When they took her mother away, Erika Andiola didn't know what to do. Which was weird, because for years she had been working as an immigration-reform activist, dealing with cases just like this. In fact, that very week she had accepted an offer to work for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., as an outreach director because of this very work.
And yet, all Andiola could think about when Immigration and Customs Enforcement burst into her house at 9 p.m. and escorted her mother and brother away in handcuffs was how mad she was.
"Seeing her being handcuffed and treated like she wasn't enough of a human being to be treated with respect, I couldn't take it," she told me. "My heart and anger and sadness got in the way of knowing what to do."
But not for long. Before the night was over, Andiola reached out to just about every person she had met in the movement: members of Congress, fellow activists, White House aides. Less than 12 hours later, an ICE officer, feeling the pressure, ordered the bus that was carrying her 54-year-old mother, Maria Arreola, to the border to stop: She could go home.
Andiola couldn't believe it. It was too good to be true. And, in a sense, it was. Her mother was given a one-year reprieve last January. So with Arreola due back in court early next year, Andiola is leaving her Hill job to fight to keep her mother from being taken away again.
"I never want to feel again how I felt that night," she said.
Andiola came to this country when she was 11. She and her mother and brother fled from her abusive father by walking nights through the desert across the Mexican border. She doesn't remember much from the sojourn but does recall at one point being separated from her family. That moment, lost and alone in the vast desert, will be with her forever.
It was a tough adjustment at first, living in the United States, but in time Andiola thrived. She earned scholarships to attend Arizona State University, met a group of fellow undocumented students, and began advocating for the Dream Act. After college, she began working as a community organizer, and she met a young member of the state Legislature named Kyrsten Sinema. Andiola would be one of Sinema's first hires when she came to Congress earlier this year, a job Andiola could legally accept after President Obama's 2012 executive order granting her and other youths deferred action status as eligible undocumented immigrants.
When she started the job, Andiola had hoped she could play at least a small part in moving legislation. She would tell her story to whomever would listen, but she quickly found that not everyone would.
"The problem is, leadership in the House just doesn't seem to want to do anything," she said. "It's been really tough being on the inside, seeing how political games and rhetoric are a lot stronger than policy."
Here she was, at the U.S. Capitol, surrounded by people on both sides of the aisle proclaiming that the immigration system is broken—and yet nothing was getting done about it.
On Tuesday morning, Andiola headed down to the National Mall, where advocates such as Rev. Al Sharpton and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez shared a stage with a group of men and women who had been fasting for as long as 22 days. A slew of House Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer were there, and Rep. Joe Kennedy even said he had take part in the fast.
The problem, of course, was the absence of Republican lawmakers.
"If the speaker had come out, I believe that he would have been inspired," Rep. Raul Ruiz told me offstage.
As the fatigued fasters shuffled on stage, Andiola had to sneak away to get back to work. She was stopped on her way by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the House member from Illinois and an iconic immigration advocate. Even though Congress has been a do-nothing quagmire, having advocates like Gutierrez around made Andiola struggle mightily with her decision to leave.
Gutierrez embraced her, and whispered in Spanish in her ear: "Stay strong. You're doing the right thing." Tears streamed down her face, and she knew he was right.
This article appears in the December 4, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.