Jenjen Furer was born in the Philippines, the third child of six, and the only girl. The following is an excerpt from her new book, Out of Status, which tells the painful story of her family’s life as immigrants in the US. It’s a peek into the heart of an undocumented immigrant family facing disastrous circumstances.
My parents used to tell me, “God works in mysterious ways. Don’t worry, everything happens for a reason.” That advice was not helpful on this day.
It was October 27, 2005, 5:30 a.m. I had just gotten out of the shower.
I opened the bathroom door, and standing next to our bed was my husband Craig. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and has that stereotypical “I can handle anything” attitude. He was looking at me in a way that was different from his usual ‘Good morning, honey’ look. He had a look of apprehension that was dramatically different from his typical sanguine gaze.
Apparently he was waiting for me to come out of the shower all this time. “So what’s with the facial expression?” I thought to myself.
In a somber tone he said, “Honey, I have some bad news.”
My head was spinning. Did my Dad have another heart attack? What could be so bad? I just waited for Craig to tell me.
“Honey,” he said, “Benjie got picked up.”
At that moment my brain turned off, and I stopped listening.
Benjie is my youngest brother. He was 32 years old and had lived in the United States since he was 12. He was brought to the U.S. by my parents, and America had been his home for two decades.
“No!” I screamed. “This cannot be happening!”
Benjie is smart, resourceful, responsible, and cheerful. Atypical for most siblings who are the youngest, he took on supporting Mom and Dad after all of us older siblings moved out. He was in the process of starting his own business building custom-made vintage cafe racer style motorcycles, a venture that was starting to show a lot of promise. He hoped it would be his way of achieving his American dream.
And after 20 years of going to American schools, having American friends, dating American girls, watching American television, and eating American food, he was being removed from his home and transferred to a country that had become completely foreign to him.
Craig is almost two years younger than I, yet he possesses the wisdom and optimism of someone older, especially during the most challenging times. He epitomizes every woman’s romantic super hero. He too felt this tragedy that had struck our family — yet again. My brother Nelson had been apprehended in December 1998 and deported in January 1999. Our family was still reeling from his departure.
I kept asking myself, “Why my family? What did we do to deserve this? How can this be happening? This is my family! This is my life! How can we be so unlucky?”
Luck? Is it all about luck?
My husband is so lucky. Unlike my family, Craig’s grandparents migrated from Russia and passed through Ellis Island before settling in New York. Maybe it was easier for them to capture the American dream because back then, the U.S. had opened its gates to all immigrants. Did the first generation of immigrants suffer the same uncertainties we did? Did we do it the wrong way? Did we try to manipulate and ignore the immigration laws just to have a taste of the American dream? Did we realize that we were risking everything, including the prospect of being citizens, just to have a shot at the American dream?
Yes, we did take that risk, all the while never prepared to accept and always continuing to deny what we knew might happen: The government might send some of us back to the Philippines. And now, after two decades, just when we were all fooled into thinking that America would surely be our home forever, that awful moment of reckoning had come.
Craig put his arms on my shoulders. “I’m so sorry, hon, but did you hear what I just said?” he asked.
Staring at a blank space, I mumbled for I couldn’t seem to speak out the horrid images that were in my head. I knew that I, too, could have been apprehended if Craig and I had not gotten married.
I’m not sure if real words came out of my lips. I said something like: “Huh? What do you mean? Where? How? What about Mom and Dad?”
Craig said that the Homeland Security personnel came to the house and arrested Benjie. They left Mom and Dad in the house, but gave them specific instructions to purchase their plane tickets back to Manila.
Everything around me turned mute. As I looked around, my whole world was in pause, and then the sound waves became unbearable as the news sank in.
I kept asking myself, Why? Why, God? Why them? Why now? Why after almost 20 years? Oh, my four children. How do I tell them? How do I protect them from the pain of this news?
I heard my usually reserved 16-year-old daughter Nicole screaming. She was swearing with every breath in between momentary pauses of weighty sobs. I could almost hear the tremble in her heart.
“This is just a dream, a bad dream!” Nicole screamed in disbelief.
I questioned how my daughter, Nicole, could cope with the sadness, the emptiness? How could I have allowed her to experience so much sadness at such a young age?
I couldn’t help but think how painful this must be for the kids!
Benjie, along with my two younger brothers, took care of my own children like they were his own. While some teenagers were hanging around in parks and going to parties, my brothers were busy playing with the kids. Benjie was Peter Pan! I could still remember him changing the children’s diapers, tossing the kids up in the air and teaching them how to fix vintage Volkswagen Beetles even when they were still in their diapers! Benjie was a prominent adult figure, their buddy.
I sobbed heavily as I caught a glimpse of a family picture on the wall — a photo we had taken the previous Thanksgiving. I was afraid that might be the very last time my family would ever be together again. Our tradition had been broken, our dreams had been shattered, and our hope had been taken away.