Immigrant mother of deceased veteran fights to keep family together

Olivia Segura
Olivia Segura, mother of deceased Iraq war veteran, stands with her daughter's flag (Hannah Rank/MEDILL)

By Hannah Rank

Olivia Segura remembers it in bits and pieces. The before and after. Everything before hearing the news is clear and chronological. Everything after is hazy and nightmarish.

[Listen to Olivia Segura tell her story below.]

“They asked me if I had any sickness, if my heart was okay,” she recalls. “I knew that something had happened but I never expected that she was going to be dead.”

It was Veterans’ Day in 2007 when Segura heard the news that her daughter, Ashley Sietsema, had died while on active duty in Kuwait. She and her husband Alberto had the day off and were unpacking groceries when the doorbell rang and a military officer was at the door.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Segura says. “I almost passed out.”

Segura, originally from Mexico City, has been in the U.S since she was 16 and considers Chicagoland her home. She became a U.S. citizen after she was naturalized through her first marriage. Alberto, who helped raise Ashley since she was four years old and who is the biological father of Segura’s 21-year-old son, Kyle, is not a citizen. Alberto has been attempting to gain citizenship for years, but has been denied because of two non-violent felony drug convictions dating back more than a decade.

At first, Segura saw her husband’s blocked path to citizenship as a mistake that would be easily fixed. She thought surely the government wouldn’t treat a family member of a U.S citizen and active service member like that.

“Why? Because it’s not possible that they put their citizens through this. It’s not possible that they would leave U.S. kids without parents,” Segura says.

Ashley Sietsema
Ashley Sietsema’s military photo. (Courtesy of Olivia Segura)

Segura’s description of her daughter’s path to joining the military echoes many tales told by mothers of U.S. veterans of the Iraq war. After seeing the events of 9/11 unfold, Ashley, who was born and raised in Melrose Park, began to express an increased patriotism and staunchness about the tenets of U.S. democracy.

“My daughter started talking about things like ‘freedom is not easy. Democracy is not easy,” Segura says. “So her whole mentality changed. Something changed inside of her.”

Ashley became more mobilized to make a change. She grew to admire those soldiers fighting a war to protect everything she held close as a U.S. citizen.

In contrast, Segura was against the Iraq war. When her daughter was a sophomore and sought to join the national guard and, eventually, deploy to the Middle East to fight, Segura was obstinate in her refusal. This didn’t deter Ashley.

“If I tried to use my power as a mother and you know, kind of say ‘oh I’m sick, you make me sick’ this and that – nothing worked,” Segura says.

Segura finally warmed to the idea when her daughter assured her she wouldn’t see any front-line combat in her post as nurse’s aid in the medical battalion. Segura was still against the idea, but took comfort knowing that she would be in a safer climate.

Ashley deployed in early September of 2007, just before her 20th birthday. That November, she was driving an injured soldier from one military base to another when her vehicle rolled over and hit a pole.

The following days after Ashley was returned to her family’s town of DeKalb were a swarm of media, and family and friends rallying in grief. Segura remembers barely knowing anyone at the funeral, which brought in a large portion of the town as well as then Lieutenant Gov. Pat Quinn. She found the service overwhelming, seeing all those strangers who came to support her and her family.

After the intense fanfare of the funeral, Segura became more and more isolated in grief. She describes her friends growing wary of her emotional outbursts and erratic behavior. Segura says she did not seek professional help, nor was she offered it, for a few years after Ashley’s death. She says it had to do with pride, but also because she was still in denial of her daughter’s passing.

“Maybe for a lot of people – they didn’t know my daughter or anything like that – she was just another soldier. She was just another person. But for me, she was my everything.”

Segura describes reminders of her daughter’s passing as “nightmares.” The reality of her daughter’s loss consumes Segura’s thoughts. Because the depth of her grief and anxiety blocked her ability to sleep, in the months after the funeral she was prescribed “strong” medication.

Then, to cope, Segura abused those prescription pills and her husband abused alcohol. A recovering addict, Alberto became especially unhinged following Ashley’s death and got three DUIs between 2008 and 2009. The third DUI landed him in immigration court facing deportation.

Soon after she was notified of her husband’s deportation process, Segura started researching different human rights and immigrant rights organizations online. She contacted politicians, the national guard, army, navy, family of military support networks, “anybody that you can think of.”

“I always get the same answer: ‘We cannot do anything for your husband, I’m really really sorry for your loss.’ We’re here to help you, but we cannot help you at all,’” Segura says.

Segura with Documents
Segura leafs through a stack of documents she has collected since her husband’s deportation process started, included letters from senators, news clips, and immigration court documents. (Hannah Rank/MEDILL)

But on November 30, 2010, with the help of an immigration lawyer she found through Pastor Emma Lozano of Lincoln United Methodist Church in Pilsen, Segura and her husband caught a break. The Executive Office for Immigration Review ordered that Alberto’s deportation case be “administratively closed,” because of “humanitarian consideration.”

According to the immigration case document, though Alberto’s case is considered “administratively closed,” his deportation process is not technically terminated, and can be reopened at any time if “the respondent’s criminal record changes (i.e. he is convicted of a crime).” Alberto now sits in limbo, unable to gain citizenship status or a work visa but, barring future incarceration, is able to stay in Chicago.

Since she began working with Lozano and coming to Lincoln United, she’s found a community of people who understand her story – a community of other immigrants, some dealing with deportation, some whose families are getting separated and some who are family members of veterans or veterans themselves. She has also started the Ashley Memorial Project to mobilize the immigrant veteran community and say to the government, “you know what, it is time for you to step up and support us really for real this time and do something for the military families,” Segura explains.

Through this whole ordeal, Segura has remained hopeful that her husband’s situation will change.

“I have hope that something’s going to change,” she says. “I have hope that if I just keep pushing, my husband’s going to get at least a work permit to make it easy for me. And I have hope that once he gets a work permit, it’s one step to be a little bit better.”

Photo at top: Olivia Segura, mother of deceased Iraq war veteran, stands with her daughter’s flag (Hannah Rank/MEDILL)