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Torn apart by ICE, a Colorado family vows to keep fighting to stay together

Vigil for Jorge
      Photo: Gabriela Flora / AFSC

Jorge and Christina Zaldivar have been married for 15 years and have five children, whom they raised in Colorado. But for over a decade, Jorge has faced potential deportation and separation from his family because of a mistake by U.S. consular officials years ago.

On Nov. 13, 2019, the family’s fear became a reality when Jorge went to his monthly check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and was detained, despite a pending petition to review his case. He was imprisoned in the for-profit GEO detention center in Aurora for two months, where he had to fight to receive basic diabetes medication and was denied dental care and adequate nutrition. He lost more than 10 pounds in that time.

On Jan. 15, 2020 Jorge was deported to Mexico. Prior to his deportation Christina flew to Mexico City to be there with him when he arrived. She returned to Denver on Jan. 25 to parent their five children on her own while they continue to fight his case to return Jorge to Denver with his family where he belongs. 

In a Jan. 24 phone interview from Mexico City, Christina shared her thoughts on their experience and what comes next for their family.

The unbearable stress of detention and deportation

The abuse Jorge suffered in detention reminded Christina of atrocities she had seen in movies, Christina says.

“He was basically starved and given uncooked food,” she says. “How can anyone have such a cold heart? But GEO makes money by denying care, food, and decent treatment. What is even worse is having your dignity stripped away from you as if you were nothing.”

The effects of detention and deportation have been devastating on Jorge and his family. “He hasn’t been able to hold and hug his children since Nov. 13,” Christina says. Their youngest child, Francysco, age 9, smells Jorge's shirts because it gives him a sense that his dad is still around. Their two eldest daughters, Josefyna and Yolanda, declined to attend college because the family can’t afford tuition on top of legal fees to fight Jorge’s immigration case.

“I wish you could put yourself in my place as a mom and put yourself in my husband’s place as a dad—to watch your kids and to listen to the things other people say,” Christina says. “A little boy at school told my son, ‘Your dad left because he doesn’t love you anymore.’ That’s bullying no one should have to deal with, especially when they do not understand the reality of this unjust, unwarranted separation of a child from his parent by force.”

Christina is unsure what the future might hold for her family. “I don’t want to bring our children to live in Mexico, but what do I tell my husband after 20 years and five kids? ‘I am sorry, Jorge, but you don’t have anything or anybody after all we have suffered through?’ No, that is not an option or even a thought in my head," says Christina.

Working in the courts and in Congress

Jorge’s case is in the Tenth Circuit Court for the third time, and his lawyer is waiting to hear on a similar case, according to AFSC staff Gabriela Flora, who has worked closely with the Zaldivars for many years. If that ruling is favorable, Jorge’s lawyers could use it to reopen his case. 

Christina has started a GoFundMe page to help her family pay for a portion of their legal bills, and people from her church have given grocery gift cards. While she’s very grateful for this help, she’s now facing another $20,000 in legal fees on top of her family’s monthly living expenses and daily necessities.

Christina and Gabriela have worked together to garner support from Colorado’s congressional delegation. Four members sent letters asking ICE for a stay of Jorge’s deportation. Christina and Jorge have also built a long-term relationship with Rep. Diana DeGette office, with one of her staffers accompanying Jorge to his last ICE check-in when he was detain by ICE. Gabriela, along with other members of the Not1More Deportation table AFSC coordinates, met recently with Rep. Joe Neguse relaying Jorge’s description of the inhumane treatment he and others received at GEO detention center. Jorge has urged elected officials who visit detention centers to speak directly with people detained to learn what’s really going on inside. 

Continuing to push for change—for all immigrants

“This whole fight is not just about Jorge anymore,” says Christina, who continues to advocate for others caught in our inhumane detention and deportation system. “I’m not going to just sit here twiddling my thumbs because it’s not happening to me anymore. It’s happening and it will continue to happen to everyone else. It’s my duty as an American and as a citizen with rights to fight for all people who don’t have a voice.” 

Christina is a “powerful woman of agency,” Gabriela says. Along with other immigrant rights advocates in Colorado, Christina successfully organized against the inhumane and unconstitutional “Show Me Your Papers” law (SB 90), which pushed many people into deportation proceedings, including Jorge.

Last fall, Christina also worked with AFSC to create “Crossing South,” a resource for people returning to Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala because of deportation or other reasons (Read more about how she developed the idea for Crossing South with another Not1More Deportation member who was at risk of deportation). 

Before Christina got involved with AFSC, she was fighting Jorge’s case by herself, she says. For her and her family, it has been lifesaving to connect with AFSC staff members Gabriela, Jordan Garcia and Jennifer Piper, and others impacted by inhumane immigration system, she says.

“For five years prior to calling the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) hotline, I thought there have to be more people in our same situation—where are they and how are they managing all this?” Christina says. “When I was connected to AFSC [through the CIRC hotline], it was like joining a support group. You find other people in your situation who actually help or know how to help."

As members of the Not1More Deportation table AFSC coordinates, Jorge and Christina have supported many other members fighting their deportation cases, engaged in legislative actions, and educated the public on the realities of our immigration system.

AFSC’s Not1More members are themselves in deportation proceedings, have a family member or have had a family member deported. Over the years working with AFSC, Jorge and Christina have provided knowledge of their experiences and strategies helping other families fight to stay together and not feel alone.

With the help of AFSC and other allies, Christina vows to keep going. “I’ve fought alongside many families destroyed before ours,” she says. “Unfortunately, now it’s our turn. We need to close that concentration camp [GEO] because no one deserves that kind of treatment.” 

Learn more about Jorge and Christina at www.afsc.org/jorge.

To join with AFSC in this work, please contact Gabriela Flora at GFlora@afsc.org.

About the Author

Jon Krieg is a regional communications specialist for AFSC