Anthem highlights deportation fears among U.S.-born children

By Alfonso Chardy
McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI – Every night before she falls asleep, Marlene de Leon worries whether she’ll be jarred awake the next morning by immigration agents banging on the door to deport her mother who for years has lived in Miami without papers.

The fear inspired the talented 13-year-old middle school student to write a song about deportation that has become the anthem of a contingent of U.S.-born children who will travel to Washington, D.C., this week with their undocumented parents to march in front of the White House and demand an end to deportations.

Marlene and her mother, Lily de Leon, 48, are among dozens of families planning to board buses in Miami Tuesday for the overnight trip to Washington to take part in the 2 p.m. EDT event Wednesday.

Nora Sandigo, executive director of Miami-based American Fraternity, is the South Florida organizer for the Washington march, which is expected to draw dozens or hundreds of other children and parents from across the country.

The majority of participants will be like Marlene and her mother – U.S.-born children accompanied by undocumented foreign parents.

“The idea is to show President Barack Obama that deportations of undocumented people are having a severe impact on their U.S.-born children,” Sandigo said. “Children whose parents have no immigration documents lose sleep, are chronically stressed and depressed.”

In interviews last week, two South Florida families – including Marlene’s – shared their stories with El Nuevo Herald in a bid to explain why the trip to Washington is important.

The trip itself will be a risk for many parents. They generally don’t travel far from their homes because they have no driver’s licenses or other official documents and are in constant fear of being discovered by immigration authorities.

“But we have to go because we have to send a message to the president that he has to solve the immigration problem, if not for us, the adults, then for our children whose lives would be shattered if we are deported,” said Lily de Leon.

The bloody civil war in Guatemala led De Leon to flee.

One of her husband’s brothers was tortured and killed and one of her daughters was once kidnapped, though she reappeared safe and sound after a few days.

Because of constant fears and threats and a divorce, De Leon left for Miami in 1992 with her three Guatemalan-born children. After overstaying her visa, she asked for asylum.

Initially, life was good and De Leon made enough money to support herself and her children.
In 1997, however, the first setback occurred when an immigration judge denied her asylum petition and ordered her deportation.

A year later, De Leon got married again – to the same man she had divorced in Guatemala, Mario de Leon, 61.
Threats also had forced Mario to flee Guatemala, but he settled first in California.

In the mid-1990s, Mario moved to Miami and proposed to his ex-wife. She accepted and they remarried in 1998.
They have six children, three born in Guatemala and three in Miami. Their names all begin with the letter M in honor of Mario: Marlon, Margarita and Marian from Guatemala and Marcus, Marek and Marlene from Miami.

Marlene is a student at Lawton Chiles Middle School and an accomplished guitar player and singer. She says she was influenced by her father, who used to be a salsa and pop music performer.

Growing up, Marlene gradually became aware that her mother had a persistent fear of immigration authorities because of the deportation order hanging over her. Her mother constantly warned her children not to open the door when someone knocked.

Then in 2005, family anxieties increased dramatically when immigration agents detained a Colombian family near their home.

“We all saw the arrests and we kept thinking they would be coming for me next,” said Lily de Leon.

The raid, her mother’s chronic anxiety plus frequent television stories about immigration agents showing up early at undocumented immigrants’ homes led Marlene to write her deportation song, “Don’t Leave Me!”

Its opening verse describes a child’s memory of an immigration raid on her home:

“I don’t know what’s happening.

“Someone at the door is knocking.

“I hear voices, who can it be?

“It’s not even dawn yet.”

Though her mother has not been bothered by immigration authorities, Marlene said she is constantly worried that one day agents will knock on her door and take her mother away.

“It’s my fear every night I go to bed,” Marlene said.

Marlene’s mother believes her immigration fears will soon be over because immigration court officials recently agreed to reopen her deportation case – giving her hope that eventually she’ll get a green card.

Marlene says she plans to sing her song in Washington. When she sang it for TV cameras at a news conference in Miami last week, Marlene ended the performance with tears in her eyes.

“I feel the pain of many other children whose parents could be deported or have been deported,” said Marlene.