Cindy Garcia methodically sorts and folds #TeamGarcia fundraiser T-shirts in her Lincoln Park living room. The TV is on, the dog is barking, and her granddaughter is trying to get her attention.
It’s a typical Saturday for Garcia, wife of Jorge Garcia, who was deported to Mexico on Jan. 15. That’s the day Jorge Garcia became a Michigan flesh-and-blood symbol of the Trump Administration’s decision to make every undocumented individual in the United States subject to immediate removal.
It was also the day Cindy Garcia vowed to reunify her family and fight for all families like hers.
“ICE gave me more power and they didn’t realize it,” she said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency charged with administering federal immigration law. “I was the right spokesperson to blow up this story.”
And blow up it did, mostly in the days immediately following Jorge Garcia’s deportation. Local and national media covered the story from coast to coast, focusing on the spectacle of an otherwise model, tax-paying family man being deported to Mexico after living in the United States for 30 years.
Cindy Garcia was interviewed on CNN and MSNBC, and appeared on ABC’s The View, where co-host Whoppi Goldberg interviewed her and promised to underwrite the cost of sending the Garcia family to Mexico in April to visit Jorge Garcia. She was even the guest of U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell at Trump’s first State of the Union Address on Jan. 30. But media coverage declined thereafter.
Today, while Jorge Garcia is in Mexico living with relatives, Cindy Garcia is in Michigan trying to keep Jorge’s story alive, taking care of her family as best she can, and working with supporters and her attorney to bring Jorge home.
“I have to represent him,” she said. “I’m tired of all the publicity and I just want to get back to my life. Trying to keep the momentum going is very hard.”
Living with a ‘lingering nightmare’
The immigration story of Jorge and Cindy Garcia began in 2005, when the couple tried to correct Jorge’s unauthorized status. Brought from Mexico to the United States as a 10-year-old by his undocumented parents, Jorge’s presence in the U.S. was always in jeopardy, even though Cindy is a U.S. citizen and the couple has two U.S.-born children.
The Garcias have a lot of company in Michigan. According to the Michigan League for Public Policy, there are about 97,000 undocumented immigrants living in Michigan. About a third of them are members of “mixed legal status” families, and over half of them have lived in Michigan for at least 10 years. Jorge Garcia is among Michigan’s nearly 11,000 undocumented immigrants who have lived in Michigan for at least 20 years.
The Garcias got a lawyer and filed an immigration petition to reverse an earlier decision that had found Jorge Garcia ineligible to stay in the United States. The process ended badly in 2009 when the U.S. immigration appeals office denied their attempt.
The intervention of former U.S. Rep. John Conyers put Jorge Garcia’s threatened deportation into a two-year-long deferment until 2011, when he became a low priority for deportation under the Obama Administration’s policy of prosecutorial discretion, which focused on deporting only those with a criminal violation other than breaking U.S. immigration law.
From 2011 to 2017, Jorge Garcia dutifully reported to Detroit’s ICE office to check in and live another year with his family, supporting them with his landscaping business and paying his taxes.
That ended abruptly on Nov. 20, 2017, when ICE informed the Garcias that Jorge was going to be detained if he didn’t agree to return to Mexico voluntarily. In exchange for Jorge’s promise to leave, ICE allowed him to stay with his family until Jan. 15, 2018.
“The nightmare was there, but it was lingering,” Cindy Garcia said. “We knew it could happen, but reality hit in January 2018. And you can’t prepare yourself for that.”
Cindy Garcia wasn’t ready to say goodbye to her husband. But she was ready to fight.
She credits organizing lessons learned as a UAW activist and public speaking training by immigrant rights organization Michigan United with teaching her how to use her family’s personal crisis to expose U.S. immigration policy’s larger political and moral problems. She started with the video taken of her and her children clinging to Jorge Garcia and saying their goodbyes at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
“Once that went viral, people just ran with it because of our family being separated at the airport,” Cindy Garcia said. “Organizing can be used for anything in life if you use it in the right direction. I ask people, ‘What if this happened to you?’ You’ve got to get people to understand how it affects your family. Once you hit a nerve, they get an understanding.
“Being able to speak in front of rallies, meetings and even learning to speak in front of the cameras – I’ve been doing that since 2009.”
But Cindy Garcia has often felt alone in front of those cameras, wishing more families in her situation would come forward to speak out and join her family reunification campaign.
“We’ve been the family to push it,” she said. “We’ve been trying to bring the immigration nightmare to life and make people understand the dynamics of immigration and what it means.
“Southwest Detroit is my community, but it’s been a struggle,” Garcia added.” A lot of people have not stepped up. They’re scared to come out of the shadows. It’s happened in the past. The minute they speak, immigration picks them up.
“They have to understand the power of standing together. They have to rise up as a community. Come out in numbers. I have to find a nerve to really hit to get them to come out.”
Using the system while fighting the system
Even as she pushes for family reunification in the immigration reform fight, Cindy Garcia has no problem working within the current system to bring her husband home.
She has hired a lawyer to complete and file federal immigration papers to preserve Jorge Garcia’s rights under the current immigration process, but has also fought hard to make “a change in the law to have Jorge come back.”
Just as they did in 2005, the Garcias are trying to rectify Jorge’s undocumented status in a system they believe is broken.
“I’m not mad at the government,” Cindy Garcia said. "How can I be mad at the government? I have to follow the law. I understand the laws are broken and need to be fixed."
As the Garcias keep navigating that system, Cindy Garcia wants to start a new Facebook page to support those who have had a loved one deported from the United States. She’s been buoyed by the support she’s received on her personal public Facebook page (and learned to ignore the ugly comments) and wants to create a separate virtual national support group, because people often don’t understand the complex immigration system with its many rules and forms to file, and because “people are really scared.”
That includes her husband, who will need to do his part from Mexico to support the immigration forms being filed by their attorney.
But Cindy Garcia said they have come too far with too much to lose to give up now.
“I keep telling him things are going to work out,” she added. “Don’t lose hope. If you give up and throw in the towel, they’ll walk all over you. Never give up hope. Always continue to fight.”
The Detroit Journalism Cooperative is a collaboration by Detroit Public TV, Bridge Magazine, WDET, New Michigan Media, and Michigan Radio. Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism, the Ford Foundation, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.