Juan Villacis wakes each morning, looks at the bedroom ceiling and is hit by the sobering realization that he is far from home. Until November, he and his family had carved out a modest life in the Woodhaven neighborhood of Queens, where he and his wife worked as physical therapists while their twin daughters completed college. They are a close-knit family who paid taxes, kept up their house and stayed out of trouble.
And now they are being deported.
Denied political asylum, they are seeing the slow-motion unraveling of their immigrant family. Mr. Villacis, 57, was deported in December to Quito, Ecuador, the country where he was born, but where he has not lived for 31 years. His wife, Liany Guerrero, had been ordered to return to her native Colombia last week — which she and her family fled in 2001 to escape rebel threats of violence and kidnapping — but serious medical issues resulted in her getting a final 30-day extension for treatment of breast cysts and other conditions. Their twin daughters, 22, who came to this country when they were 5, are facing uncertainty given the congressional debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that would allow them to stay and work.
All of this has played out at a time when President Trump has maligned immigrants from Haiti and Africa while sending conflicting messages about what will be done with DACA.
“It breaks my heart that families all over the country are dealing with this,” said Jillian Hopman, the family’s lawyer. “As we’ve seen over the past week with what we thought was going to be reform with DACA, I don’t think Trump knows what he wants. It’s only a political thing to appease his base. But I find it just disgusting and unnecessarily cruel that they’re not looking at any of these people as individuals.”
Even though he and his wife had checked in regularly with immigration authorities over the years, Mr. Villacis had braced for the worst. The president’s nationalist remarks — and his base’s enthusiastic approval of his tough talk — led him to put his affairs in order. He installed a stair lift for his mother, who lives on the second floor and gets around with difficulty, and showed his daughters how to control the heat, take care of the mortgage and look after the house.
His daughters, Liany and Maria, now have to care for their grandmother and help her with medical appointments and treatment. And while his mother — an American citizen — had applied for him to be granted residency, her request won’t be considered for almost five years.
His wife hasn’t really accepted what has happened and still holds out hope that their appeal will be heard soon or that some politician will intercede. Her friends have suggested she not return to Colombia, but instead stay put. Ms. Guerrero, however, refuses to consider becoming a fugitive.
“Why would I do that?” she asked. “If my life becomes unsettled, Juan would be even more desperate knowing what I’m doing. My children would never be at peace. Above all, we have done everything the right way. Why would I do something against the law now?”
Ms. Guerrero had hoped that she and her husband could have had more time to prepare their daughters and help them begin their careers. Now she is worried that Liany, who works in finance, and Maria, who just graduated with a marketing degree and is job-hunting, will have to put their lives on hold to assume more responsibilities. That is, if they don’t end up having to leave, too.
“I don’t want to close this chapter of my life here in this manner,” Ms. Guerrero said. “Being forced to leave is so sad and painful. The pain, the uncertainty and the depression of all that is happening is so big. There are days I think I can’t take it anymore.”
She has been particularly upset about how her husband, who was prevented from saying goodbye to the family, was shackled and detained at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey before being deported with gang members, drug dealers and other criminals. At night, their screams kept him awake. During the day, he stayed indoors and even refused to go out into the yard for some fresh air.
“I didn’t want to see the sky and know I had to return and be shut in,” he explained.
He is resigned that he and his wife will have to start their careers in physical therapy over in Colombia or Ecuador. But as painful as the past few months have been, Mr. Villacis has found comfort in how he handled it.
“After all this, you learn to be a better human being,” he said. “You understand people better. You see immigrants and working people. What has happened to me has helped to make me humbler, simpler and to understand people.”
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