COLCHESTER, Vt. (AP) - The first day of kindergarten is a big deal for a young family. The milestone - marked by hugs, photos and waves through the window of a school bus - usually becomes a favorite life moment. Carl Ronga, a longtime Vermont resident who was deported a year ago back to his native Kenya, shared none of that with his six-year-old daughter Rehema.
Ronga had overstayed a visa and also misstated his immigration status on an employment form. Under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration enforcement, he was forced to leave his wife and young child to return to a country he barely knows.
VPR covered the family’s situation last year and has since checked back with Ronga and his wife, Rebecca. They said it has been a year of loneliness, with little hope for a legal solution to their separation.
“Emotionally, it’s been very tough and very rough,” Ronga said, speaking on a phone line from Nairobi. “You know, not being able to put my daughter to bed or bring her to school, or see . her to go to school for the first time.”
The couple has been married for a dozen years, and for most of that time, they shared a life together in Vermont. That changed last year under a Trump administration policy that gave little enforcement discretion to federal authorities.
After studying at the University of Massachusetts, Ronga overstayed a student visa. Later, while applying for a job at IBM, he marked on an employment form that he was a U.S. national. He said it was an innocent mistake, and that he read the form to ask if he was a resident of the United States.
Mistake or not, the Rongas’ court challenges were exhausted after the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against them. Ronga was detained. Then, on a hot day last June, immigrations officials took him to Boston’s Logan airport for a flight back to Kenya.
“It’s hard to put into words how it’s like, or how it feels,” Rebecca said. “And I don’t know anybody who’s ever been in this situation. I don’t know anybody who knows somebody in this situation.”
There’s no playbook or social corollary for this kind of family separation.
“Nobody talks about it,” Rebecca said. “Like, if somebody dies in your family, or you lose your spouse, or you get a divorce or something, people do talk about it. They sympathize with you. You can get support from people who know what it feels like. I haven’t been able to experience that kind of support.”
But the Rongas’ situation is not unique. Besides the thousands of families separated at the southern border, others around the country have been swept up in recent years up by a federal “zero tolerance” policy on immigration violations.
VPR reached out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the agency would not comment on the Rongas’ case. More detailed statisitics about deportations from Vermont and nationally were not immediately available.
Erin Jacobsen is an assistant professor at Vermont Law School, where she’s also lead attorney on immigration at the school’s legal clinic. She said the “zero tolerance” policy has fundamentally altered the legal landscape for people like Carl Ronga.
“It’s just that it’s completely indiscriminate, because it’s about a lack of discretion being employed by law enforcement as mandated by the Trump administration,” she said. “They just don’t care. It doesn’t matter whether the person being arrested will then leave a family behind or not.”
Prior to the “zero tolerance” policy, Ronga - who was a deacon in his church in Vermont and a stay-at-home dad for Rehema - would not have been a top enforcement priority, compared to people who had committed crimes here, for example.
“The only chance he would have had to stay here would have had to be just through the use of discretion by the authorities,” Jacobsen said. “And for a long time, they were exercising that discretion by simply allowing him to check in.”
With no court challenges left, Jacobsen said Ronga’s only recourse now for returning to Vermont is for Congress to change the law.
Jacobsen got to know the Rongas when Rebecca studied at Vermont Law School. Jacobsen said she knows it’s tough for Rebecca to talk about her situation, because it can lead to the politicized topic of immigration.
People say, “‘What are you complaining about: he broke the law,’” she said. “And you’re just trying to explain what happened to your family and your own personal situation, and it turns into a contentious policy discussion.”
Rebecca and Rehema traveled to Nairobi last winter to see Ronga. It was a great visit, and the six-year-old re-bonded with her dad. But leaving was especially hard, Rebecca said. Messaging apps help them stay in touch, but they’re still an ocean and continent apart.
“It’s not a hug, or you know, a quality time,” she said. “It’s just basically checking in with each other.”
Rebecca is starting her legal career as deputy state’s attorney in Addison County, handling domestic violence and abuse cases. With her career just underway and Rehema in school, moving to Kenya doesn’t seem possible right now.
Rebecca’s thought more about how she could reach and maybe support other families separated under similar circumstances. She’s not sure how or what form this would take, but wonders if there are ways families could get together in Canada or some other countries to reunite. She’s created an email — email@example.com — to try to connect with other families.
“There’s unintended victims throughout this broken policy,” Rebecca said. “If we can’t get our government to fix what’s broken, then we as citizens maybe can do something to organize and come up with some type of way that we can unify the families, reunite the families.”
For Ronga in Nairobi, finding work has been hard because of the country’s tough economic situation. And because he hasn’t lived in Kenya for almost 20 years, he said he feels a bit like a stranger in a strange land as he navigates the culture and employment prospects.
He also, of course, misses his family.
“I’d just like folks out there to know that this situation is inhumane, to even just the children themselves,” Ronga said. “It’s inhumane to the spouses.”
You’re there, but you’re not there, he said, never with the people you love.
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