Living in the U.S. and sometimes in fear

A button picked up from the Social Justice Collaborative at Emerson College. Photo credit: Gwendolyn Mintz
A button picked up from the Social Justice Collaborative at Emerson College. Photo credit: Gwendolyn Mintz

By Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz

For migrants entering the U.S., each journey can be unique.

Title 42 was in effect when Javier (not his real name) was apprehended by the Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico. The federal regulation, starting in March 2020 and ending in May 2023, allowed Border Patrol agents to expel migrants trying to enter the U.S. during the COVID-19 crisis. It would be one of several times the U.S. had sent Javier back to Mexico.

He originally came to the states when he was 13 years old. He couldn’t go to school because his parents didn’t have money. They decided to let him join a friend heading to the U.S. so he could have a better life. Walking to California, though, Javier had misgivings.

“I missed my family,” he said. “I was a child, I don’t know. But, at the same time I see every day with my mom and my dad, they don’t have anything to give us for eat. Sometimes when I wake up, my mama, she cried ‘cause she said, ‘we don’t have nothing to eat, so what can I do today?’”

He would feel lonely thinking about his parents, but he remembered the “bad situation” back home. He told himself to “be strong” and “to make it.”

Javier currently lives in the U.S. and is one of the estimated 11 million persons living in the states who are without legal status, including individuals who have overstayed their visas. Persons from Mexico are the majority demographic of unauthorized persons in the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization concerned with immigration policies.

The common narrative is that undocumented persons take and do not contribute, but undocumented persons are not eligible for federal assistance. Three-quarters of Americans do not believe that the undocumented are “taking jobs” that Americans want, according to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank. If those undocumented were given legal status, the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research and advocacy organization, says it would be an economic boost for the country.

Javier crossed the border to have a better life. Through time, he created one for himself.

But in 2016, his father died. He couldn’t go back to Mexico to attend the funeral. Then in 2018, he lost his jobs, and the bills began to pile up. He didn’t pay the car insurance policy and it lapsed.

Javier received a tip about construction work. He asked the friend who told him about the job for a lift. His friend said he couldn’t give him one. Unable to find anyone to take him to the worksite but needing to get back to work, Javier decided to drive himself.

“I was just thinking about the address,” Javier said. Focusing on finding it, he wasn’t aware that he was going 45 mph in a zone limited to 35. He wasn’t aware of the police officer in the area either.

He was issued tickets and had to find someone to come get him and his car. The encounter with law enforcement went no further than that.

Javier was soon working again. He forgot about the tickets, somewhere in his car.

Later, at a stop light, he was pulled over a second time because a warrant had been issued for his arrest for failure to pay the tickets. His status had not been a problem before but, he said, “at that moment, Trump would be president” and politically, things were changing in the state where he was living.

Six months later, he was deported to Mexico.

He says he tried to stay in Mexico — “I really tried” – but the jobs were “bad.” The country wasn’t safe. There was police corruption and, of course, the cartel. After two years, he couldn’t stay anymore.

He went to several places hoping to cross the border, including Sonora and Mexicali. He missed the family he’d created in the U.S. He said, “I felt like I was missing a piece of myself.”

One night in Mexicali, he saw a group of about 50 people heading toward the border. Some of them, he thought, were going to make it. Hoping it might be his “lucky night,” Javier joined them.

Border Patrol agents were visible, but far away.

Everyone made it across the border.

Two men, one from Honduras and one from El Salvador, both countries where many of undocumented persons also come from, invited Javier to join them as they continued past the border.

Javier was hesitant. “I told them, ‘Man, I don’t have money. I don’t have anything.” They were insistent; the men had previously found assistance in the Mexican state Javier was from and they were willing to reciprocate. Besides, they told him, he could read and speak some English. They would help each other.

Between them, they had a gallon of water, two buckets of cookies, and four bottles of electrolytes. Javier remembered that.

“The second day, we don’t have anything to drink, we don’t have anything to eat. That was bad,” he said. “I mean, seriously.”

Javier has not been back to Mexico since. The last time he saw his mother in person was when he left the country as a teenager; today, he sends her money when possible and talks to her on the phone.

Javier has no interest in pursuing what is termed an “adjustment to status,” the process of gaining legal residency status in the U.S. According to the policy manual, there appears to be a limited (and possible unlikely) path to gain legal status in the U.S. for persons like him.

Paralegal Jenny Park, with the immigration law firm John Walter Lawit, said an undocumented person is someone crossing the border with no visa.

A person who has been previously deported, returns, and is apprehended faces a ban. “That person would not be allowed to come to this country for three to ten years,” Park said. The ban could be made permanent with further reentries. Hearing decisions can be appealed, however.

The desire for a better life was also the reason that Max’s family came to America from Guatemala. His father arrived first and then sent for his family.

They left Guatemala in the middle of the night, by way of a coyote, a family friend, who picked them up. “Along the journey,” Max says,” he’ll give us a route where to take, what to avoid, where to sleep when we get here.”

Max was able to attend public school without documentation. He didn’t know what not having it would mean until, he says, he was 13 or 14 years old. There was a career exploration program – to think about “what you want to be growing up, to learn more about what you want to do in life” – but he couldn’t take part because “you needed to have certain types of documents and paperwork.”

“It was like a numb feeling ‘cause growing up, you don’t think about that and then all of a sudden you don’t have it and it’s like, oh I don’t have it, but I’ve already been here; I already know the language, the work, the studies, all that.”

Living with the knowledge that he didn’t have documentation caused some fear. “Driving was mostly when you get scared. Like if you go over the limit, you can get pulled over. Or under the limit, you can still get pulled over. So, it’s mostly that part,” Max says.

As for work, when he was old enough, it was in a restaurant that was owned by a family that also employed his aunts and uncles and mother and father. They were all paid in cash.

His immediate family pursued changing their status. They started with an organization that showed them the route; they got a lawyer; they presented their case to the judge— “we had to show the why, a reason to be here.”

Being “documented” to Max is a freeing experience. He has moved from “looking behind you, seeing that you might get in trouble” to seeing “more opportunities rather than being all scared.”

It is a validation of sorts. “It’s like an identity; this is you now,” Max said.

It was “a proud moment” for him. Having the papers, he told himself, “This is mine. I can do something; I can do more.”


To read stories of what it cost to be undocumented in the U.S., visit La Cuenta

About Gwendolyn Mintz 4 Articles
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a writer and photographer. She was raised in New Mexico, and border issues have always been an interest and a concern.