When Sandra Perez hears President Donald Trump’s tough talk about deporting illegal immigrants, she thinks of the morning six years ago when immigration officers raided her West Palm Beach home and seized her father.
Perez was a junior in high school at the time, and she was taking a pre-dawn shower as her younger siblings got ready for school.
“All I heard was a lot of commotion,” Perez said. “When I got dressed and came out of the bathroom, cops were everywhere.”
Perez saw her younger brother bleeding from a cut near his eye. An officer had bashed him with a rifle butt so forcefully that the boy, a freshman in high school, briefly lost consciousness.
Officers were there to seize Perez’s father, Hector Perez Mazariegos. An amiable Guatemalan with no history of violence or property crimes, Perez had lived in the United States illegally for two decades. He later died while attempting to illegally re-enter the country to visit his five children, who are U.S. citizens, and his wife, who is a legal permanent resident.
The Perez family’s plight illustrates the complexity of the immigration debate. It highlights the haphazard and dangerous nature of border crossings, which only have grown more treacherous as violent traffickers have seized control of the southern frontier. And it questions what is gained in separating families when undocumented but non-violent migrants are sent home.
At the time he was detained, Hector Perez was working and raising a family here despite being deported four previous times. Amid an Obama-era policy of aggressive deportations, Perez’s time in the U.S. was up again.
The early-morning raid came on Jan. 26, 2011. Officers took Perez to the Palm Beach County jail. Perez was 41 at the time, and his youngest child was three months old.
After months in jail, Perez was deported to Guatemala. His wife, Candida, and their five children stayed in West Palm Beach.
Following his final deportation, Perez tried to sneak back into the United States in 2013 to see his wife and children. It was a treacherous journey that required paying thousands of dollars to smugglers and traversing territory controlled by bloodthirsty cartels.
“My father didn’t tell us everything, because he didn’t want us to worry,” said Sandra Perez, now 24.
Perez had arranged to make the crossing when he phoned Candida to say his smugglers wanted more money. It was the last time the family heard his voice.
In 2015, the Guatemalan consulate in Texas identified a skull and teeth found on the U.S. side of the border as Perez’s remains.
“Something terrible happened,” Perez said. “I guess he was in the hands of drug dealers or smugglers. Things went wrong, and we lost our dad.”
Hector Perez’s saga underscores the messy nature of U.S. immigration policy and the complicated lives of the people who come here illegally. An estimated 67,000 undocumented immigrants live in Palm Beach County.
Perez grew up in grinding poverty in Guatemala, and at 18 or 19 he decided to sneak into the United States to find work. North of the border, he met Candida, another immigrant from Guatemala.
Candida was a year older than Hector. The two fell in love and made their way to Palm Beach County, where they worked in the tomato fields west of Boynton Beach.
Sandra was born, followed by four more children.
Candida got her green card. Hector Perez attempted to win residency, even hiring an attorney and appearing before a judge who chided him for not learning English, but the effort fizzled.
Perez spoke only a few words of English, and he was proud that his two eldest children were fluent in English and excelled in school.
“He grew up in poverty, and he was like, ‘I want you guys to have a better future,’” Perez said.
A small man with a big heart, Perez worked long hours at grueling jobs, then came home and changed his baby daughter’s diaper.
“He was a good person, a very good father to our children,” Candida said.
By American standards, the family is poor. They’ve long rented an 1,100-square-foot house near Broadway, the crime-ridden strip in West Palm Beach. The back door is just steps from the Florida East Coast Railway tracks and its rumbling freight trains.
Candida works the night shift in a cotton candy factory, but if life is tough here, it’s harder in her home country.
“In Guatemala, there’s no work,” she said.
Even as a teen, Sandra Perez kept the family’s modest means in perspective.
“I looked up to my father, because he would always tell us the stories of what he went through as a child,” she said.
Hector Perez described wearing shoes with holes and stealing a pencil from his kindergarten classroom because his family couldn’t afford one.
After toiling in the tomato fields, Perez later worked for a window company and supervised landscaping crews. He was jovial and didn’t let his limited English stop him from making friends.
“He was an amazing person, always outgoing, always a hard worker,” his daughter said. “He would always joke around.”
With the money he earned in the United States, Perez built a house in his hometown in Guatemala, near the Mexican border.
His arrest record shows no instances of violent crimes but a variety of driving-related infractions. Perez never fully complied with Florida motor vehicle laws requiring an up-to-date driver’s license, proof of insurance and valid registration.
Immigration activists say “driving while brown” is risky business for undocumented workers who haven’t mastered the nuances of registering and insuring a vehicle north of the border. Sandra Perez said a final traffic stop alerted police that her father defied earlier deportation orders, leading to the pre-dawn raid in 2011.
Perez’s death left a hole in the family, his daughter said.
“My father was basically the backbone of my family,” Perez said. “We all say we’re good, but it’s been a major loss. Honestly, my mom has never gotten over it. She would always say, ‘Me and your father, we’re never going to get divorced.’”
Perez has coped by trying not to dwell on her father, but it’s not easy, especially when her 6-year-old sister asks about him. Politically, she’s so disillusioned that she didn’t vote in November’s election. But as the Trump administration ramps up immigration enforcement, Perez said deportations can take a human toll.
“Sometimes they say it sounds like a movie, but me and my family lived through it,” she said. “I try not to think about it, because I always end up crying. They don’t know the damage that they’re doing by separating families.”