Immigration- Marisela's Story

Marisela was just 8 years old when she was dropped off in the desert, late at night. She doesn't remember what month it was, but she remembers how cold it was. They had a sandwich, from which she was given a few bites, and she had some bottled water which had frozen solid in the cold desert air. Her mother, father and three of her siblings had ridden a bus, and she doesn't quite recall how they went from the bus to the desert, but there they were, and they were going to have to walk all night long. Her father was carrying a younger brother, but Marisela was walking, and crying. She just remembers wanting to go home, and to be warm. There had been a few other people dropped off with her family. They did not know each other. Still, one of the men in the group had pity on Marisela, and offered to carry her. And so he did.

This was her father’s second trip. He had already gone through this process with her five older siblings. He’d been working on a farm in Idaho for years, traveling back and forth to Mexico to see his wife and nine children. He wanted them to be with him, and to get them out of the town and the poverty they were living in. He wanted to give them a better life and if they were to be able to stay together, it would have to be done this way; illegally.

Marisela and her family became part of a growing number of people living in the United States without documents. She arrived around 1999 and since then there have been fluctuations in numbers, but there has been an overall increase in the number of people crossing the border illegally. As of 2013, the numbers have reached 11.3 million people. ("The Facts on Immigration Today")

What is the future for children who arrive in the United States, through no fault of their own? We often hear the vitriol in immigration discussions, the talk of deportation, and never ending battle about what to do about the borders. But, what about the children, what is life like for them, and what are the consequences of our policy decisions?

I sat down with Marisela to find out. I obtained Marisela’s phone number from a friend who told me that Marisela had a story to share. I called her, and I was honestly taken aback by her lack of accent. When I set out to talk with someone who, up until recently, was an illegal immigrant, I guess I just expected an accent but there was barely a hint, and I wouldn't have noticed it at all if I had spoken to her for any other reason.

As I sat down across the table from her, I knew this this could be an uncomfortable subject. I wasn't quite sure how to approach it, so I explained why I was so interested. I explained that I work for an elementary school. I am always in awe of immigrant children who come to us, speaking no English and learn incredibly quickly. They often have to move on when their parents move to find work. Sometimes they move back to Mexico. I have always wanted to know more, and this was my chance to understand the experience of an immigrant child.

Marisela enrolled in Caldwell School District soon after her journey through the desert. She was scared to go. She did not speak any English, and only three of her siblings were enrolling with her. The others went straight to work with their father to help support the family. Marisela did not know the details of her family’s situation, but she knew enough to understand that she could not talk about it too much with anyone at the school, or outside of her family.

Children of illegal immigrants often take on the role of interpreter for their parents, and Marisela and her siblings were no different. One of her defining memories was a trip to a medical clinic shortly after arriving in the United States. She and a couple of her siblings had developed a rash. Her mother asked a relative to take the children to the doctor. The woman who took them could not speak English, and she relied on her own child to interpret for the doctor. Marisela watched as another child interpreted important information about her condition, and she knew then, she needed to learn quickly. She understood that, she too, would serve this important role for her own parents. The arrangement isn't without concerns. Children have limited understanding about what adults are discussing. They don’t understand a lot of regular vocabulary, let alone complicated medical terminology, much less how to translate it.

I told Marisela about some reading I had been doing on immigration policies. I told her about an article I read which said that high school was a dead end for most undocumented children. I asked her if there was a point in high school where she knew a dead end was coming. Marisela nodded emphatically. “Oh yes,” she said. “I watched my sister try so hard. She excelled. She wanted a future. She did everything right in high school. But, when she graduated there were no opportunities. She did not have the right documentation to apply for college or financial aid”.

Marisela began slacking on her school work. She figured there would be no point. If the best she could hope for after high school was to work fast food, or some other low wage job, why even try? Her teachers noticed her decline and they also noticed how bright she was. They encouraged her to try harder. They told her she has a good future if she applies herself. She could not tell them they were wrong. She could not say she was here illegally, and could not apply for college. Marisela worried they thought she was a lazy and unmotivated student. As she told me this, I thought of all the bright, eager children I see at our elementary school, and I wonder how many of them have this same struggle.

As expected, Marisela did go to work in fast food, and she maintained her illegal status until she met and married an American citizen. At 22 years of age, she made the decision to obtain her own citizenship. After she filed her paperwork, it was a year before she was scheduled for her first appointment. Once she received the appointment date, the process required her to leave the country. Marisela was required to go back to Mexico, where she’d not been since she was an 8 year old child. She had to file her paperwork there and wait for approval to come back into the United States. It is well known that the process can take months, and her husband was unable to stay in Mexico with her. Marisela made all of the necessary preparations, and her husband drove her to the border.

The day they arrived on the border in El Paso, Texas, there was something unusual happening. Since her experience that day, she has known several people who've taken the same journey, for the same reason, and nothing like what happened to her, happened to any of them. The immigration officers were stopping each car and asking to see passports for all occupants of the car, even as they were crossing into Mexico, her home country. When they saw that she only had a Mexican passport, they detained her. She was handcuffed, taken into the office, and separated from her husband. Marisela was required to fill out a couple of forms, one of which required her to disclose whether she had undocumented family members still in the United States. She did not lie, and later she called her mother to tell her that she had to tell, and she was sorry. She was scared that night, scared for her family. At the time she had no idea what could or would happen to any of them.

The officer who initially detained her was very kind to her. He said that because she had done nothing wrong, other than being undocumented, his supervisor would just need to sign her forms, and she could head into Mexico. Marisela sat, handcuffed, waiting in the supervisor’s office, her paper work on the man’s desk. He sat across from Marisela, thumbing lazily through a magazine, refusing to acknowledge her. She waited, and waited. He ignored her. Eventually the other officer came into the room and explained that she just needed signatures. The supervisor said he would do it in a minute, and he continued to thumb through his magazine for at least twenty more minutes before he signed. In some ways this is symbolic of the way in which the issue of immigration has been handled in our country, largely ignored, people left waiting.

Marisela was released to walk into Mexico. She was not reunited with her husband, and she had no idea where he was. She was alone, a young woman, walking into Mexico with no idea where she was going. She knew enough about her situation to know it was dangerous and that she could not trust anyone. She could not reveal her weaknesses by asking someone for directions. She began to walk. Luckily she did not have to walk far before she spotted her husband in his car, waiting for her to come up the road.

It would be 8 months before Marisela could come back to the United States and be reunited with her family. While she was in Mexico, she was able to stay with an aunt she barely remembered as a child. She worked some days at her aunt’s store to help repay the favor. Marisela did not work, beyond the store, while she was in Mexico. The work is grueling there, the hours are long, and if you are lucky you can earn 15 dollars after a 14 hour day. It was not safe for her to be out after dark alone, so she only went places with her aunt or another family member.

I asked Marisela if the people from her home country had her pegged as Americanized. She said they most certainly did. She told me that her mother’s sisters had begged her not to come to America. They had heard it was nothing but work, all of the time, for immigrants living in America. They said immigrating to America breaks up marriages. I asked her if a lot of couples do divorce after arriving and she said yes. I asked her why. “It isn’t the pressure that causes it,” she said, “It is partly because women in Mexico are more submissive and very dependent on their husbands. When they come to the US, they become more independent like American women. They work, have income, and find they don’t have to depend on men so much”.

Marisela’s experiences in Mexico helped her to know why her parents had risked everything to bring them to the United States. She is incredibly grateful to them for all of their sacrifices, and the gift of opportunity. Still, Marisela told her husband that if her application was denied, and she could not obtain citizenship for any reason, she would not be back. She told him that while she barely remembered the trip through the desert and the following journey, she did not want to do it again. Marisela could no longer stand the label “illegal”, as it carried a stigma she did not want to bear. I noticed, when she spoke to me about the method of citizenship she was applying for, she referred to it as the “ten year one”. She clarified what she meant by whispering in a lower voice, “you know, the one we call green card.” It was clear she did not want to use the term green card to describe it.

The immigration system is in need of serious reform. According to the New York Times article, reform had just failed to materialize at the end of 2007, because there was much animosity toward the idea of amnesty. In 2008, Obama introduced The Dream Act, which would have given young people, brought here by their parents, the opportunity to earn citizenship by enrolling in college or signing up for the military. The act failed to pass because Republicans viewed The Dream Act as a reward for coming to the US illegally. Through an incredible series of young immigrants “coming out” as undocumented and sharing their stories, a movement of “Dreamers” began to grow after the defeat of the act. As more children and young adults shared their stories, more people began to understand, and the public opinion began to soften (Preston). Indeed, how could we possibly hold Marisela responsible for the actions of her parents? How could we even fathom sending individuals back to Mexico when they have no real memories of living there? It began to become clearer just how inhumane it would be to tear families apart and allow the hopelessness that seeped into Marisela toward the end of high school, to be the best any of these young people could hope for.

The Obama administration began to feel significant pressure to act, and two years ago he passed the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA. This program, designed to stop deportation of immigrant youths, provides a two year reprieve from the worry of deportation. The program allows immigrant youths, up to the age of thirty and who were brought here as children, the chance get a social security number, a driver’s license, and a work permit. Recipients are eligible to re apply every two years. The first renewal period began in September of this year, and 560,000 young adults have been approved for the program ("Homeland Security").

While the DACA program is only a temporary program, it was a Godsend to people like Marisela’s brother and sister, who were both DACA beneficiaries. The family is rejoicing because Marisela’s brother, who has worked extremely hard throughout high school, became eligible for a four year scholarship, and they believe he will be the first real success in their family. But, they are cautious. They understand that their future is very much dependent on the will of the next congress and the actions of Obama or the next president. When you are in the position many of Marisela’s friends and family are in, you know nothing is guaranteed.

Just weeks after I met with Marisela, President Obama issued an executive action to help fix the issues in our immigration system. While a bill still needs to be written and passed by Congress, this action takes some important steps to help families like Marisela’s. The issues addressed in the executive action include strengthening border security, streamlining the application process, preventing deportation for otherwise law abiding citizens who qualify, and crafting a citizenship plan for Dreamers ("Immigration"). I called to check in with Marisela to see if this action will benefit her parents, and she was happy to report that it will.

As for Marisela, she is just a couple of months away from obtaining her permanent citizenship. I asked Marisela about taking the citizenship test as a condition of her citizenship, and she said, “Well, I was educated here for nearly my whole life. I am not worried,”.

Works Cited
"The Facts on Immigration Today." Name. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.
"Homeland Security." Secretary Johnson Announces Process for DACA Renewal. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.
Marisela. Personal interview. 01 Nov. 2014.
"Immigration." The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.
Preston, Julia. "Young Immigrants Say It’s Obama’s Time to Act." The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.