‘I just want my dad back.’ Kansas families with deported parent have one holiday wish

Christmas for these kids brings tears, hope after their dad was deported

For the first time, Kevin Mendez, 6, and 9-year-old brother Antony, both American citizens, are spending the holidays without Dad for the first time. Their father, Crecensio Mendez-Ramirez, was deported in May.
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For the first time, Kevin Mendez, 6, and 9-year-old brother Antony, both American citizens, are spending the holidays without Dad for the first time. Their father, Crecensio Mendez-Ramirez, was deported in May.

Ask the youngest child of Crecensio Mendez-Ramirez, who was deported in May to Mexico, what the 6-year-old likes most about the Christmas season.

“Decorations!” Kevin says.

But the family home in Kansas City, Kan., is unadorned this year.

An artificial tree remains packed away in the basement. And where Kevin’s father once hung lights outside, the house and yard are dark.

For the first time, Kevin and 9-year-old brother Antony, both American citizens, are spending the holidays without Dad.

It’s not what they imagined in April, when — shortly after their father’s arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — Mendez-Ramirez’s children gathered with volunteers to write letters pleading for his release from the Morgan County Jail under ICE custody.

Organizers invited the news media, thinking a publicity push would help yield the swift, positive results that followed the worldwide attention a few months earlier of the near-deportation of Lawrence chemist Syed Jamal. En route to Bangladesh, public pressure and an appeals board ruling brought Jamal back to the Kansas City area, where a federal judge freed him to his wife and three kids.

But this family’s effort didn’t work.

As enforcement intensifies nationwide on arresting illegal immigrants, it is not known how many children — many of them U.S.-born — are suddenly without a parent or other family member during the holidays.

Christmastime, social workers say, can bring optimism and anticipation to youngsters even in the most wrenching of family situations.

To parents, though, the holiday is different.

“It’s been a struggle for them to pay the bills,” said Diana Martinez of Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation, a local social-justice group.

But with such high tensions over immigration, families can be discouraged from stepping out of the shadows to seek help, even during the holidays.

“We only really find out about these families if they feel comfortable reaching out to us,” said Guadalupe Centers’ Naomi Olivera, who manages a program that allows donors to buy Christmas gifts for needy Hispanic households.

Mendez-Ramirez was a construction worker and his family’s sole breadwinner. Wife Yasmin has a disability preventing her from working full-time.

Martinez’s organization has steered the family to government programs and volunteer groups that keep everyone fed and maintain access to medical and dental care. Rent from an in-law who moved into their home since the deportation also helps the family hang on.

Still, none of that fills the physical absence of the boys’ father.

Antony said Dad always helped with the Christmas meal, “making sauces ... and washing the dishes.”

Last year he picked out a big toy fire truck that Antony could sit in and drive. Brother Kevin got a new bike.

Both gifts were stolen in the summer when the boys left them in the front yard.

For presents this year, “we’re going from big to small,” Yasmin said.

But the spirit of the season has the boys more hopeful, more excited, than they’ve been in a while. Asked when he expects to see his father again, little Kevin grins and says, “tomorrow.”

Deportation effects

Antony and Kevin have two older siblings who are undocumented. Still underage, their mother Yasmin asked they be excluded from this story.

Only citizen children are protected from future removal as adults. Which is why they’re more apt to talk openly about the loss of a deported parent.

They have plenty of company:

More than 4 million U.S. citizen children under age 18 live with at least one undocumented parent, according to an analysis of 2011-2013 Census data.

Over any two-year period, roughly 500,000 citizen children experience the arrest, detention or removal of an undocumented parent.

Numerous studies show that these children suffer depression, PTSD and sleep disorders at higher rates than average.

Six months after deportation, family income and financial support for these children sink an average 70 percent from before removal, says a report by the American Immigration Council.

Days before the November midterm elections, President Donald Trump said in an interview that he was thinking of issuing an executive order to abolish American birthright citizenship. While legal experts widely assert that the 14th amendment grants citizen rights to all babies born in the United States, supporters of stricter immigration controls say a different policy should apply to children born to illegal residents.

“The policy is a magnet for illegal immigration, out of the mainstream of the developed world and needs to come to an end,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Perhaps to Graham’s point, Crecensio Mendez-Ramirez fathered Kevin two years after an immigration court in 2010 ordered his removal. He was allowed to remain indefinitely in the U.S. so long as he reported to ICE offices to renew work permits, which he did. Without warning, ICE detained Ramirez when he dutifully showed up on Feb. 7.

In Mendez-Ramirez’s KCK home, his kids still have hope. Kevin giggles, wiggles and tosses stuffed toys to older brother Antony as he’s always done.

Antony, being in 3rd grade, still believes in Santa “just a little bit.”

He took the opportunity when recently perched on Santa’s knee to make one clear request.

“I don’t need any presents,” Antony said enthusiastically. “I just want my dad back.”

‘Heartbreaking, you know?’

A few hours away in Wichita, the Gutierrez family is also without their father.

“Daddy ... what do you want for Christmas?” asked Zania Gutierrez, 7, over the smartphone in their nightly call with Jose Gutierrez. It’s been seven months since he was arrested by surprise on May 1 while fixing a truck in his driveway; by June, he was deported to Mexico.

Gutierrez replied: “I just want to tell you, ‘I love you.’

“Now, what do you want?” he asks her.

Shown here when still together, the Wichita family of Jose Gutierrez, who was deported in June, will spend their first Christmas without him. From left is daughter Zania, 7, wife Janeth Lazos, 29, and (bottom) son Izak, 10. Gutierrez family Gutierrez family

Zania told him it would sound silly, she knew, but .... of course, she wanted her father home for Christmas with her mother, Janeth Lazos, and big brother Izak.

“Heartbreaking, you know?” the father told The Star. “It made my voice tremble, my eyes tear up, and I don’t want to do that with my kids.”

It was one of those phone moments when Jose Gutierrez, 40, turns away from the screen as if distracted, as if he dropped something on the floor or “hey, let me get a drink of water,” as he tells his kids.

Izak, 10, and Zania do their best, too, to not break down in front of the parents. After their turn to talk to Dad, they retreat to another room where, instead of playing, they are on their knees holding each other: Don’t let Mom see us cry, they whisper.

Through all their hardship, the Gutierrez family managed to decorate a tree. That was good news to Jose.

The family also collected bags of gifts from fellow parishioners at St. Ann Catholic Church to tuck around the tree.

It was a feel-good salve capping a torturous year. Gutierrez and Lazos were expecting twins when 2018 arrived. She miscarried in the spring, before her husband’s arrest.

Lazos is a green card holder who manages a beauty products store; her husband’s an in-home barber. He came to the country legally with a temporary visitor’s visa nearly 25 years ago but a worksite raid three years later sent him back to Mexico. He unlawfully used the same visitor’s visa to re-enter the U.S. in 1998.

That violation allowed ICE to arrest, detain and deport Jose two decades later with no obligation to bring him to a judge.

At the time of the detention, the couple was in the process of buying their rental house, making monthly mortgage payments to the owner. With Jose’s income suddenly erased, the family prepared to move in with relatives until the house owner agreed to accept lower payments and let them stay.

Lazos tries not to show her emotions in front of their two kids, but the holidays without her husband means a season of sorrow. Voice shaking, she told The Star: “It’s getting to me.”

The bright spot for her is the new year, which will put this one in the family’s rearview mirror.

Lazos has told the children that she will save up to fly the whole clan to vacation with Dad in Guadalupe Victoria, Mexico, where he has resumed cutting hair.

And if she can’t afford to take time off work, she’ll send Izak and Zania down with grandma.

Sometime in 2019, she vows when the children ask.

“That brings a smile to their faces,” she said.

How to help

The Guadalupe Centers of Kansas City offers an “Adopt-A-Family” program that enables donors to buy Christmas gifts for needy Hispanic households. guadalupecenters.org, 816-421-1015

A GoFundMe page has been set up for the family of Crecensio Mendez Ramirez at bit.ly/mendezfamily.

Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation can be reached at 913-229-6183.

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At The Star since 1986, Rick Montgomery has written on everything. Culture, crimes, kids, caucuses in his native Iowa, immigration, World Series, car airbags, one deep dive into a tiny Kansas town. He co-wrote “Kansas City: An American Story,” winning a national book prize for history.