EDITOR'S NOTE: Jesús E. Valenzuela Félix is a blogger and reporter from Coachella, CA, currently living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers Foundation. His blog, "The Diary of Joaquín Magón” appears regularly on the youth-led community news website, Coachella Unincorporated, a project of New America Media. Following is the second of a two-part reflection on immigration matters in the Eastern Coachella Valley, based on interviews with residents of this agricultural and predominantly Latino region of southeast Riverside County. Part one of the series can be viewed here.
Raul: Forced to Adapt, Again
In 2010, there were an estimated 387,000 “removals” according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). My high school friend, Raul, was one of them.
He has been living just on the other side of the border fence, in Mexicali, for three years now -- and has been trying to adjust to his new life ever since.
The fact that he was born in Acapulco, Guerrero, Mexico, doesn’t help much. Raul may as well have been born in the United States because Mexicali is a different world. Even though its motto is “the homeland begins here,” it is a strange city that most Mexicans wouldn’t even consider Mexico. The neon lights, the smells of taco stands, candy stores, strip clubs, pharmacies, have made it into a city of tourists and passersby going to, or coming from, the U.S.
Meeting someone born and raised in Mexicali is not as common as meeting someone passing through. The heat of the desert mixes with the traffic to cause a heat even those who have lived there their whole lives can’t stand. I’ve driven through those streets plenty of times to pick up family members that rode the bus from Sinaloa. I love it, but I am aware that it’s a privilege to be able to come and go.
When Raul was deported, it struck him as crazy. He was, after all, a college student with no criminal record. He was stopped and questioned by the police while hanging out with some friends in one of Indio’s deserted areas, a big patch of desert, with dirt and bushes and, well, nothing around them. The officer told them they were trespassing. Then the officer asked if he had papers. He didn’t.
He recalls: “Then he called immigration. Immigration hassled and harassed me verbally for a while…then they told me I was to be deported. They took me to a station where I explained that I was a student in college, and that I had done nothing wrong. They didn’t release me but offered… a voluntary deportation and that as soon as I was on Mexican soil I could arrange to get papers the legal way…I had to “play piano” (get my fingerprints taken) and slept at the station for one night then they drove me to Mexico… Oh, and they gave me what looked like a small receipt telling me that I had just been deported.”
The promise of being able to fix papers if a person signs a voluntary deportation is a common practice. Detained immigrants are harassed and manipulated until they agree that signing the paper will end everything and is the best choice. Of course, it’s not. As Mario Lazcano, an immigration activist in Coachella, pointed out to a couple that was recently detained — the fact that they refused to sign is what kept them from being deported.
But Raul’s case is more common than not. And now he has to rough it in Mexicali. He has no family there. They all still live in the Eastern Coachella Valley. The family of a mutual friend of ours in Mexicali took him in.
Luckily he had saved some money. Ever since I’ve known Raul, regardless of how the economy was doing, he could always get a job. He even had two or three at a time. He’s had more or less that same luck in Mexicali.
“The first year was terrible as I was just adjusting to all the changes in my life. I had to learn many colloquial phrases and jump over the small language barrier I had. I had to adjust to the hostility -- during the first year, my house was broken into and robbed naked. Finding a job was difficult without a proper Mexican ID. I guess here in México they don’t like immigrants either, like from El Salvador and other southern countries. So I got whatever jobs I could. By 2011, I was working at a maquila [large factories that produce mostly U.S. products] where, because of my English I got an opportunity for a good job. Last year I got a job as an English instructor in a private school and I can say now I’m fully adjusted… I still think a lot about my family, though.”
I have this feeling that humans often feel invincible. That we take risks like we’re immortals, we speed as if we’ll never get caught, and we talk about sickness like it won’t happen to us. It’s the way Raul lived in the U.S. as well. But undocumented immigrants must take extra precautions.
“In the back of my mind I always knew that I could get deported any time, as my father and brother once did,” he says.
Raul adjusted at age seven to a life in the U.S., and now he has adjusted to life in Mexicali. He works and is constantly dreaming how to better his situation. He is one of those that President Obama said he wouldn’t deport — one of the 45 percent, a college student who could apply for "deferred ac if he was still living in the United States today.
But living in the ECV means that a cop can ask you for papers, and being undocumented means being hunted like a school of fish with a net -- no need to be precise or cautious, you just drag the damned thing and take what you can get. If you do get caught, there will be no lawyer there to defend you in the event that you cannot pay for one. To hell with it – you’ll be kicked out, deported, have your name put into a database and live as a memory in the streets that saw you grow, as you survive on the streets that saw your birth.
Estela: The Non-Eligible
It is estimated that 1.7 million undocumented youth are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the executive order made by President Obama last year that offers temporary legal status to certain immigrants who entered the country as children. Estela (not her real name), 17, is not one of them.
To be eligible for DACA, the applicant must (among several other things) have arrived in the United States before June 15, 2007. Estela arrived one month later, at the age of 11, from Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Looking around and seeing all of her friends getting ready to continue their education, for Estela, is a bit frustrating.
“They say the end of high school is very overwhelming,” says Estela. “And it is! But I feel like it is a thousand times more for me. It gets me very frustrated, the fact that I can’t apply for many things. In a way, my future is hanging in the air. I don’t know what my plan is, but all I know is that even though it is hard, I will keep on trying to find a way to make it.”
But a spirit like Estela’s cannot be crushed so easily.
In a perfect world, her dreams of pursuing a career in mass communications at Cal State Fullerton would materialize without any more or less obstacles than her peers. But Estela’s reality is different. Like other undocumented youth, deportation is a fear that’s taken up a permanent residency in her mind.
“It’s something that, even though I try not think about, is always in the back of my head. I think it makes a person very insecure most of the time. You want to hide…not because you are ashamed of it, but because of fear. You never know the kind of people you are dealing with and they could affect you if they wanted to, just by knowing you are not legal.”
The fear is perpetual — she can’t go back because she doesn’t know Mexico anymore; she doesn’t even know at this point if she would be able finish high school there. Yet here, in the place she knows best, she has more obstacles than attainable dreams. But the dreams are bigger that the fear, and so she’ll continue to fight in their name.
Recovering From the Wounds
There is a huge difference between undocumented youth — the DREAMers — who have no recollection of their home country, and their parents, who do. They fight for their lives in the open. They are taken away, like Raul. Sometimes they are stuck in a limbo that feels like an inescapable nightmare, like Estela, or sometimes their hard work pays off like it did for Mayte (read her story in part one).
In the ECV, we know all of these people. We know people who dream and fight even when the fight is not their own, like Lazcano. He is distressed by how common deportation is. We speak of it like an old friend, like a sickness, like the flu without a vaccine.
The road has been hard, and people want a comprehensive immigration process. And that fight in the Coachella Valley has been a slow process of empowering the community with the vote. As Lazcano points out, “[The fight for immigration reform] has allowed the following: there was a an Assemblywoman named Bonnie Garcia (R). We managed to defeat her. Then there was [Congresswoman] Mary Bono Mack (R) who had been in power for 14 years and…now we have a new Congressman [Dr. Raul Ruiz (D)].”
It has led to a community that has, over the years, amassed enough power to remove the politicians that stand in the way of immigration reform and replace them with those who say they will try and help.
Now, I don’t want to talk too much about a metaphorical giant rearing its head, or the rise of a new wave of voters. What will happen will happen, and the ECV will, eventually, recover from the wounds inflicted upon it by ICE.
Until then, we’ll continue to talk about people who have been deported, people who will have to adjust their dreams to a new reality. The scars left by these mass deportations will heal; the community will heal itself, mend itself and learn to live, and the people will always remember and tell their stories – as I am sharing the stories of the four brave people who opened up to me and to the entire community.
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