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Monday, October 30, 2006

A story that needs to be told

One of the most frustrating experiences as a freelance journalist is not finding an outlet for stories about which you feel passionate. I've had that happen to me on a number of occasions, but one haunts me, one makes me want to apply for a fellowship, one calls to me when I least expect.

Amina Silmi was deported from the United States more than two years ago in a case that reeked of coldness, tragedy and cultural misunderstanding. What I learned from my nearly two-inch file of research on that story was that Amina's situation was far from unique. She was swept up in the post-9/11 world that found mothers on the Alien Absconder List because of what their estranged husbands did without their knowledge.

The case swung from the highs of a Board of Immigration Appeals ruling that gave the family hope, to the lows of the Immigration Customs and Enforcement (appropriately known as ICE) decision to send her back to Venezuela. Overnight, the tone of the ICE spokesman changed from encouragement for Amina's case to cold and matter-of-fact.

When asked about the fate of her three American-born children, he coldly stated that she chose to leave them here.

She "chose" to leave them here. How does an illegal immigrant, a woman, a Muslim left alone by two husbands "choose" anything in her life?

I thought it an odd characterization of the events as they unfolded. Amini was heartbroken. We spoke after she arrived in Venezuela and in between sobs she would rage in anger and then become despondent, collapsing again in tears. When I asked about her decision to leave her children behind she responded, "This place is not for my kids. These people here are hungry and poor. I can’t support my kids here. I sacrificed my kids and I’m missing them so much. The government broke three hearts by sending me away.”

Her oldest daughter was 12 at the time her mother was deported. She would be nearly 15 now. I often wonder how she and her younger brother and sister are faring. How does a young girl navigate being a teenager under such circumstances? A year after Amina's deportation, I pitched doing a follow-up story on how the kids are managing without their mother. I was shocked by the response I received from the editor. She said that while Amina's story was unfortunate, she broke the law and as such her readers would never be interested in reading about her and her kids.

Such insenstivity, such a black-and-white view of the world seems to me a perilous trait in an editor. No matter now because the publication is no longer even in existence.

But the characters in this story still reside in my head and I still think their story is worth telling. It seems that other newspapers also find such stories worth telling. This week's featured series in the Nieman Narrative Digest contains a package of stories about an 11-year-old American-born girl dealing with the loss of her mother who was deported to Guatemala after a traffic stop revealed she had violated an eight-year-old deportation order.

It appears in The Charlotte Observer, which didn't feel compelled to quell a story even though her mother broke immigration laws.

I wonder now if we care a litte bit more about the complexities of immigration issues. Do we care what happens to three young Muslim children? Or have we simply become a nation that has forgotten how to care?

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