How do you explain deportation to a child?
A Seattle mom grappled with this question when her son’s best friend Jorge shared a secret one night at dinner. Her son Ronan was 6 at the time.
His family is undocumented, Jorge told them. In that moment, his secret became one they would all keep together.
Jorge’s family would be eligible for temporary legal status under the executive action President Barack Obama announced in November. But a federal judge this week temporarily halted the programs.
In Congress, Republican lawmakers have denounced the protection programs as amnesty for millions living in U.S. without authorization. Here in South Seattle, the fallout of these political wars weighs heavily on two boys who would much rather play torro with Jorge’s dog Princess. They hold up a sheet of cardboard in lieu of a red cape, and Princess charges toward it.
These two bullfighters met years ago, when Jorge’s family moved in across the street from Ronan.
“I remember that, like, one day, for weeks my mom had been saying, ‘C’mon, let’s just go see what he’s like,’” Ronan recalls. “And then one day we went over and that’s when we became friends.”
“I kind of remember that he came to my house, and I think I was hiding behind my dad, because I think I was kind of nervous,” Jorge says.
Ronan’s mom and Jorge’s parents chat on the sidewalk, often marveling at how well their sons get along despite their age difference. Ronan is 9 and Jorge is 13.
They’ve come to see the boys as brothers. They go on family outings together, and the boys are in and out of each other’s homes constantly.
On a recent afternoon, I paid a visit with Ronan, Jorge and Kristyn Joy, Ronan’s mom. It was a rare day off for Jorge’s parents – he works at a grocery story in Seattle, and she works at a factory – and they stayed at home with their 5-year-old daughter.
As Kristyn fixes a snack, we settle in at the dining table and make a small talk about their annual camping trips and Jorge’s bilingual skills.
“Hola!” Ronan giggles out when I ask if he’s picked up much Spanish from Jorge.
The mood shifts when I ask about a conversation here, at this table, three years ago. That’s when Jorge shared the secret of his family’s immigration status. (Jorge is not his real name.)
“What I remember is you were talking about when your grandmother died,” Kristyn says to Jorge.
“Yeah, she had passed, and I found out because my mom was crying,” Jorge says.
“And you said that your family wasn’t able to go back to Mexico before she died,” Kristyn says. “And you said, ‘It’s because we don’t have papers.’ So that’s what I remember was the first time you said that to us out loud. You remember that?”
“Yeah,” Jorge says, nodding his head.
Ronan remembers a condensed version.
“I just remember him saying something that he didn’t have papers and that we couldn’t tell anybody,” Ronan says.
Jorge’s family had illegally crossed the border from Mexico about 10 years ago.
Jorge’s younger sister was born here, so she’s a U.S. citizen. But the rest of the family doesn’t have permission to be here.
It was a big deal. Kristyn wanted these kids to grasp that.
“There were consequences if we all didn’t keep that secret,” Kristyn says.
Jorge’s parents could lose their jobs – or they could all be deported.
That was a tough concept for Ronan, who was 6 at the time. But he’s a few years older now and the idea of “undocumented” has gotten clearer.
“It means they don’t have papers,” Ronan says. “Or I don’t think they have a passport so they can’t go outside their country.”
Over the years, Jorge’s arrived at a pretty good idea of what it might feel like on the other side of this hurdle.
“Relieved … so I don’t have to keep it secret anymore,” Jorge says. “I’d feel happy because I could travel with my family.”
Before that night, Kristyn viewed Jorge’s immigration status as none of her business. But she had suspected the truth.
“You used to have a lot of fear whenever a police car would go by, or you'd hear sirens,” she says. “So that was kind of one tip for me.”
I ask Ronan what he thinks it means for his friend to be undocumented.
“That he’s probably really nervous all the time,” Ronan says. “Because someone could just come by and then tell him to go back to Mexico, but his sister might have to stay here.”
Across the table, Jorge fidgets with a cloth napkin. As we’ve talked, he’s grown quieter.
He says he wants to have this conversation, because he wants people to understand what it’s like for him, even though it’s a reality he tries to ignore.
“I don’t usually think about it … because when I remember, it makes me sad,” Jorge says choking up.
His hands twist away at the napkin. Kristyn gets emotional, too. She softens the mood with call to break out cookies, and soon Ronan starts clowning around.
The cookies do the trick. In a moment, all is back to normal, and the kids lead the way outside to their treehouse. Kristyn shouts out a reminder about homework and a warning: “You guys have 15 minutes of play time left together.”
Jorge’s family’s situation could change soon. They’re among the approximately 4 million immigrants eligible for a program Obama announced in November. It would give parents of U.S.-born children a work permit and temporary permission to stay here.
The program was due to start in May. But it currently faces a federal lawsuit filed by 26 states. Those states argue Obama’s executive actions are unconstitutional. And that the programs would encourage more unauthorized immigration and strain public services like health clinics and schools.
In Ronan’s backyard, Jorge points toward a hammock frame. It’s the scene of a legendary accident.
“I was like on this side —” Ronan starts to explain.
Jorge jumps in, “But then we swung too fast and too hard that the hammock fell and the stick popped out.”
Ronan banged his face on the hammock pole. His chin was a bloody mess.
While Ronan crouched on the ground holding his face and screaming, Jorge stayed at his side.
“I was holding his hand so he wouldn’t be scared,” Jorge says.
They helped each other through that terrible moment.
And the small scar on Ronan’s face will always mark that time, that childhood memory, and the friendship between these two boys.