I am protesting American immigration policy and the treatment of immigrants in the US.

My mother was arrested on October 14th.

I found out during class. I received an email from one of my mother’s friends and I was shocked. There was absolutely no reason for her to be arrested.

Between cleaning houses, caring for the elderly, and managing two condo rentals, my mom doesn’t have a lot of spare time. She has over fifty clients and she is often pulling sixty to seventy hour work weeks. Throughout this, she has always been my biggest supporter and my best friend.

In the days following her arrest, more information surfaced. My mom was arrested by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), an agency run by Homeland Security, and she was charged with entering the US illegally on November 20th, 2000. I was with her on that day. We came in through San Francisco airport, my mother had a valid visa and we went through customs with no trouble.

Our attorney was quick to point this out during the trial but the prosecutor had a response ready: a response that would be my first glimpse into the convoluted nature of immigration law. The prosecutor said that mom was at fault for not renewing her visa, and that her failure to renew her visa made the November entry illegal. The judge agreed. Furthermore, my mom wasn’t allowed bail and she was sent to a prison seven hours away from our home, indefinitely, without committing a crime. When our attorney requested she be allowed bail as she wasn’t a criminal, the prosecutor said that she was “dangerous” and “removable” based on her criminal history.

My mother’s criminal history is this: Fifteen years ago, during a very difficult time in our lives, she shoplifted basic living necessities for me, her newborn child.

Fifteen years ago, my father refused to work to support us. He did not want a child and made it very clear to me that he didn’t want me. When my mother got pregnant, he was so mad he refused to speak to her for the entire duration of her pregnancy. When I lived with him, he would constantly mock my ambitions and make me feel unwanted and wrong. Weren’t it for the unwavering love and support of my mother I might have not been here today.

My mother was desperate; she had job offers, but her spouse visa didn’t allow her to work. She cleaned houses to put my father through university – but she also had a baby to feed. Several years later, our situation wasn’t getting any better. My mother had a traumatic miscarriage; she was vulnerable but still had to take care of the family. It was during this time that my father put the idea to shoplift in her head. She was later caught and punished with a stay in jail.

A lot has changed in fifteen years. My mother realized that if she didn’t take action to live by the right way, we would be stuck in this horrible situation forever.

She divorced my father, knowingly endangering her status in this country. She enrolled at Boise State University to get a degree in automotive technology. During that time she was juggling school work with raising me and doing the only work she could get – cleaning houses and taking care of elderly people. For several years she powered through eighty hour work weeks, and it showed.

My mother took fantastic care of me, always paid her bills and taxes and is the ultimate role model to me. I witnessed her redemption first-hand and she puts every other story of the American Dream or the underdog to shame. Years of sheer hard work and perseverance helped her achieve what we couldn’t have dreamed of fifteen years ago. She obtained a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) licence and two bachelor degrees, even a minor in Japanese. With her unconditional support I achieved my dream of attending the University of London.

In that time she also tried to fix her legal status through the correct means. In Idaho, we submitted countless forms only to be told that they had been lost in the system.

In July 2013 I was nearing the age of twenty-one; once I became eligible to apply for her adjustment of status, she sought the help of an attorney once again. Despite our eagerness to prepare the form, the attorney didn’t do anything. Even when I turned twenty-one, the attorney remained inactive despite us paying the five thousand dollar down payment.

When my mother was detained, she switched to a new attorney in Utah. Imagine my horror when the new attorney told me that had we started filling our petition in January my mother would not have been detained. In the end, the attorney in Idaho still charged us $2500 – despite the fact that she didn’t prevent my mom from being taken away from me even though she could.

After my mother was taken away I took my time to read some articles on ICE, and saw that their motto is “Protecting National Security and Upholding Public Safety.” Examples of their targets include human trafficking rings and arms smugglers. My mother has over fifty clients that she helps either with housekeeping or functioning in daily life. Does “protecting national security and upholding public safety” really require detaining and deporting my mom?

Initially, I was overjoyed by the speech President Obama made in late November. However, what I’m seeing and hearing is not adding up with what has happened to my mother. I read that ICE was not supposed to destroy families and yet that’s exactly what’s happening. We’re not the only ones either. Just a week ago, one of my mom’s cellmates was deported, leaving behind four children all alone. The oldest of them is nine years old, they are all American citizens.

I am a proud American citizen. I was raised and educated in America and this situations spits in the face of what I learned about American justice.

In late November, our attorney requested that I attend my mother’s next hearing as he thought my attendance would help sway the judge. He made it sound like my mom really would be allowed out of jail. I am currently studying in Seoul so I booked my tickets immediately in the hopes of spending my short Fall break with my mom.

In the two days the hearing lasted I saw my mom led around in handcuffs. I had to sit quietly as I listened to the prosecutor refer to my mom as “dangerous” and “removable”. I was reprimanded for talking to my mom and hugging her. After the hearing, I went home alone to spend my Thanksgiving in a big empty house.

I feel like I am being punished. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see my mom again. Even then it costs $12 to talk to her for half an hour. She is all I have, her work is all that supports us and she can’t work in prison. My father has long stopped being a part of our lives. My life in America is in peril and I might have to quit my education that I studied years and years for. I don’t know what I’ll do without her.

What have we done to deserve this? My mother spent fifteen years clawing her way up from the mud to become a law-abiding and valued member of society – only to be thrown back in. I’ve worked and studied hard all my life. We’ve never hurt anyone and tried to fix her problems the right way. My mother is nearly sixty and has worked hard all her life. She tells me it’s cold and that she’s losing weight. She is being treated worse and worse: Just the other day she was put in “lockdown” (i.e. not allowed out of her cell) for 72 hours because she kept three apples and a half-eaten donut in her belongings. She is not allowed bail because she is charged with entering the country illegally. Even when she provided her passport with the approved visa the charge stayed. She is being held in “immigration detention” at Utah County jail with no sentence, yet she is treated no differently than a criminal.

I can’t understand why this is happening. Had she been deported fifteen years ago, there wouldn’t be a lot we could say or do. Her “illegal” entry in November of 2000 took place after she had served time for shoplifting and yet she was still allowed to enter the country. Are the authorities blind to anything other than her bad decision made in the distant past?

I’ve reached out to my local congressman, the local attorney general, the ACLU, anyone who I thought can help. None of them seemed very interested. Who do I talk to? How do I even begin to protest this? This situation isn’t right and there’s a whole generation of children just like me facing the same injustices my mother and I are facing. What is to become of us?


Ming Fritz Zha is a student at SOAS, University of London, currently studying for a year in Seoul. Ming doesn’t know what comes next but she hopes the future will be kind and full of tasty food and cute stationery.