‘How do you deport three-fifths of a family?’

One undocumented immigrant's race against the clock, told in real time by the Miami Herald's Marc Caputo

MIAMI, FL — Miami Herald political reporter Marc Caputo didn’t expect high drama when he ventured into a community immigration forum in North Miami’s Haitian Evangelical Church last night. A home-field discussion between four Democratic members of Congress who generally see eye-to-eye on immigration rarely makes for riveting copy. But immigration “is a big issue, and it’s just something we should cover,” Caputo told me in a phone interview today. In a neighborhood peopled largely by Haitians, Jamaicans, and Bahamians, he aimed to file a dispatch that broke out of the usual Latino-focused immigration narrative. (In this, too, he ultimately succeeded.)

And besides, the last line of the forum’s flyer held some intrigue: “All immigrants, regardless of status, are welcome.”

As the panel was wrapping up and thinking about a late dinner, a young man with his mother and three siblings in tow approached the microphone. Few in the crowd saw it as a pregnant moment. Having already filed his main story, Caputo laughingly admits, “I was kind of listening with half an ear and playing on Twitter.”

But the young man gripped Caputo’s attention with a bombshell question: Could the panelists save his father from his impending deportation to Mexico?

“He’s about to be deported tomorrow at 4 am,” 18-year-old college freshman Carlos Rivas said. “And I wanted to know what you could do for us because right now, I don’t know, I can’t even go to school because I can’t pay for it. I don’t know. What can you do? Is there any help you can try to give us?”

The father, Rene Rivas, had only learned of his fate hours earlier, in detention after a traffic stop. Sounding unoptimistic but intrigued by the story, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Miami) promised action. “We’re going to try. It’s the right thing to do,” she said, to applause from the crowd of about 200.

After years of acrimonious debate and little policy progress, it’s no small feat to cover immigration in a way that captures readers’ attention. But over the next seven hours, in several stories and a night’s worth of tweets, Caputo penned a transfixing chapter in the immigration saga. Could a single congresswoman in the dead of a Monday night succeed in halting one of the Obama administration’s estimated 1,000 daily deportations? What would be the fate of Rene Rivas’s family, only two of whom could claim US citizenship and legal residence in the country? And how did Rivas end up in this predicament?

Caputo says he didn’t come to the forum ready to tie it into a larger policy narrative. But you wouldn’t know it from his initial blog post on the Rivas family:

Suddenly, all the Democrats’ talk of making a difference, passing a new immigration-reform bill and advocating for the undocumented and the downtrodden became very real for Wilson, New York Rep. Yvette Clarke and Texas representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Marc Veasey.

All are Democrats. And all are members in good standing with the Obama administration, which can halt a deportation. How much political capital do the Democrats have or are willing to spend? They’d have to interrupt their dinner in making calls to the White House, the Department of Homeland Security or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They’d have to do all this for one man who, ultimately, broke immigration law —albeit to make his and his family’s life better.

And they’d have to go to all of this trouble knowing Rene Rivas is one of thousands.

Keeping up with the story after the forum proved difficult, though. While the Herald’s original blog post garnered wide attention on social media last night, from local investigative reporters to Buzzfeed’s viral guru Andrew Kazcynski, Caputo hit a bit of a wall. “I wish I could get someone to answer a phone to keep it updated,” he tweeted shortly after 12 am. “Something tells me it’s bad news for the Rivas family.”

Nevertheless, Caputo broke through—as did the congresswoman. “Frederica Wilson on the line: We were able to stop the deportation,” he tweeted at 12:23. That led to another updated blog post, in which Caputo detailed how Wilson rousted an immigration official from bed to stay the deportation.

Not that Rene Rivas and his family were totally out of the woods yet; as Caputo’s final piece of the night pointed out, the father of four was still slated for deportation as early as June 10.

With the tick-tock drama done for now, Caputo turned his attention to the Rivas family. The story was hardly simple and clear-cut, regardless of where a reader might stand on immigration. Rene Rivas moved his family to Miami from Mexico 12 years ago—meaning he, his wife (Ana), his eldest son (Carlos), and his daughter (Karla), are all undocumented in the US. But two younger children were born here.

Adding to the complications, the father had already been run down by immigration officials months ago, and he volunteered to self-deport. But once in Mexico, he crossed back to the US to rejoin his family. That’s when he was caught the most recent time and tossed in detention to await forced deportation.

“It’s a great instance of synecdoche, a part standing in for the whole of immigration,” Caputo says of the Rivases. On face, Rene Rivas has broken the law. More than once. But “once you brush beneath the surface and you see the son of a man that’s trying to get ahead, and pleading for mercy, that’s a very human story.” It’s a conundrum that’s every bit as nuanced and mixed as the nation’s feelings on immigration. “Technically, three-fifths of the family should be deported,” Caputo says. “But how do you deport three-fifths of a family?”

What should become of the Rivas brood, straddling two countries as it does? Caputo wisely refrained from weighing in. Reasonable people can disagree on how much leeway Rene Rivas and his family deserve. But no partisan can deny that the battle over immigration policy impacts real lives—families, educational plans, career and relationship goals. For one night and a morning, Caputo deftly reminded his readers of that.

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Adam Weinstein is CJR's correspondent for Florida and Georgia. He spent the past three years as an investigative reporter and editor for Mother Jones. Before that, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice and the Tallahassee Democrat. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, GQ and Newsweek. Now based in the Miami area, he can be found on Twitter @AdamWeinstein.