In Immigration LIVE, Episode 6, we spent time with Marguerita Jane Dentino, Executive Director of Casa Freehold, a leading non-profit organization in the ongoing social war to protect immigrant rights. We asked her about how the possibility and the reality of family separation affects the children of immigrants.
Here is a transcript of the key points and take-aways of our interview, broadcast live from the Batara Immigration Law offices in Riverside, California.
Carlos Batara: Hello, everybody. I’m broadcasting here from Immigration LIVE.
We have a special guest today. Today, we’re going to discuss family separation. What happens to the children of immigrants who are deported. It‘s a critical issue. Last week, I discussed what happens when the family relocates. This week, we’re going to talk about what happens when the family is separated.
Our special guest today – our special guest today is Marguerita Jane Dentino from Casa Freehold, a non-profit organization in New Jersey.
Maguerita, would you like to say hello to the audience?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Hello everybody and thank you so much, Carlos, for inviting us on the show.
How Casa Freehold Started
We’ve been here in Freehold for 14 years when we began a unique struggle, well, not so unique because it was happening all over the country but basically it was a time when they wanted to get rid of the day laborers, get rid of the immigrants here, but still have their labor as happens often and that was how we came into existence.
Carlos Batara: How many years ago was that?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Fourteen years ago. We took this down to federal court, and we won.
Carlos Batara: And generally speaking, how do you raise funds? Is it just donations? You get government grants? How does your organization sustain itself?
The Plight Of Immigrant Day Laborers
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Well, we began in the streets, on the corners where day laborers gather, and we’re still there. But at a certain point, the day laborers themselves voted to have a place with four walls, an indoor place, and they voted to give one dollar every time they went to work. That’s about as grassroots as it gets. And that worked for a long time. But now it’s not enough and we do suffer to pay the rent every month and maintain just certain expenses of phone and computer and those things.
Carlos Batara: And so, does that come out of like labor union dues?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: No , even though our day laborers function in many ways like a labor union, They have their own list. They make their own rules.
Their rule is predominantly respect for one another. They don’t have dues. We do have a membership, and people pay $35.00 dollars a year for their membership. And it’s a very participatory organization, so that does help some. But again, it doesn’t carry the expenses that we have now.
Carlos Batara: So what type of services does your organization provide?
Non-Profit Services For Undocumented Immigrants And Their Families
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Well, right now our community is afraid. You know, they are probably living at a higher level of fear than they have in my whole 14 years of doing this work. So, we have a big thrust of keeping our community safe, of working on safety plans with our families.
Fourteen years ago, we were primarily men day laborers. Now, we’re men, women, and children which is partly come because of the militarization of the border that people can’t go back and forth like they used to.
Carlos Batara: Now what part of your percentage of your membership, the people you serve, are immigrants?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: What percentage of people we serve? Pretty much 100%.
Carlos Batara: Okay, so that strikes me as interesting because then a lot of them probably aren’t members of labor unions or are they? Maybe I’m just . . .
Marguerita Jane Dentino: No, they’re actually with NDLON. We are members of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.
We are members of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and NDLON does have an agreement with the AFL-CIO to try to incorporate immigrant workers into the union, and it’s something that we have worked with them on for quite a while. Its’ progress at least in our area has been pretty limited.
Carlos Batara: And so – you work with families, so about how many families that you work with would you say are immigrant families where both mom and dad are immigrants versus immigrant families where one spouse, either the husband or a wife, is a legal resident or U.S. citizen?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: I would say probably at least 90-95 percent of our families have both spouses of immigrants. We consider the families to be a kind of mixture though because if we take a family as a whole, a whole extended family, some of them are legal residents, some of them are citizens, and some of them are citizens of other countries.
Carlos Batara: Of the countries you serve, what countries are they from? Are they from a variety of countries?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: We serve all countries. And that was a decision even though out name is Casa Freehold, a Latino name, the majority of our population we probably have a large degree of Mexican people, more than other country.
Although in recent years there have been fewer people coming from Mexico and more coming from Latin American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, like that, we also have reaching people from European countries, from Asian countries, from African countries. We made a decision early on to receive everybody.
Carlos Batara: You know, I forgot to ask you an important question. Where is Freehold, New Jersey?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: That’s a good question. We are in Monmouth County in New Jersey. Not far from the Jersey Shore, about 50 miles south of New York City. So it you came from New York City on the bus, it would take you about one hour.
Carlos Batara: Now, that helps me a lot. When you say 50 miles from New York City, I get a little bearing from that. And that’s the big reference point for most of us on the West Coast. So, before you joined or created – did you join or create Casa Freehold?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: I did not create Casa Freehold. No. I think it basically came out of what was happening in the community. There was a mayor running unopposed for his 25th year on an anti-immigrant platform who was going to shut down the ability to look for work, kick people out of their housing.
And so there were two organizations formed. One was Monmouth County Residents For Immigrants’ Rights and the other was The Day Laborers of Freehold. Then we came together to form Casa Freehold. And so it was a large group of people.
Carlos Batara: Before that experience, had you worked with immigrants and immigrant families?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: No. I would say no. Not in this capacity. I mean, many years ago when I was in the eighth grade, and I began working with Cuban people coming to this country because they trained us to teach English.
Carlos Batara: I’d like to dive a little into the issue of family separation.
If a large percentage of your families are where both adults are immigrants then that would seem to mean to me that they both can be deported.
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Exactly.
The Ordeal Of Family Separation On Children Of Immigrants
Carlos Batara: Talk to me first about a family where one parent has been deported and another parent has not. The child or children has to live with one parent here. Have you experienced that situation?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: We have experienced every variety of situation. We had a family come a few years back from Peru. And they were very active in Casa Freehold, but they did not disclose to us their situation in immigration. And in fact, they had come from Utah to here and in the bus station they had been given an order to maintain contact with ICE. But they thought somehow if they bought themselves to Freehold, they would be able to kind of disappear here which is not true.
All of them were from Peru, not including the seven-year-old daughter. So the child went to school, she was very outgoing and friendly. She had many school friends. Everybody loved the family, and then one day the father was waiting outside from the corner after work, and ICE came up and took the father.
They went to the house. They took the mother. And then I got a call saying the daughter, seven years old, was in school and would be coming home to an empty house.
Carlos Batara: Was the child thrown into the foster care system?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: No, what they did is, you know, the mother desperately called us and she said, “Please take care of child.” And we did. We got the child from school. They put an ankle bracelet on the mother and they let her come back with an order of removal. They put the father in detention and they quickly deported him. But they let the mother come back with an ankle bracelet but still with an order of removal.
Carlos Batara: Is that mother now in the United States with their child still or did she ultimately get removed?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Ultimately, they removed both the mother and the child. That bracelet experience was a horrible one for the entire family.
Carlos Batara: Well, you know there have been studies that show there are 5 million children, with at least one parent that is undocumented, under the age of 18.
Studies have also shown that about 79% of those children who are at risk of losing a parent, are U.S. citizen children and they are under age of 18.
So I did some quick math and basically, it comes out to the fact that there are about 4 million U.S. citizen children under the age of 18, living with at least one parent who is undocumented, that are at risk of losing their parent.
Marguerita Jane Dentino: They live with that every single day, so not only is it the actual time of deportation, it is the knowledge that at any moment their parent or parents might be gone.
I think I have told you previously that we have met with all the guidance counselors here in our county because they wondered what happened when a student was going along doing well in school and then one day, boom, it just fell off the chart and they were doing horribly. And this is what is happening. You know, a parent was being deported or was at risk for, you know, imminent deportation.
Emergency Planning Ahead Needed For Immigrant Families
Carlos Batara: Does your organization prepare any emergency packets, any guardianship papers, any prepare in-advance type of information to give the families that are at risk?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: This is what we are urgently doing right now. We’ve been doing it for a long time but right now, under the Trump administration we are in a far more emergency situation, so we do a kind of two-part workshop where we do a “Know Your Rights” and we do “How To Make A Family Plan.”
If I am a parent, which I am, I don’t know if I am going be here tomorrow. Every parent needs to do that to some extent, but this is different in the sense that we’re planning, one, if that parent is gone and, two, how do we reunite that family as quickly as possible. Because if I have children 2 – 3 years old and I am gone, then I want them to be able to come back with my children as quickly as possible, so we make that whole plan.
They go home and they make their plan. They come back for the second part of this workshop and, yes, we have all those papers. They are specifically approved by the State of New Jersey. In each state, it’s a little bit different, powers of attorney and their own social services for children and those kinds of things, you know, so we have it approved here under New Jersey.
Carlos Batara: So, would you say that the vast majority of children of these families know ahead of time about their parents’ situation?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: I think, yes, I think the vast majority of the children know that their parents do not have papers. And oftentimes, the children themselves, there may be one of the children who was born out of the country. There may be other children who were born in this country. So, the children themselves can be a mix, too. They are often are and the family themselves, they are aware of that.
Psychological Impact Of Possible Parental Deportation On Immigrant Children
Carlos Batara: How do you think it affects or do you know how it affects the children psychologically? Does it affect their sense of self-worth? Does it affect how their peers relate to them? And I assume, based on what you already said that it affects their school performance. What about their self-perception and self-worth and those types of issues?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: It certainly affects their self-worth.
The other factor which has grown tremendously in recent days is the factor of bullying that Trump has put forward – such an agenda of hate, you know, basically giving people permission to hate and children down to very young ages are recipients of this bullying.
We have here three different people who work in behavioral health and who are bilingual, people who worked with very young children who come in very mistreated unfortunately in current days.
Carlos Batara: Are the schools that the children you work with, are those schools like mixed schools where a large percentage are here documented, they’re here legally, they are U.S. citizens and then you have this other component that are undocumented, that are here without papers and if so, is there is a clash between the children or the social classes or is that even an issue?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: I don’t think it is an issue within the immigrant families themselves.
I think, you know, as far as having some of the children who were born here and some of the children who were born out of the country in the immigrant families, I think they consider themselves all equal. Of course, in the eyes of the world, the situation is quite different, you know, because the person with the papers or without papers, you know, their situation is very different.
Carlos Batara: I know you’ve been involved with a very intense situation lately where you have gone to court. Would you like to share that with the audience?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Yes, I will. We are trying, you know, to hold up this picture to the right angle. This is – Can you see this?
Carlos Batara: I can see it.
Increased Community Involvement In The Age Of Trump To Help Immigrant Families
Marguerita Jane Dentino: This is a family. A husband by name of Margarito who is a father of three and a step father of three children. ICE wanted to quickly deport him, and one of those six children has enormous disabilities. His lawyer and his family asked us to bring and support people.
This is something that organizations around the country are doing right now. If they see that, you know, that somebody is at risk of imminent deportation, they accompany them to their check-ins, they accompany them to them to court to show there is a huge community behind that person, and to try to have that have an impact on to court.
And so, because of the community support, instead of deporting him, his case has been accepted to move forward as an asylum case.
Carlos Batara: When you work with families like that, are there certain attorneys you assist, are you helping them on a pro per basis, a pro se basis? Are there paralegals? How do you handle those situations from a legal perspective?
Building A Team Approach To Defending Immigrants Against Deportation
Marguerita Jane Dentino: It varies as far as the legal perspective. In the case of this gentleman, he has a lawyer, a very good lawyer, and the lawyer and the family asked for our help. We’ve had other situations.
For instance, I had a boy who came up from Guatemala, and he was living with his uncle. His uncle threw him out into the street, and he arrived here the day before his court. And we accompanied him to the court with no lawyer and so it just depends on the situation.
Carlos Batara: Do you take an active role personally in those cases?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: We do, I mean, of course, we differentiate very strongly that I am not a lawyer and we are not lawyers. We work with the lawyers.
There is an organization for example – Mujeres – which works with the women who are victims of domestic violence and who we work with hand in hand. We tend to work very closely with our team of lawyers, whether it be work accidents or whether it be families, or whatever it is.
Contradictory Positions Of Support From The Mexican Consulate
Carlos Batara: A while back, there was some indication that the Consulate of Mexico was going to be contributing, I think, $50,000 to each locality. Do you have any experience with that?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Sadly, we had a kind of traumatic experience because the Consulate of Mexico was here this past Tuesday evening.
The Mexican government allocated 50 million dollars for the defense and protection of its’ people in this country. So we raised the question about specifics, about what those services would be.
They proceeded to tell us that instead of the mobile consulates which have been here for 14 years all around the different areas of New Jersey, they would be consolidating their program in one area of Passaic, which is north of New York City, very inaccessible to people in Central Jersey and there would be no more Mexican Consulate.
Our response was, well, 50 million dollars, now there is less service instead of more. Why?
Carlos Batara: What answer did they give you?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: We have not received an answer yet, except we were just told that they would take our responses and review it in New York. And we are having a state-wide meeting of all the people who are impacted by that within next few days. So the next time I talk to you, hopefully we will know more.
Carlos Batara: So was the anticipation that they would be soliciting grants from non-profit and community-based organizations, or what was the thinking originally when they said they were going to be helping the localities defend undocumented immigrants?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: I guess our thinking was even though it sounds like a lot of money, 50 million dollars, we knew that with 25 million Mexican people in this country, it would come down to, maybe at the outside $1.50 per person. We knew the only way that could be effective would be to form strong teams, which we were ready to do. To form strong legal teams, counseling teams, and just work in tandem with them. But instead we feel cut off.
Funding And Support For Immigrant Community Non-Profits In The Age Of Trump
Carlos Batara: How is the funding for your organization right now? Is it strong? Is it weak? Has the Trump administration being in charge in creating this heightened fear, has it also affected the amount of donors and donations and people willing to come forward to support the plight of undocumented immigrants?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: In one way with the Trump administration, I think the level of awareness has grown about problems which you and I know have actually have been around for a long time.
We know that more people than ever were deported under the Obama but we didn’t have the volunteers so we do have a lot of people coming forward as volunteers and trying to help us fund raise. That being said, we still struggle month by month by month to pay our rent and our basic bills. And anybody would send things to our address which is 6 Morgan Street Freehold, at Casa Freehold.
Carlos Batara: Okay, so I guess you wouldn’t mind if I make a pitch for donations for Casa Freehold. There is a phone number that I know you can call to talk to Marguerita. It’s (732) 492-1852 and I strongly solicit anybody with a few extra dollars or a few extra hundred dollars or even a few extra thousand dollars to give off for the good work that they are doing there in New Jersey.
You may be miles away from California, but the battles are just as intense. That I can say for certainly. Would you like to add anything to that in terms of the need of donations?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Thank you very much. We just now managed to pay the balance of July rent and we see August rent looming up ahead. And you know, it is hard.
We just want to put our energy to fighting for our people, and it is so hard if we have to put so much energy into saving money to carry on in very basic ways. I receive no salary, nobody here receives any salary.
Carlos Batara: That is absolutely amazing! You do this on a volunteer basis. I am – whoaah! – That’s amazing!
Marguerita Jane Dentino: I am not saying that is necessarily a good thing. I’m just saying that is our situation right now. Basically we just need to carry our rent and basic expenses to continue to do our work.
Carlos Batara: You must have a very thin budget.
Marguerita Jane Dentino: We do. We do.
Carlos Batara: I assume your budget includes some items for lunch and some copy paper and all that. Correct?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Right. Yeah. Obviously, we have a wonderful IT volunteer, a man who puts in literally hundreds of hours in maintaining our computer setups just like we’re on right now which is necessary in this day and age and making sure my phone works as I have over 3000 contacts on my phone. It’s a hotline for many people.
Carlos Batara: I want to thank you for coming on the air. I also want to let everyone know that on July 26, 11 o’clock, we are going to do a full broadcast with Casa Freehold and Marguerita. We are going to discuss the issues that she brought up in more depth.
Obviously, there is a lot more here, and this only touches the surface, so as I said earlier, Immigration Live is back.
This is the weekly mini version and we are going to be coming back with the full version as this is definitely a topic we want to explore more with Marguerita.
And with that, Marguerita, I want to say thank you very much. I really appreciate you being brave to being my first guest under the return of Immigration Live. You’re a brave person. You took the risk that I was going to pull this show off.
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Thank you, my pleasure.
Carlos Batara: Are there any parting words or wisdom that you would want to give to immigrant activists or advocates or immigrants themselves before we close today?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Our country is way too divided in every way, shape, and form. Our advice to people is every single day, step outside your normal boundaries.
Do something, however small, to extend those boundaries. Whether it is a smile at a stranger, anything, we all have to do that right now.
Carlos Batara: Or go to your nearest non-profit center and do what Marguerita is doing and donate some time, right?
Marguerita Jane Dentino: Exactly. Exactly. I mean all those people that we had at court yesterday, it was just amazing. Most of them were people who never would have done that before, so I am very proud of them.
Carlos Batara: Well, you are doing a great job there. I look forward to meeting up with you again in a couple of weeks here, as we do it on a different platform, a different technology, but still here at Facebook Live. Everyone will be able to catch it.
So tell your friends that, one, Immigration Live is back and, two, please donate to Casa Freehold. Okay? And come back and join us in our next broadcast.
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By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics