‘Community angels’ help heal immigrants in crisis

For 14 years, Federal Way residents Antonia Valenzuela and her son Josuelito have dedicated their lives to help undocumented individuals in the area. At almost every hour of the day, Antonia gets urgent calls from people undergoing immigration struggles. - Aileen Charleston/The Mirror
For 14 years, Federal Way residents Antonia Valenzuela and her son Josuelito have dedicated their lives to help undocumented individuals in the area. At almost every hour of the day, Antonia gets urgent calls from people undergoing immigration struggles.
— image credit: Aileen Charleston/The Mirror

Little did Oddie know that on Valentine’s Day last year, her life in this country would change course forever.

On Feb. 14, 2007, a controversial immigration raid took place inside an Auburn warehouse operated by shipping company UPS. Immigration officials detained by surprise more than 50 undocumented men and women, according to the March 2007 edition of El Independiente, a Seattle-based Hispanic magazine.

Oddie was among the individuals detained that day and eventually taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

“We heard very loud knocks on the door and saw men walking toward us with their dogs,” Oddie said.

“I had worked (at UPS) for three years. We were working, not stealing, but that didn’t matter. They handcuffed us and placed chains around our waists, like animals,” Oddie said. “It hurt a lot deep inside because we felt like we weren’t doing anything wrong.”

Before the immigration agents began their interrogations, Oddie called her husband and told him “la migra” (immigration) had come — and that she didn’t know what would become of her.

The only thing Oddie had in mind through this process was the safety of her 5-year-old daughter and husband, Sergio, who at the time had recently undergone his fifth eye surgery, she said.

After a day without news from his wife, Sergio contacted a local Hispanic radio station, desperate to find someone to help locate his wife.

Federal Way resident Antonia Valenzuela heard his plea and went to the rescue.

For more than 14 years, Antonia and her son Josuelito, who just graduated from DeVry University in Federal Way, have dedicated entire days and nights to provide for the necessities of undocumented workers like Oddie, who are trapped by uncertainty and fear about their future in this country.

Families from and around Federal Way call Antonia’s cell phone every day at random hours. Whether she receives a call in the morning or at midnight, Antonia and her son are always ready to come to the rescue.

Antonia and Josuelito have spent endless days helping immigrants who encounter difficult situations, without any sort of monetary compensation. Their service has even earned them the nickname “Angeles Comunitarios” (Community Angels).

‘People needed our help’

After the Feb. 14 raid at UPS, Antonia immediately befriended the victims, especially Oddie.

Oddie said Antonia heard her case on the radio and helped her husband find a suitable lawyer, pay the fine, and take care of her during the four months she was inside the detention center.

“I didn’t know her when I was first taken to the detention center, but after that, I have never lost contact with her,” Oddie said. “Antonia helped me and so many other people, and since last year, there hasn’t been one single day where she hasn’t been there for us.”

To this day, Antonia continues to help those involved in last year’s raid, together with the many other undocumented individuals who encounter daily problematic immigration situations inside and outside Federal Way.

“It all started like a chain,” Antonia said. “Me and my son Josuelito started helping one person and then we saw that more and more people needed our help.”

“I never know how we’re going to be able to manage. We don’t sleep or eat well. My house is practically abandoned,” Antonia added, smiling.?“But I often talk to God and tell him ‘If you chose to put us on this path, then it’s what we’re destined to do, and with your divine grace, we’ll get through.’”

Reaching out

Inside her house, Antonia has more than $2,000 worth of calling cards that she bought over the months with her own money. She gives these cards to all the people she visits every week inside Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center.

With her son Josuelito telling her to hurry up, Antonia left her house destined to help a Federal Way family whose younger son, Dan, had been detained the week before for speeding, arrested for an unattended court date, and consequently, due to his undocumented status, transferred by the Immigration Department from a jail in Kent to the Tacoma detention center.

Antonia and Josuelito headed to the family’s house, where they had already collected from numerous family and friends $15,000 in coins and bills.

“When this happens, families are left with nothing,” Antonia said.

Dan, the youngest in the family, would be able to leave the detention center with authorization of the judge after paying the fine.

Nonetheless, according to Antonia, not everyone lucks out like Dan. The only reason he was able to leave the detention center with a fine was because he had been living in the country for more than 10 years, and the law sometimes protects people in these cases.

“Every day someone new gets caught, many times for the most insignificant reasons. The family then has to do everything in their power to help, but they can’t do it themselves because they risk getting caught in the process, since most of them are here illegally too,” Antonia said. “They need someone who can pay the money order for the fine, or just someone to visit the person who is detained. Only those with legal documentation can do these things.”

Familiar faces

On a typical day at the Northwest Detention Center, Antonia and Josuelito proceed to the front desk, where the officer in charge is already familiar with the pair.

That day, as most days when she visits the center, she had never seen the face of the person she was visiting. ?

After paying the $15,000 fine on behalf of Dan’s family through a money order, Antonia was ready to go inside the detention center and give the 18-year-old Federal Way High School student some good news.

Antonia said that after she visited Dan, she saw two children who were crying in front of the wall that separated them from their mother.

The mother of these children was going to be deported back to Mexico the next day.

“I tried to talk to the family, but there was no way of consoling them at that moment,” Antonia said. “Families are being separated every day. The saddest thing of doing all this is bringing children to visit the parent or parents who are inside.”

Josuelito said that every time he and his mother visit immigration centers around Puget Sound, such as the one in Tacoma, she likes to go from window to window and learn everyone’s story.

Many times, the only thing Antonia and her son can do is provide these people with calling cards to contact their families from the inside. Other times, she calls the family herself and deposits money into the person’s jail “account” to help them buy either calling cards or food. She also takes care of the children who are left without anyone after their primary caregivers are detained.

Detaining immigrants

Many of the people sent to immigration detention centers were either involved in a family dispute, or originally detained by the police for minor offenses.

“Immigration agents routinely visit jails looking for persons who are illegal,” immigration attorney Cynthia Irvine said. “People are getting arrested by something simple like not paying a ticket.”

Irvine said that in Seattle, there’s a specific ordinance where police are not allowed to ask about a person’s immigration status.

In Federal Way, immigration status is not important unless there’s a felony involved in the situation, said Federal Way police spokeswoman Cathy Schrock.

“Our mission is to deliver fair and partial law enforcement regardless of immigration status,” Schrock said. “For example, if it’s a routine traffic stop, we contact the person and our only desire is to identify the driver and address the issue. Immigration status does not become an issue until a crime is identified that could be related to immigration.”

Schrock said the Federal Way Police Department’s number one priority is to respond to criminal offenses, 911 calls and victims.

“There’s always going to be the fear of immigrants to report a crime because they are afraid that their status will become an issue,” Schrock said. “That’s not important to us. We want victims to report the crime and the immigration status has nothing to do with it at that point.”

John Wahalla, assistant director of the Center of Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said that for decades, the Mexican government has been one of an oligarchic nature, with vast dysfunction. Despite the country’s resources, many Mexicans live in poverty.

“A lot of people want to better their lives and they come to the U.S., but we have been somewhat complicit in facilitating this,” Wahalla said.

“The laws don’t correspond to what our economic reality is, to our values and to our historic welcoming of immigrants,” attorney Cynthia Irvine said.

‘I have to leave’

Oddie came from a small indigenous town in Mexico called Guadalupe Miramar, located in the southern state of Oaxaca, where she said life was very hard.

“In my country, only the people who have money are able to come here legally, and we didn’t have money, we were very poor,” Oddie said. “Even if we wanted to, there was no long-term way out of our situation if we would have stayed there.”

“Here I felt a little bit more free. I could work and make money, pay my bills, and help my family,” she said. “Now I feel everything closed up for me.”

Oddie, who found out she was pregnant soon after she left Tacoma’s detention center last year, said that she wasn’t allowed to work after being detained. The judge in charge of her case recently informed her that she must leave the country on a voluntary condition within four months, she said.

“I have to leave. It’s not easy because I’m going back with a newborn baby girl and a 6-year-old with a heart illness who have all the right to be here,” said Oddie, in tears.?

Attorney Cynthia Irvine said that if children are born in the United States, it does not guarantee parents any kind of immigration status.

“It’s a heartbreaking situation, to be separated from their primary caregiver, and it’s a decision that lots of parents have to make,” Irvine said.

“I recognize that some people who come across (will) steal and do bad things, but the rest of us have to pay for their actions,” Oddie said.?“I would like for people to think that most of us are parents at least once, and the only thing we think about is the well-being of our children, and they shouldn’t be paying for their parents’ mistakes.”

Once at her house in Federal Way, Antonia had already prepared a suitcase full of clothes for Oddie — who is scheduled to give birth to a baby girl anytime. Saddened but with a spark of hope, Antonia said, “The only thing that I ask God, is to give out a work permit to all our people, only this way everybody will be investigated and authorities will know who is a person of good and who’s not.”

“I don’t want to ask for this like people do in the protests, where many don’t even know what they’re demanding. We just want to humbly ask for an opportunity to show who is deserving of staying here and who’s not,” said Antonia from the living room of her house, minutes before she responded to another new and urgent immigrant-related S.O.S phone call of the day.

Contact Aileen Charleston: or (253) 925-5565.

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