Connie Schultz: Forced to choose: A U.S. veteran gives up on America

Connie Schultz

PAINESVILLE, Ohio — So many small moments at a rally for immigrants in this northeast Ohio drove home the growing magnitude of the community’s loss.

Children born in America, some of them mere toddlers, held up handmade signs pleading to keep their parents with them. They want to preserve what matters most to them — “family,” we white people like to call it, at least when referring to our own.

Parents and grandparents, some quite elderly, swayed in the heat as they wiped their palms across damp foreheads plastered with strands of wet hair. They were standing for, and with, immigrant families, some of them already torn apart by deportations.

Speakers stood in front of a microphone rendered useless after a manager in the building behind them, the same one that houses a district office for U.S. Rep. David Joyce, ordered that the cord be unplugged.

“We left multiple phone messages asking if we could use an outlet for just a half-hour,” one of the activists told me.

Messages ignored. Permission denied.

And then there was the sight of former Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Perez, a U.S. citizen who served our country — for five years in the Ohio National Guard and five years in the Marines, which included a tour in Afghanistan. She held her 2-month-old daughter in her arms and, with her three other young children clustered around her, shouted her story of despair into the muted microphone as two uniformed police officers looked on.

“You can take away the mics, but you can’t stop what’s happening,” she yelled as her 7-year-old son clutched a blue stuffed animal to his chest. She has been fighting since 2010 for her husband, she shouted. “For my children’s father.”

She was pregnant with her second child when her husband, Marco Antonio Perez-Mejia, was deported to Mexico after being stopped by suburban police for running a red light. He had been deported once before, so he must wait until 2020 before he can even apply for a visa.

I’ve written enough columns about immigration to anticipate the usual questions steeped in judgment.

 Why did he come back here after already being deported?

His family. He loves them. Sound familiar?

 Why didn’t he obey every traffic law?

Why don’t we? Ever slide through a stop sign, plow through a stale yellow light or miss a burned-out taillight on your car? Ever commit the slightest traffic infraction? If you answer “never,” I have to wonder why you are still among us. Aren’t you supposed to be a saint by now?

And this question, posed out loud at the rally by a man standing next to me:  If her husband is in Mexico, how did she have more children?

With a patience I did not feel in my heart, I explained that she is allowed to visit her husband in Mexico. We all know the inevitable follow-up question from those who think this 38-year-old U.S. veteran is not entitled to a full American life.

“I’m Catholic,” Perez told me. “God gives you gifts. I didn’t try to have kids, but I didn’t try not to. I love every one of them as God’s gifts.”

If you’re a person of faith who believes abortion is a sin but thinks this young woman had no business having more children, now’s the moment to judge less, pray more.

After 17 years of fighting — 10 for our country, seven for her husband — Perez is giving up on America. In a few days, she and her children are moving to Mexico.

She can read and write Spanish but does not speak it. Her three eldest children — ages 7, 6 and 1 1/2 — speak only English. Oh well. If forced to choose, family comes first.

“I miss him,” she said. “I miss our family being together. I want to give my children the life they deserve.”

I leave you with one more moment from that rally.

Halfway through it, a white woman pulled up in a beater car with a useless muffler and insisted on using the one empty parking space directly behind the crowd.

“I gotta pick up a guy,” she said through her open window to no one in particular. She ignored multiple people pointing to the children standing in front of her as she inched her car forward.

If ever there has been a metaphor for what America is doing to these families, it was the sight of adults scooping up those Latino children to protect them from the heartless machine headed their way.