MIAMI – He remembers the moment so clearly, the last time he saw his mother on American soil.
Jose Antonio Machado was merely 15, too young and powerless to stop what was happening. His mother, Melba, handcuffed and dressed in an orange jumpsuit, was being led away by an immigration officer.
When she looked back, he mouthed: I love you. She nodded and turned away.
Jose, now 18, finds himself in the same situation as thousands of other young people in this country: He is the child of a parent who came to the U.S. illegally and then was deported – while he was left behind.
Jose is an abandoned child, a child law advocate wrote in the court papers that led to his placement in a foster home in 2011.
At least 5,100 children whose parents are deported or in detention live in foster care today, according to one estimate.
For the past three years, Jose has been on a mission to bring his mother back. His work has taken him to Congress, gotten him meetings with the likes of Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg and landed him on television.
Along the way, he has grown into a steady force in the national immigration debate, a young but powerful voice for his family and the many others who hope to reunite.
‘Dear Universe … ’
When Melba Soza left Jose and his twin brother, Jose Manuel, in Nicaragua and came to the U.S., the boys were just 3. She lived with a boyfriend in Miami and soon was pregnant with a daughter. Jose, who came to the U.S. on a visa along with his brother, remembers those early years as happy ones.
But then Soza’s boyfriend began drinking, money got tight, and they moved into a rat-infested trailer. Soon, Soza and her boyfriend began abusing the children, according to court papers.
Eventually, she left her boyfriend, who would win custody of their daughter. She rented a one-bedroom apartment and got a job as a gas station cashier.
Then came his mother’s arrest in September 2010 after a traffic stop. Six months later, she was deported.
At first, Jose and his brother lived with an aunt. The brother eventually moved in with his girlfriend’s family, but Jose moved around – staying with another aunt and then with a cousin in an apartment where he slept in a reclining chair covered in cigarette burns.
Then he chose foster care. His foster mother, Jolie Bogorad, remembers him writing speeches and debating how the immigration system should be reformed. He started going to activist meetings, sometimes waking at 4 a.m. to attend weekend gatherings.
I would say, You don’t want to sleep? Chill out? Have fun?,’ Bogorad recalls. He’d say, After.’
Within a year, Jose was a policy analyst for a state immigration network. He showed up at protests, leading chants and sharing his story. Last year, then a senior in high school, he led a group of activists inside Sen. Marco Rubio’s Miami office, refusing to leave until they were granted a meeting with an aide.
He wrote a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald, asking politicians to stand by a proposed bipartisan immigration reform measure, which included a provision to allow some deported immigrants with relatives still in the U.S. to return.
Meanwhile, Jose’s mother moved from Nicaragua to Spain and found a job there. Through Facebook, she watched his transformation from boy into man and activist.
Dear Universe, he wrote in a post in May. This is the last Mother’s Day without my mom.
‘Today, I am stronger’
More than 100,000 parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported since 1998, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Applied Research Center, a New York-based advocacy organization, has found that at least 5,100 U.S. citizen children in 22 states are living in foster care because a parent has been detained or deported.
An unknown number of noncitizen children have also been left behind. A green card holder now, Jose is majoring in political science at Florida International University and will apply for citizenship as soon as legally allowed. Between classes, he continues his activism and works as a research associate for an organization that aims to engage politicians across the aisle on immigration reform.
Just before Christmas, Jose packed a duffel bag with some clothes, his graduation pictures and a small American flag – a gift for the mother he had not seen in nearly three years.
His friends raised the money for his ticket to Spain. On Christmas Day, Jose came down the terminal escalator and saw his mother waiting. Oh my son, my love, she said, wrapping him in an embrace as Jose began to cry.
On the last day of their five-day visit, he hugged his mother. Today, I am stronger because of you.