On a cold Thursday morning in November 2013, Santiago (a pseudonym) was leaving his apartment on the top floor of an auto repair shop in Washtenaw County, Michigan, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him. Santiago would later be deported back to Mexico, but his life wasn’t the only one permanently changed that day. The broad net of immigration enforcement also swept up other five Latino men in the community, leaving sisters, wives, and children deprived of their main breadwinners, husbands, and fathers.
More than a year later, William Lopez, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, and a San Antonio native, set out to interview the people directly impacted by the raid, as well as their family members, lawyers, and advocates. The result of that research, which built on years of volunteer work in the community, is the book Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid, a vivid account of the immediate and lasting emotional and economic consequences of the deportation machine.
Immigration raids often garner headlines for their drama and cruelty; what’s reported much less often is how families continue to struggle even months later with issues like income loss, mental health, and homelessness. Fighting depression and suicidal thoughts and unable to care for her children, who fell ill following the raid, Santiago’s wife, Fernanda, eventually decided to join him in Mexico.
Ahead of Lopez’s appearances at the Texas Book Festival this Saturday and Sunday, the Observer spoke with the author about the rippling effects of immigration enforcement on mixed-status families and what happens to those who are left behind.
Texas Observer: Your background is in public health. How did you become interested in immigration enforcement?
William Lopez: I’ve always been interested in the immigrant community. My mother is from Mexico, my father is from Texas, and I grew up in San Antonio around an almost exclusively Latino community. But when I moved to Michigan for my Ph.D., I saw what happens when you are a statistically minority population with less political and social power—things like racial profiling. I was also volunteering with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights and bearing witness to the cruelty of this machine that strips people of their humanity, rights, and families. In public health, we think about the strength of our social network and social systems, something that is often missing from the immigration enforcement discussion. While we understand that these individuals are being plucked out of their communities, we fail to see how it is fragmenting the social support networks that keep us healthy.
Your book starts with a trip you’d planned [to follow Santiago after his deportation] that you ended up not taking for safety reasons. How did staying behind help you tell a different story?
I thought a lot about what it would be like to fly out to Mexico and have coffee in this village with [Santiago], someone who I had never met face-to-face. What I wasn’t thinking initially was about the suffering of a mother that’s occurring next door, in our own communities. The violence of immigration enforcement is a fundamental experience in these everyday communities throughout the Midwest. When a family provider is deported, often the men, women suddenly become single mothers while trying to navigate legal and financial challenges.
It is easy to miss the slow violence that happens before and after an act of immigration enforcement and to focus more on the extremely visible violence, the physical act of a removal, an arrest, or a raid. These are critical moments, but there are 364 other days in the year when people’s lives are shaped by the possibility of deportation or a raid. What I ended up doing in the book was to use the extremely visceral moment of [law enforcement] kicking in a door to force the reader to think about how that can change the lives of those left behind and who weren’t even targeted.
Why do we tend to think of deportations as a “one-act tragedy,” as you call it?
Because that way it’s easier to see a villain and to absolve ourselves from any responsibility. We can say that we don’t have anything to do with that instance of racism or deportation, but if we step back a little, we’re benefiting from a system that racially targets and removes people by creating fear and an underprovided class of people willing to work and to be exploited because the alternative to exploitation is the fragmentation of their families.
What are some of the challenges and advantages of doing research within your own community?
I feel part of the community. I’ve lived [in Michigan] for 10 years. Part of the issue in the academy is the idea that when you’re from certain communities you have a “bias” and can’t see objectively. I prefer much more to think of it as insight. When you’re from these communities you have 20, 25 years of experience with this cultural group that others don’t have. At the same time, I’m aware that I’m different in many ways along the lines of privilege for being a man, a citizen, fairly light-skinned, and overeducated. All of that influences the way I move about this community and the microphone I end up with.
What can help minimize the damage caused by raids?
There are many reasons why we don’t hear descriptions of home raids. In the aftermath, people don’t want to talk about it. They are trying to feed their family and get diapers for their babies. It is something that is impacting these communities, but we aren’t fully aware of how violent and deadly these can be or how militarized our police can be. As social scientists and advocates, we need to keep documenting the impacts of these raids in the moment of violence and to find ways to spread the perspectives of those who lived through it to other people who may not think about this slow deterioration of families and communities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.