Veronica Castro wakes up her 17-year-old son, Juan, early each morning. She bathes him, helps him get dressed, ties his shoes, serves him breakfast, and walks him slowly to the bus that takes him to a school for children with disabilities. As she cares for this disabled son and the rest of her family in Maryland, Castro lives in constant fear, terrified by the recent drastic executive orders of the U.S. government to deport undocumented immigrants like her.
Last spring, a few weeks before her scheduled meeting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), she decided to speak publicly about her immigration status when a faith-based initiative called DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network was being launched with a solidarity march to the White House on March 21.
The new network consists of over 60 communities from different religious traditions in the DC, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) area. They pledge to provide spiritual support and legal resources to immigrants at risk of being detained or deported. The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (MOGC) is a supporter.
Susan Gunn, communications manager of MOGC, participated in the march, joining community members and religious leaders on the steps of Foundry United Methodist Church for the opening prayer vigil for immigrants. “The prayers of these groups of faith gave me much peace and tranquility,” Castro says.
Accompanied by her husband Ricardo Pinedo and their four children Ivan, 19, Juan, 17, Kevin, 14 and Emily, 9, Castro gave her testimony. She recalled how she and her son Ivan left their native Mexico and tried to cross the border into the United States in 1998, to join her husband, who was also from Mexico but had permanent U.S. residency. Castro and Ivan were detained because they had false documents that a “coyote” gave Castro to enter the United States. She was deported.
A few years later, another son, Juan, was born with a congenital heart problem. He needed artery implant surgery that could only be done in the United States.
Desperate to save Juan’s life, Castro crossed the border in 2001 with her two sons. They walked for 19 hours to meet Pinedo. Juan was able to have surgery in the States, but suffered a lack of oxygen that caused brain damage.
Castro thought things would be better when her husband, who had become a U.S. citizen and joined the U.S. Army, petitioned the U.S. Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2011 for his wife and two sons to become permanent residents. Only the children were eligible. Castro’s application was denied because of her deportation in 1998.
Castro will never forget the day when, in the presence of her children and uniformed husband, immigration officers put a shackle on her ankle. “When they were arresting me, it was terrible to see the sad and crying faces of my children,” says Castro. “The image of Jesus came to my mind when he was also being arrested and the reflection of his sad face told me: ‘Daughter, you are not alone.’ ” Castro was arrested for a day. However, the shackle was not removed until a few days later at the request of authorities at the Virginia military base where her husband served.
The immigration office determined she had to return to Mexico for 10 years and then her husband could petition for her again, or she could stay in the United States and register with ICE periodically but risk deportation at any time.
“Seeing the suffering of my family is devastating. We represent the injustice of these laws. My wife is not a criminal; we have no problems with the authorities,” Pineda says. “Although I served and risked my life for this country, they have no compassion.” He served in the Army as a sergeant, a non-commissioned officer, for five years and eight months before being medically discharged two years ago.
Pineda says he knows military personnel or their relatives who are undocumented, but they are afraid to talk about their immigration status. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there are over 300 known cases of military veterans being deported.
After hearing Castro’s testimony, the faith groups marched to the White House singing, praying and promising not to leave Castro.
Gunn, a resident of Maryland, says, “Veronica is my neighbor. She takes care of her children and keeps her family together. That is what we all want in our communities. Deportation wouldn’t be beneficial to her children. They would lose their mother, be traumatized and not learn or participate at school. I don’t see how that would benefit our society.”
On April 4, Castro met with ICE. More than 80 faith leaders and community members accompanied her, including Gunn.
Outside the ICE office in Baltimore, the crowd prayed for Castro and other undocumented people. Gunn recalled her own family history. “My great-grandparents were immigrants from Ukraine and Ireland who came to Rhode Island in 1912,” she says. “They worked in factories because they were hungry and poor and saw no future in their home countries.”
“The most striking moment for me was when I met Castro’s children. They were beautiful, but the fear reflected on their faces was palpable,” adds Gunn.
Castro entered her appointment with her lawyer. About an hour later, she came out with a smile of victory.
Her husband said he is grateful for all the support, prayers and press coverage, but he still worries about his family’s future. “My wife is in limbo, because she can’t leave the country and hasn’t been able to visit her family in Mexico. Her parents are very sick,” he says.
Castro, hugging her children, said she will continue to fight for her family despite her immigration status. “To have my family together and to see my son Juan’s smile every morning encourages me to move forward,” she says. “His smile inspires me to go on every day of my life.”
Featured Image: Veronica Castro gives her testimony as a mother and an immigrant during the launch of DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network in Washington, D.C.(Heather Wilson, Pico National Network/U.S.)