To get to America, some people have climbed fences, hiked through deserts, lied their way past border agents or legally entered by wading through mounds of confusing paperwork. Some had to try four or five times before they succeeded. Others are still trying, fighting to find a way back home–to the United States. These stories are real, though the names often aren’t. They are the people beneath the statistics.
Three nights in the desert
By the time 73-year-old Juan and his 32-year-old son Barto staggered out of the desert last June, they were so dehydrated they, as Barto put it, "walked like drunken men." Though he’d been paid $1,600 to guide the two men, a coyote had brought only enough water for one day. Barto said he expected to find oases in the desert. But the only water they found, they couldn’t drink. And Juan, energetic though he is, walked slowly. The trip required three nights–nearly twice as long as planned–but they made it. "There were a lot of people suffering," Juan said through a translator. "I saw someone fall down in the desert, but not me. God helped me come through. I didn’t fall, even though at night I was walking without seeing where I was going."
Juan and Barto are from Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. Both men are short with dark brown skin, though Barto stands a full head taller than his father. Interviewed on the apartment patio where his oldest son Alejandro lives, Juan wore no shirt and held rosary beads as he described the ease of his first crossing in 1983. Back in Oaxaca, he had overheard two other men discussing going to America. He told them he wanted to go, too. The men agreed and showed him the sewage ditch he’d need to cross, near Tijuana. He crossed with no problem, not a border guard in sight. But 13 years working in tomato fields left him bent and in pain, so he returned home to his wife and family.
Barto crossed for the first time in 1991, when he was 16, looking to make more money than he could in Oaxaca. He didn’t even need a coyote back then, just a three-day bus ride to Tijuana, where he jumped the fence. He started as a tomato picker like his father, but he soon switched to less-backbreaking landscaping work. Ten years into his stay, his mother called him home.
"My mom, she was crying for me," he said in broken English. "She want to see me. Not the same talking on the phone. She said, ‘I want to see you in person.’"
His second crossing, about six years ago, he paid a coyote $500 to help him walk through the desert. It took him a day and two nights, and they never saw a border-patrol officer or car. His third time, earlier this summer, he went home to pick up his father. Juan wanted to visit Alejandro, who had been in the United States for 20 years and had never been back to Mexico.
Now Juan is living with Alejandro in an apartment while Barto lives in a nearby canyon. After a few months’ visit, he’ll go back to Mexico in November.
The trolley tracks end just a few feet from the international border in San Ysidro. Twenty-year-old Karem Ledesma walks through the port of entry and boards one of the last red trolley cars. She takes her place by a window and immediately whips out her shiny, hot pink razor phone and starts texting friends. From her house in El Centro (downtown Tijuana) Ledesma takes a 10-minute taxi ride to the border. There, she waits for an hour or two in the walking line, then takes the trolley to get to her job at a Burger King in Bonita. She’s been making the same tedious trip to get to her job for the last two and a half years. Ledesma was born in San Diego–so it’s legal for her to work in the United States–but she’s never lived in San Diego and she speaks very little English. She says she spends up to $100 a week on transportation, but it’s worth it because, in the U.S., Ledesma makes in an hour what she’d make in a day if she worked in Tijuana.
Today, Ledesma is running late, but since most of her coworkers at Burger King are from Tijuana as well, her boss, who’s also a Tijuanense, understands when workers aren’t on time. She’s says there’s no way to predict the length of the borderline.
"Every day is different without reason," she says.
At the wall
Just a short way west of the San Ysidro border crossing, America’s southern border protection devolves to a single 10-foot-high corrugated-metal wall, a series of stadium lights upon high poles, some cameras and a smattering of Border Patrol officers. The fence extends across a narrow valley south of Dairy Mart Road before the walls of the mesas to the east and west cuts it off. Atop the mesas, the fence starts again. On the southern side of the wall, the rocky landscape extends all the way to Tijuana in the distance. On that side, plastic and Styrofoam cartons litter the ground, relics of meals wolfed down by men waiting for their chance. On the north side, the ground slopes down into the valley, but on the south side, the earth slopes up to the east, parallel to the wall, forming a kind of natural ramp that makes walking around the wall as easy as walking along the sidewalk. Standing on the ramp and leaning over the fence from the south side are Luis and Rafael, a pair of repeat fence jumpers.
Luis, 26, has been back and forth over the border five times already. He’s from Guadalajara originally and came north for work. Rafael, 32, is from San Luis Portozi. Neither man has ever used a coyote to cross. They each had friends who taught them what to do, and their technique has been the same ever since, even if the exact crossing location has been different.
Step 1: Walk to the wall.
Step 2: Wait for night
Step 3: Climb the wall
Step 4: Run like crazy.
Step 5: If caught, go quietly. The agents handcuff the men and put them in a jeep. They drive them over to a bus with barred windows. When the bus is full, they drive the group over the border crossing, where they are herded back over the border on foot. Once in Tijuana, they are left there. Repeat Steps 1 through 4.
Generally, this method fails. The stadium lights turn night into day, and Border Patrol agents monitor the cameras watching the wall. One variation on the method is to cross with a large group. Once over the wall, the men scatter in all directions, and the patrol can capture only a few.
"It’s like chasing ants all over the place," Rafael says.
And they need to escape detection only once to have a chance at spending years in the United States. Luis, who first came to the U.S. at 18, fathered a daughter before being deported. She now lives with her mother’s family in Kentucky. His moment of ill fate happened one evening while he was having a beer with some friends, sitting on a train track in Santa Barbara. Two police officers strolled by, walking their beat. By chance, the officer was the same one who’d given Luis a traffic ticket some months before, a ticket he had not paid. Once arrested, deportation was inevitable.
Rafael lived here for 12 years before his first deportation. Now he waits on the Mexican side of the border for his chance to come back. His brothers meet him at the fence and give him food and money. He’s been caught by the Border Patrol four times already. Soon he will try again.
From the center to the suburbs
Like his parents, Javier was born in San Diego. Neither he nor his parents ever lived in San Diego, but, similar to many people in Mexico, they wanted the benefits of an American birth certificate and dual citizenship. Crossing the border to have babies in the U.S. is common, says Javier. "It’s almost a cultural thing."
Javier was raised in Colonia Cacho, a neighborhood in central Tijuana where the "old money lives." His family prospered thanks to smart real-estate investments. They lived happily and well, sending Javier and his siblings to the best private schools in the city.
It wasn’t until Javier reached high school that he saw the city start to change.
One day, while driving to the family ranch, Javier’s older brother was snatched from his car by a group of armed kidnappers.
"Then there was the phone call," Javier explains. "There was a huge network behind my brother’s kidnapping. One of them was actually an ex-cop. They’d been researching and watching our family for a long time."
Javier’s brother was one of the first in what was to become a long list of kidnapping victims in Tijuana. "My brother started the trend, I guess," Javier says. Two weeks went by, and a large sum of money changed hands before Javier’s brother was finally returned home.
The family stayed in Tijuana for a few years following the incident. Javier went to college and became a well-known broadcaster for a late-night radio show, but eventually, like many other families that suffered kidnappings, they crossed the border and settled in Eastlake, a swanky suburb of Chula Vista. Other families in similar situations have done the same.
"It’s Little Tijuana," Javier says, "or Chulajuana. Someone who just moved into the neighborhood last week was threatened to be kidnapped in Tijuana.
"And the funny thing about Eastlake," he continues, "now people are saving up to cross their maids illegally. It’s commonplace for Mexico’s rich to have a live-in maid, so they find a maid in TJ or bring their maid from TJ and just cross her illegally. It’s so hard to find good help here," Javier smiles, but he’s completely serious.
Quick–into the Dumpster!
When Adrianna was a 14-year-old living in Guanajuato, Mexico, her father came home from the United States to visit his wife and five children after years away. "My mom said, ‘You know, I’m raising five kids on my own; either you take us with you,’–this is to my dad–’or here they are. I can’t handle it any more,’" Adrianna said.
Her family had been commuting to the United States for generations, always to make more money for the family. Her grandfather had taken part in the Bracero guest-worker program of the 1950s and ’60s, though he returned to Guanajuato in the 1980s. Her father was a naturalized citizen and one of many people from her small town of 60 families to support his family in el norte. Now, Adrianna’s mother wanted the whole family to move. But getting six people back over the border was an expensive proposition, so her mother and father struck a deal: Half the family would cross the border immediately, while the other half would come a year later. The family would use the year to save money.
In 1991, Adrianna’s grandfather took her and two siblings on the two-nights-and-a-day bus ride to Tijuana. At the bus station, her grandfather handed the children off to her father and got right back on the bus to go home.
"He said, ‘Here, my working son, they are yours,’" she said.
The family, meanwhile, went to a friend’s house in Tijuana, where they spent the rest of the day trying to get some sleep before the nighttime crossing.
After sunset, Adrianna’s father roused the family. They took a taxi to a spot near the border, and then walked to the crossing point.
"When we got there, we saw another interesting scenario," Adrianna said. "Hundreds of people, entire families."
And just 30 yards away, the jeeps of the Border Patrol, headlights beaming in the darkness.
The technique played out almost like a dangerous child’s game, with a lot of careful management by a team of coyotes. The groups organized into five lines. One line of people was taken over to a darker, hidden part of the crossing. The larger group would dash toward the border. Patrolmen would see this large group and swarm toward them. Then, just before the line, the group would stop and turn around and dash back. They did this six or seven times in an hour, with the Border Patrol responding every time. Meanwhile, the smaller group waited until a coyote signaled, and then they dashed across the line for real, out of sight of the Border Patrol.
When it came time to make their mad dash, Adrianna’s father had advised the family to "follow his feet"–run when he ran, hide when he hid. If they were caught, they had to pretend not to know each other, in hopes the patrolmen would be lenient toward young, unaccompanied children.
Adrianna doesn’t have clear memories of the sprint across the line. She remembers running furiously over the border and maybe 100 yards past it, then dropping into the bushes and hiding. They had to maintain strict silence–no crying, whispers, sneezes or coughs, usually for 10 or 15 minutes at a time. Then they jumped up and made another mad dash to the next hiding place. In this fashion, the family ran roughly six miles to Sweetwater Regional Park in Chula Vista. Adrianna’s uncle, also a U. S. citizen, waited for them in a car. But just as they approached her uncle, a Border Patrol vehicle pulled into the park.
Her father grabbed Adrianna and her sister and threw them into a nearby dumpster and slammed the lid. He grabbed her youngest brother and dragged him into the bathroom. Father and son emerged as the patrolmen were asking the uncle for his papers. The two men were legal and in the clear. Adrianna’s father told the officers he and his brother had been driving and they merely stopped to take the little boy to the bathroom. The patrolmen left the scene, and the two girls emerged from the dumpster scared, smelly and safe.
The chicken and the egg
Olivia Aguirre knew she wanted to live in the United States. During her undergraduate courses in psychology in Guadalajara, Mexico, she completed a social-services internship in San Diego and fell in love with the city. She ended up in San Diego again for her practicum while finishing up her master’s degree in psychology at a Tijuana university.
She met a computer engineer, Mauricio Ramirez, now her husband, who was also interested in living in the U.S., and the deal was sealed. The two of them would find a way to cross–legally.
They did their homework and found out that both of their careers were listed as qualifying under the TN visa, a special U.S. and Canadian immigration status created as part of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The TN is valid for one year and can be renewed each year indefinitely.
But there were some special requirements for the TN. In Aguirre’s case, she first needed a job offer, but in order to get one, she needed the California Board of Behavioral Sciences to issue her an intern registration number, and in order to get the intern registration number, she needed a Social Security number. But, of course, she couldn’t get one without a visa.
"I know it sounds confusing," Aguirre said, "and it was. And it was scary and draining and very stressful."
"Basically," she explained, "I needed someone to trust me."
She eventually found someone who did and got a job offer without having the internship number. She did the steps out of order and eventually got the TN. Ramirez got the TN, too, and they immediately got started on the paperwork for the H-1B visa, the controversial visa that allows 65,000 skilled foreign workers per year to live and work in the U.S. for up to three years with the option to renew. The 65,000 quota might seem like a reasonably high number, but the demand is much higher.
"The application for the H-1 is due April 1," Ramirez said, "and by April 2, they’re gone."
Aguirre and Ramirez hit the first big roadblock when they found out they needed a U.S. address in order to apply for the H-1B. They were still living in their house in Tijuana, so it was an important piece of missing information. They gave up fighting the paperwork battle on their own.
"That’s when you hire a lawyer," Ramirez said, "but it makes no sense, even to the lawyer."
Months went by, but they eventually straightened it out and got some good news. Nonprofits are exempt from the H-1B quota. Aguirre works for a nonprofit, so she’ll be issued the H-1B visa next month. Ramirez then automatically gets the H4 visa, a spouse’s visa that allows him to live, but not work, in the U.S.
After spending roughly one year and $4,000 on getting the visas, the young couple finally moved to Otay Ranch in Chula Vista in January. Ramirez, though, still has his job in Tijuana and commutes across the border every day.
Sitting in the only D’Volada–the Mexican equivalent to Starbucks–in the U.S., just a few miles from their new place, the couple looks right at home.
"To me, it’s like living there," Aguirre said, nodding south toward the border. "It’s like vivo en una colonia de Tijuana. I love it here."
Enrique de la Cruz is a naturalized American citizen now, but in 1980 he was a boy dressed like a girl, pigtails and all, and on his way to America. His parents came from an economically depressed town in Guadalajara. They moved to Tijuana in the hopes of improving their lot, which they did to the extent that they had Enrique. But when he was just 10 months old, they decided that life would be better farther north, on the American side of the fence.
Enrique’s parents felt it would be too dangerous to cross the border carrying him in their arms. A family friend procured the papers of an infant American girl, and offered to drive him across. Enrique’s mother and father crossed separately through the mountains east of Tijuana. His father remembers hiding in the bushes while a Border Patrol helicopter flew overhead, its searchlight sweeping the terrain. Meanwhile, Enrique crossed without difficulty.
"My mom always said I was lucky they didn’t lift up my dress," he said.
Trials and tribulations
A wide-eyed Crystal McGlaughlin-Jimenez takes the stand and nervously prepares to testify to a tiny courtroom in the U.S. Immigration Court of San Diego.
"Did you ever talk about a day like this coming?" the prosecutor asks.
"I thought we could eventually file for citizenship," Crystal answers, "but the problem with us has always been money–paying rent, keeping food on the table."
The testimony lasts just a few minutes more before the prosecutor rests and the judge excuses everyone so he can make his decision.
Moments later, the courtroom is empty save for Crystal and Alejandro Jimenez, a young married couple with their two small children. Alejandro was arrested last year for stealing CDs from a Target store, where he was once employed. He needed the CDs so he could sell them and get money to buy diapers for the couple’s baby boy. It was his first offense. The arrest itself wasn’t so bad, but officials discovered Alejandro’s illegal status and the deportation proceedings began.
Alejandro, 26, cross in 1994 with his mother. They jumped the fence in Tijuana and ran, but got caught and sent back the first time. They turned around and tried again. This time they made it.
"It was a lot of hiding and running when we could, more hiding, more running–cat-and-mouse stuff," he explains.
The couple met and married two years ago. She’s a U.S. citizen and could’ve petitioned for Alejandro’s residency. But Crystal, just 20 years old, admits to not understanding immigration law and procedure. And so, the young couple sits in immigration court, awaiting the outcome of a trial that could decide whether the family stays in the U.S. or moves to Mexico. Whatever the decision, they plan to stay together.
"What do you think’s gonna happen?" Crystal asks Alejandro, her white hand, nails painted pink, in his dark hand.
"I hope it’s good," he says, kissing her forehead.
"I don’t know," Crystal murmurs, "I don’t know, I don’t know. I love you."
"Love you," he answers.
The lawyers enter the room, followed by the judge. Everyone stands, then sits and listens as the judge methodically reads through his pages-long decision, spelling out proper nouns and homonyms and saying the word "period" after every sentence. The unusual speech pattern, mixed with the legal jargon, makes it difficult to predict the verdict, even 15 minutes into the reading. Crystal rides an emotional roller coaster, smiling at times, crying at others.
Then the judge gets to the conclusion and directly addresses the three grounds for which an individual can qualify for cancellation of removal. Yes, the judge says, Alejandro has lived in the U.S. for a period of 10 years or more. Yes, the judge says, even with the arrest and a few other minor infractions involving driving without a license, Alejandro appears to be a person of good moral character, and then no, the judge says, Alejandro has not proven that his removal would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to his spouse and child. Since Alejandro doesn’t meet all three standards, he does not qualify for cancellation of removal and will therefore be deported.
"A young couple struggling financially doesn’t make the case," says the judge. "Economic hardship is not a claim."
Crystal cries. Alejandro looks angry. The judge informs them of their right to appeal then the court adjourns.
Alejandro has only one remaining family member living in Mexico, and Crystal doesn’t speak Spanish. They don’t want to move to Mexico, but if they have to, they will.
"We can’t keep appealing forever," Crystal says.