On Tuesday morning, less than an hour after U.S. officials deported Guadalupe Olivas Valencia to Mexico, the 45-year-old man leapt to his death from a bridge that connects our two countries.
BBC News reported witnesses describing Olivas as distressed and saying he shouted that he did not want to return to Mexico before he jumped. He was from Sinaloa, one of the most violent states in the country.
If you’re inclined to point to Olivas’ three attempts to live here illegally as evidence of his unwillingness to follow the rules, consider recasting the indictment as a question: Why would this man have tried three times to escape Mexico?
As of Tuesday afternoon, we still knew little about Guadalupe Olivas Valencia beyond the circumstances of his death. But anyone paying attention to the news and capable of even a whisper of empathy knows there is more to his story. It is not difficult to imagine his death as a harbinger of more tragedies to come.
Olivas died on the same day the Department of Homeland Security released sweeping new guidelines that will most likely target for deportation millions more undocumented immigrants living in the United States. No matter how much they pay in taxes and Social Security and regardless of what they contribute to their communities, they are now more vulnerable. Something as simple as failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign can lead to one person’s deportation and the devastation of an entire family.
When I read about Olivas’ suicide, I immediately thought of another family of immigrants I wrote about in December 2010. The parents — I called them Mary and Joe to protect their identities — and their two elder children were born in Mexico. They fled for their lives, crossing the border illegally and then paying strangers $6,000 to ride in windowless vans from Arizona to a small town in northeast Ohio. They found full-time work and brought three more children into the world.
They lived in constant fear of discovery, but they were willing to take the risk to improve the lives of their children — an American value, I was raised to believe.
As I wrote at the time, one foggy evening in 2010, Joe was driving home from work, when police pulled him over for using high-beam headlights. He was gone before his wife and children could even visit him at the police station.
His 11-year-old daughter, Emma, took his deportation the hardest. She was a bright student, but her light burned out in her father’s absence. The longer he was gone the more morose and combative she became. Mary shared her concern in phone calls with her husband, but she was trying to keep her family afloat. One afternoon, Mary left Emma to watch the younger children so that she and her eldest daughter could run errands.
By the time they returned, Emma was gone. She had coiled a cord around her neck and tied it to the banister and then slid down the stairs until she suffocated.
I learned about Emma only after she had died, in an interview with Veronica Isabel Dahlberg, who is a co-founder and the executive director of HOLA, an advocacy group for the large Latino community in northeast Ohio. After reading about Olivas’ suicide on that bridge, I called Dahlberg to see how Emma’s family is doing now.
After his daughter’s suicide, Joe made it back to his family, but only for a while. He was arrested in 2012 after he was pulled over for another traffic infraction. This time, the charge was more serious because he’d already been deported. For months, he languished in a detention cell in Youngstown, awaiting his fate. On the day of his court hearing, Feb. 28, 2013, his wife of 20 years called Dahlberg.
“I could barely understand her at first,” Dahlberg said. “She was so upset.”
Joe had hanged himself in his cell. He was 40 years old.
Days after he died, Joe’s family — including his parents — and friends and colleagues gathered at a local funeral home to say goodbye. His death notice described him as a man who read the Bible every day and who tried to live his life by its teachings.
“His greatest joy,” it read, “came from being with his family.”
He is buried next to his daughter Emma, in the small American town where he once dared to believe that his family would be safe.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.
IMAGE: Mexican immigration officers talk with a man whom they suspect to be an illegal immigrant during a search operation in Zapopan near Guadalajara, Mexico July 29, 2014. REUTERS/Alejandro Acosta/File Photo