By Eileen Truax
The day after her detention, on February 9, Lupita, thirty-five and the mother of two US-citizen children, was deported to Nogales, Sonora. Her children and her husband, also undocumented, stayed in Arizona. Lupita’s case received wide media coverage, since she had the dubious distinction of being the first Mexican to be deported by the Trump administration.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump said that if elected, he would prioritize deporting criminals. But under the executive orders he signed five days after taking office, modifying immigration guidelines, almost any undocumented person who had ever used false documents to get a job would have been categorized as having committed a crime, whether or not they had a criminal record. By this criterion, people like Lupita became targets for deportation.
Although no large-scale deportations took place in the following months—which of course does not guarantee that they will not happen in the future—Lupita’s case illustrated one of the biggest and least discussed problems in the immigration debate: there are nine million people living in the United states with mixed-status families. Of those, four million are undocumented parents, and a half million are children who lack documentation, even though they grew up here. The remaining four and a half million are citizen children who enjoy the benefits that come with being born in the US every day. What happens in a family when the parents are undocumented while the children aren’t, or when children in the same family have a different immigration status? What is it like for families when one member has access to all the services and privileges that come with citizenship, but another does not? Journalist Eileen Truax tells their story in this selection from How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States.
I first met the Romero family in 2013 on a trip to Arizona. In this household, the three children were taught that everyone was equal. they were raised to respect their elders, to be proud of their country of origin, and to love the United States, where they had lived for twenty years. But deep down, they all knew they were not the same: though Cynthia, the youngest, was a US citizen, her older siblings, Steve and Noemí, were undocumented.
In recent years, the number of children born in the US to undocumented parents has risen, and as a result more families are living with the tension that comes when members of mixed status are living under the same roof. though older children may lack documents because they were brought to this country when they were small, the youngest children tend to be citizens. According to the most recent data available, as of 2013 there were more than five million children in the US with at least one undocumented parent. Eight out of ten of those children, a little more than four million, are US citizens.
Of the three Romero children, Noemí, then twenty-one years old, was the first to understand what their different status meant. When she was fifteen and her friends from school started taking the test to get a driver’s license, Noemí asked her parents why she couldn’t get one. María, her mother, explained the situation and why Noemí would be denied access to other privileges in the years to come.
Noemí found out what some of those other privileges were when she decided she wanted to continue her education after high school. She found that colleges opened their doors to her only to slam them shut when she let them know she did not have a social security number. Then she realized that of the three children in her family, getting a higher education would be a privilege reserved only for Cynthia, who was thirteen years old at the time.
“There’s so much tension you feel,” María Gómez, the mother of the Romero children, told me. Like her husband, María was undocumented. We met in Phoenix at an event organized by Puente, one of the most visible pro-immigrant activist groups in Arizona. Originally from the Mexican state of Tabasco, in 1995 the couple and their two small children, three-year-old Noemí and one-year-old Steve, came to live in Glendale, Arizona. Cynthia was born five years later.
“As they got older, they figured it out,” María said of her two oldest kids. “I told them we couldn’t go to Mexico for a few reasons. Well, okay, we could go, but how would we get back? They didn’t understand it very well at first, but they accepted it.”
The Romero children went to school and grew up as Americans, like everyone else. But once they entered adulthood, the difference between being documented and being undocumented took a toll on the family’s stability: compounding the frustration generated by opportunities denied to her siblings, Cynthia lived with the fear that someone in her family, including her parents, could be deported at any moment.
Children in families where one or both parents are undocumented grow up with certain disadvantages. Much has been written about how the children of undocumented parents tend to score lower on cognitive development and achievement tests in school compared to their peers because their family incomes tend to be low. Families have fewer resources to devote to their children’s activities and supervision, and they have less autonomy because they depend on whatever jobs they can get, which are not necessarily those they are best qualified for. Children of undocumented immigrants tend to have fewer years of formal education than children of documented immigrants.
Ever since she was little, Cynthia, the youngest Romero child, had to serve as a bridge between her family and the outside world. As is common in Latino communities, Cynthia’s primary language is English, but she understands Spanish perfectly well since her parents speak it at home. This means she plays an important role in her family’s communications. As we were talking, even though I asked her every question in English, Cynthia answered me in Spanish, out of courtesy to her mother, who was with us.
“I help my mother, for example, when she goes to make a deposit at the bank or when we go to see her lawyer, who doesn’t speak Spanish,” Cynthia said. “I want to be a lawyer too, to help out our . . .” she paused, searching for the right word in Spanish. “to help our community.”
Although Cynthia still had several years before she would need to decide on a career path, at that moment her choice of future profession was certainly influenced by what her family had experienced in recent years. In 2010, María was arrested and taken to an immigration detention center in Arizona, where she was held for four weeks.
Deportation proceedings were opened, and María’s case had still not been resolved in court. Her lawyer had told her clearly from the beginning that the deportation process takes years to be completed and informed her that a delay wins time so parents can be with their children and the family can be together in the United States. But if María’s final court date was not postponed by 2015, María would be deported.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data, in 2013 one of every six people deported, more than seventy thousand people, said they had one or more children who had been born in the US. Their deportations not only separated families but deprived one or more US citizens of the right to live in their country with their parents.
“Since then, and even today, Cynthia thinks about what will happen when that moment comes, because she really doesn’t want to go to Mexico,” María tells me, worried. “The weeks when I wasn’t here were very hard for her. I told her to think positive, that something good was going to come of this, so she wasn’t overwhelmed, because it is really stressful. But then with what happened to Noemí, that made everything worse.”
Noemí had lived in the US for seventeen of her twenty years when, on June 15, 2012, President Obama announced the implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This was wonderful news for Noemí, who met all the requirements to apply. The only problem was the application fee, $465, which she did not have. She did not have a work permit either.
She decided to get a job to save up the money for the application. She starting working as a cashier at a convenience store, using a false name, earning $7.65 an hour. She had only been working there for a few weeks when an immigration raid put her behind bars at the Eloy Detention Center, under threat of deportation.
“It was awful. I wondered how they were doing at home, if the only one working was my father, to support the whole family, pay the rent, the bills, and on top of that, the lawyers to get me out,” Noemí said. “I thought about my brother, that someday they’re going to get him too. or my dad, he’s undocumented too. And I thought about Cynthia, what’s going to happen to her if they send us all back to Mexico?”
María was desperate. Noemí was locked up in detention for four months while the family tried to find lawyers to help. Cynthia translated from English into Spanish so her parents understood. The family also grappled with the uncertainty of what to do if Noemí was deported. Could they leave her on her own in Mexico, where she did not know anyone?
Thanks to help from Puente, Noemí was released. But in a bitter irony, her situation worsened: since she had pleaded guilty to using a false name to get a job and save up money to apply for DACA, she now had a criminal record, making her ineligible for the program. “Now, there’s nothing for me,” she said with a look of profound sadness.
Facing the dismal prospects of her own case, Noemí is concerned that an eventual move by her family to Mexico would shut down Cynthia’s chance at the education she and her brother could never have because of their undocumented status. “It’s not fair that Cynthia, who was born here with all the rights of a citizen, would have to go with us just because we can’t be here legally. Sometimes I do feel bad that I don’t have those privileges, and that there are people here who have them but just don’t take advantage of them. I just want my sister . . .”—Noemí pauses and starts to cry, overcome with emotion—“to appreciate what she has, what my brother and I couldn’t do. I want her to do it for us.”
A few minutes later, after Cynthia has left the room, María expressed her worries a bit more openly. “At home we talk about it very clearly, because my process ends in 2015. Then we had Noemí’s situation, and my husband could be detained at any time, like any of us, and what do we do? I can’t be separated from any of my three children, either we all go, or we all stay. Cynthia gets upset and says, ‘Why me, Mom?’ she says she is not going, and that’s it. But then, what do we do? That’s a battle we have at home right now. I’ve thought about how we’re going to need to get Cynthia some psychological help. I tell her not to think about it so much, because sometimes she’ll say all day, ‘Listen, I’m not going. What am I going to do over there?’ talking about Mexico. I know it’s not fair not only for her but my other two children, who are practically from here too. Sometimes the sense of guilt their father and I have, especially when Noemí was in prison . . . It’s very hard to realize my daughter was locked up because I brought her here. I didn’t consider the consequences of coming to a place that didn’t want us.”
After seeing what happened to her sister, Cynthia decided she wants to be a lawyer, like all the lawyers she had to talk to who helped get her sister out of prison. When I ask her what it feels like to be the only documented person in her family, she says, “Having papers is a privilege.”
Two years after our conversation, in the summer of 2015, I tried to track down the Romero family to find out what had happened to them. I called the only contact number I had for them, María’s cell phone. No one ever answered.
About the Author
Originally from Mexico, Eileen Truax is a journalist and immigrant currently living in Los Angeles. She contributes regularly to Hoy Los Angeles and Unidos and writes for Latin American publications including Proceso, El Universal, and Gatopardo. Truax often speaks at colleges and universities about the Dreamer movement and immigration. Follow her on Twitter at @.