In January 2013, the staff at Cuentame received a phone call from 9-year-old Stephanie Pucheta and her mom Maria Ortiz. Their request seemed simple and straightforward at the time: Would Cuentame help in preventing the deportation of Stephanie's dad, Julio Cesar Pucheta?
Maria and Stephanie were desperate; they had tried many avenues and contacted different immigration lawyers to no avail. Virtually broke and seemingly with nowhere else to turn to, they made the call after seeing one of our documentary campaign videos on immigration cases. Stephanie's father had been in detention for over a year after a traffic violation and his removal proceeding was imminent. The Pucheta family story seemed all too common -- reflecting precisely the horrors of our broken immigration system: A family on the verge of separation -- with no resources, no legal remedies, and no access to effective representations.
As with the many stories we receive, we immediately attempted to contact volunteer and human rights' groups in the state of Georgia - where the family was located - in a last-minute effort to help with their case. It was too late; Stephanie's dad had already been deported. It didn't come as a surprise; it happens all too often. We contacted Stephanie and Maria again who by then had enlisted the help of a pro-bono lawyer, and asked if they wanted to tell their story. We explained to them that Cuentame's (which translates to "count me OR tell me your story') mission was precisely that--to tell stories that like theirs so often go unnoticed. Our hope was to create a small interest in the case, knowing that the system is so overwhelmed that they are viewed as another number and another file.
Stephanie was particularly keen in telling us her experience and her perspective. In an effort to capture her thoughts as pure and as best possible we decided to send Stephanie a personal camera and asked her to tell us her account of the events. Over a period of two weeks, Stephanie diligently clicked on the camera every morning and recorded a few minutes every day -- a personal video diary of sorts.
Once she was done, she mailed the camera back to us so that we could see, hear, and spread the message she had sent. We didn't know what to expect. We had heard it all and seen it all. Yet, as soon as we turned on her first 9-minute clip, we knew this was different:
After watching the clip, we felt urgency and anger and shed tears. How can all of this happen? How can a Stephanie and thousands of children like her have to go through this? Couldn't we do something about it? Wasn't there an immigration-reform bill being discussed to address these same issues? Stephanie's story is emblematic of the over 25,000 immigrants who apply for family unity waivers each year only to be torn apart by an immigration system that emphasizes blind enforcement policies over sensible and human rights' solutions.
As we move into a very serious, prominent, and real immigration debate we see that our legislators once again have put the security-industrial complex ahead of individual and human rights. Billions of dollars are being poured into the militarization of our borders, the fueling of private immigrant-detention facilities, and the continuation of raids and arbitrary deportations that have all but shredded basic and human rights. It is often futile to talk in these terms as the issue of immigration has been so criminalized, and tarnished with hate rhetoric by anti-immigrant groups, that the mere discussion of human rights seems like an abomination in it of itself. Our families are facing a humanitarian crisis but our legislators have decided to prioritize talking about how to double up on these efforts?