By Adele McLees
These days, Emily and Pedro Guzman’s teenage son, Logan, often asks, “Why do we spend so much time together?” But he knows why. So does their eight-year-old daughter, Lily, who was born after the whole ordeal. The LA Times article chronicling their story hangs on their living room wall, refusing to let anyone forget.
In September 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tore Pedro away from Emily and almost three-year-old Logan, taking the husband and father eight hours away to Lumpkin, a small town in the remote southwest corner of Georgia that is the home of Stewart Detention Center. Prior to that day, Emily and Pedro had lived a normal life, spending plenty of time outdoors and “playing in the snow the one time a year it would snow in North Carolina,” says Emily. Pedro had been denied a work visa the year before, so they knew his immigration status was not entirely secure, but they believed that Emily’s citizenship was protection enough. The lack of a work visa even served to bring the family closer together; because of it, Pedro stayed home with Logan, giving the two plenty of bonding time.
What they didn’t realize was that Pedro’s legal status was still dependent on his mother. She had had fled Guatemala with Pedro when he was just a baby and the two had lived in Mexico. After they were denied permanent residency in Mexico, Pedro’s mother decided to take him across the border into the United States.
There, she was granted a work visa
allowing her to safely raise her son and establish her life in America. However, due to her limited English, she answered some questions incorrectly during a routine visa renewal interview in 2008. She voluntarily returned to Mexico, and with her gone, Pedro was no longer safe.
Emily didn’t consider herself involved in activism. As a therapist and social worker at a Spanish-speaking mental health facility, she knew what to tell her clients if they asked about their rights, but this “was just doing her job.” Even at the beginning of Pedro’s detention, Emily thought he would be released without much struggle. It wasn’t until Christmas rolled around and Pedro was still stuck in Stewart that she began to realize she needed to do something. She got a new lawyer and attended the March for America protest in Washington, DC. “That kind of changed my whole perspective,” she says, “and I started fighting really hard. I started a blog, because I realized Pedro might not get out if I didn’t start fighting harder and use my voice and my privilege.”
Fourteen months into Pedro’s detention, Emily joined forces with Anton Flores, who organized a vigil, followed by a march from downtown Lumpkin to Stewart Detention Center, where eight of the 100 attendees stepped onto Stewart’s property in a show of peaceful civil disobedience. At the march, Emily met Marilyn McGinnis, and Emily and Logan stayed at Anton’s and Marilyn’s houses during subsequent visits to Lumpkin to visit Pedro. Before long, Anton and Marilyn, along with Amilcar, PJ, Katie, and other advocates, would form El Refugio, in the hope of providing a comforting place for families like the Guzmans to stay. Upon the opening of its hospitality house, Emily, her mother, Pamela, and Logan became El Refugio’s first guests.
For four-year-old Logan, the house’s activity and bunk beds were fun — a stark contrast to Stewart, where he could only see his father through a thick sheet of plexiglass and could only speak to him by phone. As for Emily, who had driven the eight hours from their home in North Carolina to the remote detention facility, El Refugio (the Refuge) lived up to its name. Having a place where she could talk to people who understood what she was going through, plus some home-cooked meals, made the trip more bearable. “Those may seem like little things, but they really relieved my stress,” Emily says.
In the end, Pedro was one of the lucky ones. Georgia notoriously denies asylum claims, but after 20 months and $46,000, Pedro was released with a green card, thanks to the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act — and Emily’s fighting. Pedro became a United States citizen in August 2018 and was able to visit his mother in Mexico a few times before she passed away. Still, while his status as a U.S. citizen brings the family relief and “a lot more freedom to move around,” it does not entirely dispel their fears. “We’ll never completely be secure,” Emily says, citing Trump’s repeated threats to strip people of their citizenship. “It’s always in the back of our heads that he’s never completely safe.”
Now a teenager, Logan often talks about injustice and race, as does the family as a whole. They make time to appreciate each other. And when she feels like they’re starting to take each other for granted, Emily said, “I just have to think again what it was like and how there are families that still aren’t together, and I just appreciate that we’re able to live here, together, in the United States.”
Emily continues her activism. A couple years ago, she was arrested along with 20 others for blocking the arrest of an immigrant who had left a sanctuary church, and last November, she volunteered for El Refugio, calling families whom the organization had served. She’s also grateful that Pedro could be present for Samantha Bee’s 2018 reveal of El Refugio’s new, much bigger hospitality house. “It’s been really great to be a part of the process over the years, a part of the growth, and also just to see, you know, all of the people that El Refugio has helped.”