The story pitch came first from Deseret News photojournalist Laura Seitz: We should go find Maria in Guatemala and discover what is motivating her to send her children back to the United States.
Maria Santiago, a mother of four U.S.-born children, fled violence in Guatemala nearly 14 years ago, crossed the border, applied for asylum, then got lost in events that would lead to her deportation. She left Salt Lake International Airport with her children on Christmas day last year, the result of choices she made and the tangled immigration and work policies of our country.
Understanding what became of her family is at the heart of the story from Deseret News journalists Gillian Friedman and Laura Seitz, who teamed up to provide a compelling, nuanced account that takes us from Salt Lake City to a small town in Guatemala and back again. It's a face of immigration not often seen. The story, appearing first online Thursday and Sunday in the print edition, brought strong reaction which is itself indicative of where we are as a country on immigration.
Can compassion and rule of law be balanced? Can a solution be found that keeps families together progressing toward a happy future? Keeping families together is a position the overwhelming majority of Americans say they believe in, but getting there and providing opportunities for individuals is among the nation's most vexing problems.
It's difficult to report week after week on immigration and keep the public's interest. It's a constant effort to report on the apparent tug-and-pull of varying immigration policies, particularly when there are Republicans and Democrats in government who are often more concerned about gaining political advantage than actually finding a solution to immigration problems.
Maria's story was an opportunity for us to understand what is at stake in this debate. It's about people, not policy. Real people are crossing the border. Real people seek asylum. Real people make mistakes and struggle to overcome them. Real people are being deported. Children are being pulled in many directions as their parents try to give them a better future.
In other words, the process is messy because life is messy. We wanted to tell an authentic story — warts and all — about Maria Santiago, who as a young woman in Guatemala witnessed horrible crime, who sought a better life in America, who began the asylum process but then was never informed of her hearing, who wanted to support herself so she used a Social Security card that wasn't her own, and who began raising a family of six in Utah, only to have that unit separated.
Are you heartbroken for her? Are you sympathetic to the plight of this family? Are you angry? Are you satisfied that this woman broke the law and got what she deserved? Are you disgusted with the Deseret News for writing about this at all?
We've had every one of these reactions from our readers. Perhaps that shows just where we are as a country on the immigration debate.
"When you're covering immigration it's so important to see the effects of what's happening on the ground," reporter Friedman said. "When looking at these policy decisions you have to ask what is the human cost going to be. With this story — this family being divided — you have to ask is this a better outcome now that the mom is in Guatemala, the father is here, and the children (are living with) and are financially supported by two public school teachers. Is that an ideal situation?"
I reject the labels of liberal and conservative. They do nothing to solve problems and they are a distraction from reality. What we actually did was tell a compelling story, including in it the decisions Maria made, the decisions that politicians made, and we took a look at the differences between life in Utah and life in Guatemala. Don't put a label on it. Help look for a solution.
Today Maria is in Guatemala and can't apply to return for nine more years. Her husband is in Utah, but is undocumented and working to send money to Guatemala and is therefore unable to care for the children. The children are being raised in separate households by two good and caring teachers who are trying to give them a better future.
That's the messy reality. You can blame the family. You can blame the government. Or you can not blame anyone and try to find a solution that provides direction and motivation that will not result in a family divided.
In the Deseret News American Family Survey released last month more than 80 percent of respondents said they believe members of migrant families who cross the border without a visa to seek asylum should be kept together, though there are partisan differences in where these families should be kept and what kind of processes should be imposed.21 comments on this story
But even if people endeavor to do that, is there room for any compassion for those who take a misstep? Is there a way to prioritize keeping families together above administrative or legal failings, particularly when the children — in this case four children — are U.S. citizens?
The children spent last Christmas in an airport. They are not there this year, but they're also not at home. As a mother, Maria made a choice to keep the two youngest with her in Guatemala and let the older two return to America. She just wishes there was a better choice to make.