This Christmas will be the first one that Myrna Obeso and her two sons will be without her husband and their father.
Gustavo Velasco is being held in federal immigration detention in Eloy. Velasco is accused of using a false identity to work in a Tucson restaurant. For this, the 37-year-old native of Magdalena, Sonora, has been separated from his family for nine months.
"I feel sad that my dad is not with us," the elder son said in English. "Why do they need to put him in prison?"
That was the question nearly 200 people asked Monday as they silently marched for three miles on a cold, wet day from St. Monica's Catholic Church, near West Valencia Road and South 12th Avenue, to the office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They walked behind a large banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas, the beacon of hope and faith, whose feast day was celebrated Dec. 12.
The marchers, including families like Obeso's, presented to ICE petitions asking that their immigration cases be closed. The families are hopeful the government will establish a more humane and realistic immigration policy.
Across the United States, nearly 300,000 families who are in the immigration judicial mill are praying for the same goal. The Obama administration, which has deported a record 1 million people in three years, is considering altering immigration rules to keep from separating families.
"It has been very difficult for us," Obeso said in Spanish as she helped hold a long purple banner that read "Keep Our Families Together" while standing across the street from the ICE office on South Country Club Road.
The absence of a father and husband has been shattering.
"He provided for us. He protected us. The boys played soccer with him," the 34-year-old Nogales, Sonora, native said.
Their saga began more than two years ago.
Tucson police arrested Velasco at his job in April 2009 and said he used someone else's Social Security card, Obeso said. He spent five months in the county jail and nearly two months in federal detention.
Velasco, who had no previous criminal record, was released on bond that November. But earlier this year, ICE agents appeared at their apartment and took him away. An immigration judge refused to release him on bond, Obeso said.
She and her sons were left to fend for themselves. Obeso overstayed her tourist visa, and so she cannot legally work here. She earns a little income cleaning homes and giving manicures.
Friends, including their church congregation, helped Obeso to pay the rent and bills and buy groceries. She gave up their apartment, and she and the boys moved in with a friend.
The toll is greater emotionally on the boys, both of whom are U.S. citizens. They earn good scores at school, but the elder son's grades dived after ICE detained his father.
"I miss him," said the 13-year-old.
Gone with their dad are visits to Mount Lemmon and play time at the park. The boys are emotionally lost.
"I sit down sometimes by myself," the 11-year-old said.
A family friend takes the boys to see their dad in Eloy. Obeso can talk to him only by phone.
The separation has led to desperation.
Velasco has told his wife he would rather be deported than remain in prison. But Obeso and his lawyer, Margo Cowan, implore him to stay strong because their future is here, said Obeso.
"We came here for a better life. Our sons were born here. There is no future and security in Mexico," she said.
Velasco's immediate future is not hopeless.
ICE has begun to review deportation cases to determine if reprieves are warranted. The government has said it wants to focus on deporting individuals who have committed violent crimes.
A large percentage of those deported have no criminal history, like Velasco.
The immigration courts are clogged with cases, and Obeso can only wait and pray that her husband and father of their two sons will not be deported.
"I have tried to be strong for my sons," said Obeso. "I thank God we are not alone."
Contact Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 520-573-4187.