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Living in the Shadows

Rolando is a single dad, divorced from an abusive ex-wife and sole caretaker of their sons, ages 12 and 6. Along with playing taxi and helping with homework, Rolando’s daddy-do list includes an essential task: Every day at 2pm, before he picks the boys up from school, Rolando calls his brother.

He’s been doing that for six or seven years now. A phone call means Rolando is alive and well and on his way to the carpool line. But if 3:30pm rolls around and Rolando hasn’t called, it means he’s been seized for deportation proceedings, and his brother needs to look after the boys. The daily phone call is Rolando’s insurance that his sons will be taken care of, no matter what.

Rolando’s older son understands the gravity of his father’s situation. While other kids are chatting about football practice or tonight’s homework load, Caleb is using the school phone to ensure his dad is still a free man. “He calls me every single day when I don’t pick him up on time,” Rolando says. “Most of the time I’m in the line waiting for him, but when I go late, he calls me. Quickly.”

Rolando sits in the dining room of a friend in southern Dallas, nursing a strong cup of coffee and speaking fondly of his boys. In a mixture of Spanish and English, he says Caleb wants to play the clarinet, while his younger son is big on fútbol. Rolando is a skilled subcontractor, specializing in ceramic tile. He often works odd hours to make sure he has time to spend with his sons; together they like to catch and cook catfish or go camping. “No puedo vivir con miedo,” he says – “I cannot live with fear” – but every day he makes that phone call, because the safety of his boys is Priority No. 1.

“It’s hard for us to imagine living with this kind of axe hanging over our heads,” says Caroline Brettell, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist at SMU and an internationally recognized expert on immigration. “There’s this little element of uncertainty that most of us don’t have to live with on a daily basis.”

And yet it is we who debate over coffee and cronuts whether Rolando should be wrenched away from his sons.

Brettell estimates that there are 200,000 to 300,000 undocumented immigrants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Like Rolando (not his real name), they might do skilled work in our homes or mind our children after school. Their kids play on the playground with our kids at recess. And they wait for us to make a decision about their futures.

With a comprehensive immigration bill on the cutting board in the U.S. House of Representatives, ready to be sliced and carved with heated relish, our country is closer than it has been in a long time to passing some kind of immigration reform. But the discourse too often becomes loaded and political.

Immigration, at its core, is about families – real, live families who schedule phone calls with their relatives to ensure their kids aren’t thrown into the foster-care system when Daddy fails to pick them up from school one day. These families have stories to tell, beyond just a desire to make money in the United States. Their reasons for arriving and staying in this country are more complicated than we might think, and the immigration debate is complex as a result – it involves not only a mélange of policies but also a mélange of people those policies affect. 

People like Rolando, who live in constant fear of losing their children. It’s the same anxiety we experience in that heart-stopping moment at the grocery store when our 4-year-old is no longer standing beside us on aisle three. But in the case of Rolando and thousands of other undocumented parents in the Dallas area, the fear doesn’t go away when they find their child two aisles over.

“We’ve got laws that essentially are pulling families apart,” Brettell says. “It’s an inhumane system.”

Tangled web
Immigration law is messy. The word “undocumented” is a blanket term for people who crossed the border illegally, people whose visas have expired and even U.S. citizens who, because of homelessness or other circumstances, have lost all their papers. But the universal terminology masks a montage of relief options, applications and waivers all bound together with gobs of red tape.

For example, Rolando entered the United States legally and married a U.S. citizen before his visa ran out. He tried to apply for legal documentation, but his wife thwarted his attempts as she spiraled into drug and alcohol abuse, using the threat of deportation as a tool to manipulate her husband. “I spent money on paperwork, I spent money on lawyers, but always she found an excuse to stop the process,” he explains. She even spent a $2,000 savings fund Rolando had created for the purpose of becoming legal. When they finally settled the divorce two years ago, Rolando thought he was out of options.

That’s where Catholic Charities, immigration attorneys and other organizations enter the picture. They help undocumented immigrants double- and triple-check their options and navigate the maze of paperwork that ensues.

In a twisted way, Rolando is lucky – because he suffered abuse at the hands of his ex-wife, he is eligible to apply for a U-Visa under the Violence Against Women Act. To obtain relief, the victim – which can be a man or woman – must agree to cooperate with law enforcement as they prosecute the abuser. The U-Visa then provides a path to permanent documentation for the victim and his family.

Other forms of relief include Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a.k.a. The Dream Act. DACA provides relief for those kids who entered the country before June 15, 2007, at age 15 or younger, who are now at least 15 years old and who aspire to continue studying or working in the United States. Many are fluent only in English, steeped in American culture since their arrival. “I had a couple that did not even know they were not born in the U.S. until they were 10 or 12 years old,” says Rebecca Armenta, who works with DACA applicants through World Relief in Fort Worth. “They don’t know any other home.”

These so-called Dreamers are technically not here lawfully, Armenta adds; they simply have permission to stay and work for two years without getting deported. DACA is neither a path to citizenship nor a form of legally protected relief – just a consideration recommended by the government. “If they want to change it, they could do it today for all we know,” Armenta says.

But DACA at least provides a semblance of asylum. There are also work authorization visas and refugee green cards and other ways to stay, but the vast majority of immigrant families aren’t eligible for these forms of relief. And keeping families together is not considered a good enough reason to grant safe haven. “There’s no such thing as a humanitarian visa,” says Xergio Chacin, director of immigration services at Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. Even if the children are U.S. citizens, they cannot petition for their parents until age 21, so undocumented parents are left with one option for legalization: File a petition through a legal family member and return to the U.S. consulate in the home country to claim the visa. The catch? Leaving the United States after having resided here illegally for at least a year triggers a 10-year bar on re-entering the country.

The 10-year bar can be shortened or avoided with a waiver that proves the immigrant’s absence will cause extreme hardship to a spouse or parent who is a U.S. citizen. Strangely, extreme hardship to the immigrant’s children doesn’t count, Chacin explains. “You have to take the case of the children and show how that affects the parents, how that brings anxiety to Mom or Dad.”

Arlington immigration attorney Ruth Lane says the process of filing the waiver can take a year or more, and there is no guarantee it will be accepted. In the meantime, the parent must wait in his or her home country with no certainty of returning to his family. “Many families can be separated for years,” she says.

Sometimes the whole family will choose to relocate to the undocumented parent’s home country rather than suffer separation while the visa is processed, but this places the children in a tight spot, says Nubia Torres, program manager for Victims and VAWA at Catholic Charities of Dallas. These very American kids aren’t familiar with the culture of the home country, and many of them don’t even speak the language. More often than not, the home country is a dangerous place to be, controlled by gangs and cartels or falling apart economically.

In Rolando’s hometown of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, the local crime syndicate charges “rent” to businesses in exchange for protection. Rolando recalls one family restaurant two blocks from his mom’s house that was known for their fajitas. But last year, the drug mafia showed up at the restaurant to leave a message. “He killed probably four or five people. He killed all the workers. He killed the owner,” Rolando says. “The waitress was pregnant. And these people, they don’t care.”

His brother, a lawyer in the same city, says he gets two to three reports every day of similar activity, like mafia members crashing nice house parties to rape the host’s wife and daughters and take anything they want from the house. Rolando’s sister-in-law had her truck stolen at gunpoint.

These incidents are commonplace and would become part of his boys’ lives if the family were forced to move back. “You can’t do normal life in Mexico,” Rolando stresses. “You can’t.”

Thankfully, the U-Visa application does not require Rolando to return home. But for families tackling the 10-year bar and the waiver, the process is burdensome on the whole family – whether the children stay stateside or accompany the parent back to the home country. “It’s a very long, very tedious, very hard process,” Torres says. “And it’s not always a given that it will be approved. A lot of times it is denied.”

That is a risk when applying for any form of legalization. If denied, the applicant could easily land in deportation proceedings. And once he’s applied, he cannot apply again. There is no second chance, no do-over. One and done.

This is the choice facing undocumented immigrants. Do they live under the radar, operating in a cash world, avoiding suburbs with a reputation for overzealous cops, waiting for reform – but every day risking deportation and separation from their kids? Or do they try to become legal, putting their family at risk in hopes of a better life 10 years down the road?

It’s a Catch-22, and no matter how you slice it, the children lose.

Exile on Main St.
Elena has chosen to take the risk of staying put. She lives in Northern Dallas County, in a neighborhood where kids still play in the street on a sunny autumn afternoon. Her son, 8-year-old Gabriel, is inside their modest, single-story home, his tennis shoes abandoned on the living room floor. That is, until Elena spies them. He dutifully carts them away and returns with water bottles for everyone. “He’s a sweet boy,” Elena says, “always helping me. ‘What can I do for you, Mama?’”

Elena speaks fairly good English, having taken classes at a local college. She’s an independent distributor of natural health products and a Make-A-Wish Foundation volunteer, but her eyes really light up when she talks about teaching kids to read at her son’s school library. She pulls up photos of her students on her phone, gushing over the crayon masterpieces they drew for her as thank-you presents.

But Elena could be plucked from this idyllic existence at any time. She recounts a recent raid near her beauty salon, just two days before her appointment. The area is a gathering spot for unemployed immigrants looking for day jobs. Somebody noticed the knot of Hispanics and called the police. Elena says her salon went on lockdown, just in case, as undocumented immigrants outside were hauled away by law enforcement.

The incident was a reminder to Elena of that niggling anxiety she tries to ignore as she shuffles her many hats of responsibility – but in her fixed role as a mom, she can’t help but worry sometimes. “If something happened to me, I’m afraid about Gabriel.”

The fear is hyper-real for Elena (not her real name), because she’s already lived it. Before coming to the United States in 2000, she had a family in Mexico: two daughters and an abusive husband. When they divorced, her deep-pocketed, well-connected brother-in-law ensured she didn’t get custody of the girls. “He told me, ‘You know, you’re nothing,’” she recalls, then pauses for a long time. “I lost my daughters. I was alone, with nothing.” Her brothers in Dallas invited her to join them. Elena has not been back to Mexico since.

When she arrived in Dallas, Elena re-married and began building a new family, but she still ached for the one she left behind. Elena’s oldest daughter visited her mother and Gabriel in the summer of 2007 before returning to Mexico to start her career as an engineer. But while working her first big job, she was killed by a drunk driver. She was 23 years old.

“I couldn’t travel to Mexico to go to her funeral,” Elena says. She knows, keenly, what it’s like to lose a child. Now she lives with the prospect of losing Gabriel. “I lost my daughters. I can’t imagine if I lost my son. No, I would die. I would die without my son.”

Elena, who recently separated from her husband, has no options. She cannot file for relief of any kind, and her son, though a U.S. citizen, is many birthdays shy of 21. One of her brothers here could petition for her, but because of the 10-year bar, she would have to return to Mexico for a decade before re-entering the United States. That prospect scares her as much as anything, even if – or especially if – her son accompanied her. “My son, he doesn’t have a future in Mexico,” she says. “He doesn’t know nobody. And it’s too much violence.”

No exit 
Other immigrants are desperate to find a way out, which makes them susceptible to scam artists, called notarios, who peddle their immigration services for a temptingly low sum. In some Central American countries, notarios are trusted paralegals; in Dallas they are often swindlers who take immigrants’ money and never deliver the goods. But they seem knowledgeable, and for undocumented immigrants, it’s hard to know where to turn to.

Brettell contends that their predicament is the fault of poor policy-making in the labor boom of the mid-1990s, when many immigrants crossed the border without much ado from the United States. “We created this problem for ourselves,” she says. “It is absolutely inexcusable that we haven’t dealt with this before.”

She recommends the old-fashioned method of alerting your Congressmen to the need for some kind of reform. “There’s a level of unreality about it in that there are so many in this undocumented population that the government is never going to get to all of them,” Brettell says. “And a lot of people are going to go on living their lives trying to stay under the radar screen.”

Rolando spoke to his lawyer last week and says his visa should come through in the next few months. Until then, he will call his brother every day. What will finally being legal again feel like? “It’s like when you’re dead and you go to the heavens – everything changes.”

Elena is optimistic about immigration reform, and she’s hopeful for her own future. She wants to combine her love of teaching with her knowledge of health and implement a wellness program for the local schoolkids. Then perhaps the school district will help her get a work authorization visa so she can stay and pursue her passions without fear of losing her son.

“I want to be here because I want to do something for this country,” she says. “God blessed me to be here. I want to help.”

Published November 2013