Preventing Deportation Allowed This Man to Celebrate Life, and Die With Dignity

By Rekha Nair

September 22, 2023

It’s Saturday night, I am in a dark theater watching Blue Beetle when I feel the buzz of the phone against my leg.  I glance down and see that it’s a Google Voice message which means it was a text from a client or community member of the Phoenix Legal Action Network (PLAN), a local non-profit organization dedicated to reimaging immigrant justice in Arizona that I lead.

People rarely text me so late.  Concerned, I open the text and my eyes fill with tears.  It’s about my Joe. He has passed away from cancer.  I cry quietly as I watch the rest of the movie, appreciating every moment because I know Joe, too, would have loved seeing this Latino superhero on the big screen.

Meeting Joe

I met Joe in 2018 after he had been released from prison. Joe had struggled with addiction, like so many Americans do.  He used drugs mainly to numb the pain of losses in his own life, including the early deaths of his brother and son.

Eventually, his addiction landed him in prison.  But unlike an American citizen who does his time and gets to return to his family and community, Joe, an immigrant, faced extra punishment—deportation.

As Joe explained, “you were always afraid your last bad choice would be your last day in the US.”  And it almost became true for him too.  Although Joe had lived in the US for more than 50 years and was a permanent resident, the government argued that his conviction made him deportable.

Joe searched for legal help and found me. I am an immigrant rights attorney, and Joe and I worked together to stop his deportation—and we won. Joe was thrilled because it meant he would get to keep living and loving with his family.  As a thank you, Joe gifted me a figurine that he had made using materials and techniques he developed in prison to keep his mind and spirit free.

In 2022, I reconnected with Joe to invite him to be a featured artist at PLAN’s first immigrant storytelling and art event.  At that time, Joe recorded an interview with us about his art and his immigrant roots.  Joe also came to the live event in October, and he connected with so many people through his art and personal journey.

Death With Dignity

Then, early last month, he texted that he had been diagnosed with cancer and may only have six months to live.  Joe, ever grateful, also wrote, “thank you for helping me with my immigration problems, without your help I wouldn’t have been able to spend my last days with my loved ones.”

He died within the month.  Those were his last words to me.

People often ask why PLAN’s work is important.  It’s simple: families belong together.  Usually when I say that, people picture the big, happy moments– graduations, weddings, births – and the mundane ones too – parent-teacher conferences, movie nights, and family dinners.  The moments that make a family and a life.

But Joe’s death reminds me that our work matters because families belong together not only in life, but also in death.  Immigrants, like all of us, deserve to die with dignity, surrounded by the people they love in the place they call home.

Immigrants and their families deserve the right to care for their loved ones as they age and get sick.  The right to mourn and celebrate their family members without having to choose between attending the funeral and their immigration status.

Although Joe died too soon, Joe knew he was one of the lucky ones. Too many others like him have been deported to die alone.  Joe died a proud father, grandfather, and great-grandfather; he died deeply loved, and surrounded by his big family.  May he rest in peace, and may his family and those of us who cared for him feel his joyful spirit live on in our hearts.

And when we next hear someone demonizing immigrants or “criminals,” may we remember Joe and share his story as a reminder that we are all deserving of grace, love, and a second chance.

If this story touched you, please consider supporting Joe’s family’s GoFundMe to cover his funeral costs.

PLAN will be hosting their second annual immigrant storytelling and art event on Friday October 13th; RSVP to the free event here.

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