her husband were on their way home to Fort Worth from Arizona after spending the holiday with family. Jessica didn’t go with them because she was pregnant with her second child.

Jessica said that, according to her parents, a police officer saw the couple at a red light while the officer was parked at a gas station. After the light turned green and the couple drove away, and the officer followed them. The officer told her father that he had pulled him over for running the light, Jessica said, but her mom said that wasn’t true. Jessica said she thinks it was a case of racial profiling.

Gerardo Ramirez was driving and Tapia was in the passenger seat. When the police officers asked Gerardo if he was in the U.S. legally, they tried to ask Tapia as well, Jessica said.

“My mom said, ‘You dont get to ask me anything, you detained him, not me,’ “ Jessica said. “That’s the only reason why she wasn’t deported.”

Gerardo Ramirez was held in an ICE detention center in Phoenix for two months. The family hired an attorney who told them that it was possible for him to be released and to be able to get a work permit. However, a previous back injury made waiting in the frigid detention center’s cells, which are known as “freezers,” unbearable for him.

“Every day, they would ask him to sign the voluntary [departure] paperwork,” Jessica said with tears in her eyes. “One day he called my mom and said he was just going to sign. He said, ‘It’s really cold. They’re not giving me my medicine the way I’m supposed to be taking it. I just can’t.’”

In 2015, the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Law Center, the ACLU of Arizona, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Morrison & Foerster LLP filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the conditions of U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facilities. The complaint alleges similar mistreatment as Gerardo Ramirez faced.

After signing the paperwork, Gerardo Ramirez returned to Mexico and had back surgery . The first operation didn’t go well, but Tapia couldn’t go to his side. Jessica was still pregnant at the time.

After Jessica gave birth, Tapia returned to Mexico to care for her husband for his second surgery.

“It was really hard for me to make that decision to come to Mexico and leave my children,” Tapia said in Spanish in a phone interview. “My children are my life. My daughters are like my best friends. My son and I are also very close, so to make the decision to separate so far away and to not know what was going to happen, it was very sad and difficult.”

‘The golden cage’

The separation has affected members of the Ramirez family differently.

Although Jessica doesn’t know if she’ll see her parents again, she tries to maintain a sense of normalcy and not let it affect her relationship with them.

“I call them in the morning and ask what they’re doing and I make sure I ask them what they’re doing the next day just because in the area they live, sometimes the phones work and sometimes they don’t,” she said. “So if I call them the next day and they don’t answer their phones, I know where they are.”

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Stephanie, left, and Jessica Ramirez, will spend their fourth Mother's Day without their mom, Sara Tapia. Brandon Wade Star-Telegram

Stephanie has a harder time adjusting to life without her parents. While they text through WhatsApp every day, it’s still tough to hear her mother’s voice from so far away. Sometimes, Stephanie said, she doesn’t talk to her because she doesn’t want to deal with the emotional aftermath.

“I feel like I’m really depressed, and I have a lot of anxiety,” Stephanie said. “Me avoiding talking to her sometimes helps me because I can just push it away. Every time I talk to her and she tells me she misses me, I just want to break down. I want to tell her so much but I can’t, because I feel like if I say it, I’m not going to be able to get back from that.”

When Stephanie opened up to Jessica about her depression, Jessica said that at first it shocked her, but it also has strengthened their relationship.

“It hurt me. I love her, she’s like my own kid,” Jessica said. “How did I not know this? How did I let her go through that and I wasn’t there for her? We try to be there for each other now.”

Their mother has also been suffering from depression since her return to Mexico. While she has been seeing a doctor to help her cope, it also makes her feel better to speak to her children every day and to know that they are doing well. Every morning, Tapia said, she sends them “good morning” texts and asks them how they’re doing.

“Stephanie has rheumatoid arthritis,” Tapia said, sniffling. “When I was there, I was the one who took her to the doctor, made sure she was doing the treatment properly. When I came here it was so hard because I left her alone. I know she’s grown up but for a mother, your children are always your babies. You love them with all your soul.”

Jessica said she doesn’t call Tapia ‘mom,’ but instead prefers amiga, or friend. She said she finds it difficult that her mother is not around to see her as she raises her own children.

“I remember thinking that I’m just going to go back to Mexico,” Jessica said. “But I have daughters and I can’t do that to them. My parents gave up everything so I could have a better life, so why deny my children the same opportunity my parents gave me?”

On top of the emotional toll the separation has taken on the family, Jessica said the current rhetoric about immigration is painful to hear. As it stands, there is no path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients in the U.S. If they were to ever leave the U.S., there’s no way to come back.

“People say we’re so fortunate to be here but at the cost of not seeing your family?” she said, exasperated. “There’s a song in Spanish that talks about that. [It says] living here is like living in a golden cage. Because you have everything, but you’re in prison.

“And that’s what it is. We have a nice life, thank God, and we have better opportunities. But we don’t have freedom. We’re stuck here.”

Jessica has been involved in the local grassroots coalition, United Fort Worth, which often advocates for immigration reform and protests against policies that would separate families.

“I was one of those people living in the shadows,” Jessica said. “In a way, I guess, what happened, pushed me to share my story with others.”

Mother’s Day

Tapia is a sentimental person, her daughters said. She still has every gift they have ever given her.

Stephanie remembers that for Mother’s Day one year when she was a kid, she went to the dollar store and bought a giant ring, thinking that because her own hands were so small, the ring would fit her mother’s. She said Tapia kept the ring anyway.

“Everybody who has ever known her, loves her,” Stephanie said. “She’s the life of the party. She just made everybody feel like somebody.”

Tapia’s favorite restaurant in the U.S. is Olive Garden. “That was her place,” the sisters said, laughing.

On Mother’s Day, the Ramirez children would give her gifts and take her shopping and to a restaurant to eat.

Since they’ve been apart, they make sure to call her on Mother’s Day and send her money.

“Every time I go to do my activist work, I always think about what she would do or how she would react,” Jessica said. “She never let anybody walk all over her. The woman that I am now is because of her.”

Despite staying in communication with her children, being away from them, especially on Mother’s Day, is agonizing.

“Please do me a favor,” Tapia said over the phone. “When you see my daughters, hug them. Tell them that I love them and to never forget that. That even though we’re far away, no one can separate us.”