Living in limbo
By Brenna Daldorph
The cop approaches Javier’s car. He’s sheer bulk confined in a brown uniform.
Javier is sick with fear. How could he have missed the speed trap? He knows what’s at stake. He’s 19 years old, a freshman from Kansas City, Kan., but he’s also here illegally, undocumented. If this cop finds out his secret, Javier could be arrested and shipped back to Mexico, a country he hasn’t seen since he was 5 years old.
Javier, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, frantically plans what he’ll say as he watches the cop draw nearer in the rearview mirror. He steps closer to the black VW Golf and gazes in at Javier.
“License and registration?”
Javier feels his hands trembling. He has no license because he is undocumented. On paper, he doesn’t exist. He tries to play it cool and hands the officer his registration and insurance.
“And your license?” the officer says.
Javier tries to calm his voice as he tells the cop what he will discover anyway.
“I don’t have one.”
And then the lie.
“I never got around to it.”
The officer asks for some form of ID. Javier hands him his KU ID, newly printed at orientation. The officer stares at it. Javier holds his breath.
“You’d better call someone to pick you up.”
The cop walks away, Javier’s ID in hand. Relief floods over him. His dream is still alive.
Raul stumbles out of the bus and onto the asphalt. His bruised wrists ache from being handcuffed to another man during the long journey from the jail in Missouri where he was detained.
Guards with guns drawn toss the men’s belongings to the ground in plastic trash bags. Raul scrambles for his Bible, drawings of his godson and his $40 prison check, his parting gift from the U.S. government to start a new life in Mexico.
It is a year and a half and 750 miles from Raul’s 2007 graduation from the University. In that faraway life, he was the radiant example of success against all odds — a student senator, the first in his family to earn a college degree. Even now, as Raul stands at the Mexican border, his face beams from the Latino recruitment poster used by KU Admissions. On the poster, he is pictured below text in Spanish that reads: You Have a Home Here.
Then-Provost Richard Lariviere delivered an impassioned speech for diversity, using Raul’s story as a shining example: how he came from a poor family and worked full time to both support them and pay for his education, earning a degree in psychology.
“We must repeat his story thousands of times,” Lariviere told faculty.
Lariviere and those who heard that speech didn’t know that Raul, who came to the United States with his family in search of the American dream, was undocumented.
That dream crumbled into a nightmare only a year and a half after he walked down the hill at graduation. This time, he would walk across a bridge over the Rio Grande to another country and another life.
For Raul, life in limbo had ended.
Each year, more than 65,000 undocumented students like Javier and Raul graduate from high schools in the United States. These students live in limbo: They grow up American, yet are not legal residents.
In Kansas, undocumented students can go to college. But in some states, including Missouri, it is illegal to attend public universities. Undocumented students can’t get Social Security numbers to work legally, driver’s licenses or college scholarships. They live in constant fear of deportation to countries that they don’t remember.And if they are deported, it is almost impossible to get a visa to return.
For students like Javier, living in limbo means that any at second, life as he knows it could be snatched away, as when Raul was sent back to Mexico.
“I was born there, but it’s not my home,” Javier said.
PART ONE: JAVIER
In high school, Javier felt lost. People noticed his flashy gold Supra high tops poking out from his school uniform khakis, but Javier himself receded into the shadows. The skinny kid with dark hair and glasses who speaks English without an accent was the only undocumented student at his private Catholic high school in Kansas City, Kan. The school had both rich and poor students, and he was from the poorer side. His parents take pride in their hard work that pays for their children’s education. His father, Javier Sr., is a painter; his mother, Ester, cleans houses. His sister, Ireri, 16, a popular girl who plays soccer and swims for the school team, is also undocumented.
Like other undocumented teenagers, Javier was hitting the many restrictions of his status. He didn’t have a driver’s license, so he couldn’t drive. He couldn’t legally work, either. He used a fake Social Security number to get his first job as a lifeguard at Roeland Park Aquatic Center. The manager assumed the faulty digits were a mistake and asked Javier to go home and check it out with his parents. Javier walked out and never went back.
“It was the first time I felt like I was undocumented,” Javier said. “It just hit me all of a sudden, like a wake-up call.”
During his junior year, friends started talking about college. They would ask him about his plans, and Javier would say he didn’t know.
He grew frustrated, but his mom was hopeful. Ester, 47, and Javier Sr., 46, came to this country so their children could get an education. Though they speak limited English, they dream of success in the United States for their children. Each night, Ester would ask Javier how his college search was going. She was sure there was a way for him to go.
When he visited his local college, the University of Missouri at Kansas City, the woman working at admissions gave a rousing speech about how the university welcomed people from all backgrounds. After listening, Javier felt hopeful enough to ask if that meant he could go too. She told him it’d be illegal for him to go to school in Missouri.
Sometimes the frustration would boil over. His mom would insist there was a way, and Javier would explode.
“You don’t know anything!” he snapped at her. “You know nothing about the laws!”
When he was done, Ester would calm him in Spanish: Have faith in God.
His parents started talking about sending him back to Mexico for college.
Javier hasn’t been to Mexico since he was 5. His friends are here. His life is here. Border enforcement is strict. If he went to Mexico, he might never be able to return home.
“That was my plan Z,” Javier said.
Worry about his future consumed his thoughts, but he found bravery through his art.
He spray-painted a canvas his senior year that now hangs in his bedroom. Standing bold against diagonal blue and red stripes is Muhammad Ali, poised and ready to fight.
“Muhammad Ali wasn’t scared of anything,” Javier said.
In between the lines of his own name, Javier painstakingly stenciled: I feel anxious, confused.
Then, in February 2009, Javier visited the University with his friend and classmate, Juan. Juan had already applied to the University and wanted to major in business.
As Javier walked around the campus, he told himself: If I could go to any school, this is where I’d go.
Now, the pair stood in a crowd of prospective students and parents outside Alderson Auditorium in the Kansas Union.
“Just ask,” Juan nudged Javier.
“I already know it’s no,” Javier said.
As Javier looked at his feet, he flashed back to his visit to UMKC. Why would this be any different?
“Ask,” Juan insisted.
He had known Javier since they were in kindergarten — he was used to pushing his more reserved friend. He had already dragged him to this visit.
“Do you want me to do it?” Juan said.
“I don’t care,” said Javier, relenting so Juan would stop asking.
Juan approached Greg Valdovino, KU’s assistant director of multicultural recruitment.
“So, I have this friend who’s illegal — can he go to school here?”
Only a few feet away, Javier heard the response and couldn’t believe it.
“No problem,” Valdovino said.
Kansas has made higher education possible for students like Javier since 2004. Kansas is one of only 11 states to grant in-state tuition to undocumented students who attend high school in state. Though opponents voiced fears that colleges in Kansas would be inundated with undocumented students, an average of only 251 students per year have received in-state tuition because of this law since 2005, according to the Kansas Board of Regents.
Of the 316 undocumented students who received in-state tuition in Kansas in 2009, only 10 attend this University, the Board of Regents reports.
The bill, called the Kansas Dream Act, makes the dream of a college education possible for students like Javier.
He couldn’t wait to tell his mom.
When he heard his mom yell, “I’m home!” in Spanish, Javier bounded up the stairs from his basement room into the kitchen.
He launched into a description of the visit to the University. He saved the best for last: “I can go,” he said in Spanish, smiling.
Ester squealed with joy and grabbed Javier, squeezing him tight.
“I told you so,” Ester said in Spanish, kissing her son.
“I was happier for her than I was for me,” he recalled.
Ester called Valdovino, and he explained everything to her in Spanish.
Javier would have to meet the same entrance requirements as any applicant, and he wouldn’t be eligible for federal financial aid. That makes attending the University an impossible dream for undocumented students who fall below the poverty line.
All Javier had to do was sign an affidavit that he had gone to high school in Kansas and was attempting to pursue citizenship.
Then Ester asked the question she feared the answer to: Would Javier be safe from discrimination … and worse?
Valdovino explained that the law required confidentiality. Immigration and customs officials could not come to the University and ask for students’ citizenship information.
Two months later, the TV was blaring in Ireri’s room, but Javier’s younger sister could still hear the sudden screams.
Visions of what might have happened cloud her mind. She dashes into the living room. Javier is grinning. Her mother is hopping with excitement and yelling into the phone in Spanish.
A letter lies open on the table.
Ireri starts shouting, too.
Javier’s father comes in. “What’s all the commotion?” he asks his giddy family.
“Javier got into KU!”
Javier Sr.’s eyes glisten.
“Good job, son,” he says.
Javier Sr.’s van pulled up outside of McCollum on move-in day. Javier was both embarrassed and proud that the world could see Ireri’s message painted across the windows: KU — here comes Javier.
Everyone in Javier’s family wore KU gear to move Javier into his dorm room.
Javier watched his mom. Yeah, she spoke Spanish, but she was like every other mom there. On move-in day, all moms flutter around, worried. Ester was beside herself.
When the family drove away, despite his vows not to cry, Javier Sr. was the first one in tears.
“Are you in your room?” Ester’s voice sounded upset.
“No,” said Javier. He was talking on his cell phone, walking back from class on a sunny October afternoon.
“Call me when you are back there,” his mother requested.
Javier suddenly felt sick to his stomach. Something bad had happened.
He called her back. His mother’s 40-year-old brother, Javier’s uncle Alex, had been murdered in Mexico.
He had been shot in the gang warfare consuming Mexico. The drug war killed more than 6,000 people last year and has prompted some security analysts to warn that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state.
Alone in his McCollum room, Javier hurled anything he could find at the wall.
His uncle had been the ladies’ man, the life of the party. He made everybody laugh. He had just settled down — he was married, just had his second baby. Now, he was gone.
Undocumented, the family couldn’t go to Mexico for the funeral. If they did, they might never be able to return to the United States. In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has put up 44 miles of tall fencing dividing the Juarez Valley from Texas and has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents.
Gaining a visa for entry to the United States is costly, time-consuming and often impossible. Mexicans applying for U.S. visas in 2006 has to pay $185, more than a month’s salary, to even apply. Even if an applicant’s visa is approved, “a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States,” stated a U.S. embassy Website, and a person carrying a valid visa can be turned away at the border. For a Mexican citizen applying for a reunification visa to join a family member who is a permanent resident of the United States, the average waiting time is 19.7 years, according to Prakash Khatri, the nation’s first Ombudsman with the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2008. The waiting period for a visa is longer than Javier has been alive.
Sometimes, Javier thinks about being deported and about the violence in Mexico.
Chihuahua, the Mexican state south of Texas where his family lives, is terrorized by the narcotics war.
When he talks to his grandmother on the phone, she describes hearing the pop of AK-47s firing outside her window.
Javier worries most about having to build an entirely new life in Mexico. His grandmother, aunts and uncles live in a tiny city in the desert.
“It’d be like starting over in a foreign country,” he said.
He also worries about losing the relationships he has here. He started dating his first steady girlfriend during his senior year of high school. A year later, he is still dating Haley, the blonde and bubbly girl who charmed his family at his sister’s quinceñera, the celebration that marks a young Latina’s 15th birthday and her corresponding transition to adulthood. The only gringa at the party, Haley kicked up her heels with his family and stayed to clean up afterward.
That night, he had his friends sneak outside to scrawl a prom invitation across the windshield of Haley’s car. They started dating the day after prom.
Haley is from the right side of the tracks. Her parents are professionals. Before Javier, she had never known someone who was undocumented.
“My parents have always raised me to be open minded and aware of other people,” she said.
The summer after they started dating, they talked about the big “what if” — what if Javier got deported? Javier tried to play it cool, like he wasn’t scared so he could convince her it wasn’t a problem.
But Haley worries.
“It’s definitely in the back of your mind … you know, what if … this happened,” she said.
Her voice catches. She regains composure and says, “People think it’s hard to do long distance relationships in college. Well, it’s even harder in another country.”
Javier knows Haley will be there for him. In his darkest hours, Javier plans how he might get back to her if was deported.
Javier knows there is no practical way to legalize his status. His family came in 1995 on tourist visas. The visas expired, but the family stayed.
When Javier turned 18, he became an unlawful resident of the United States. Unlawful presence, which begins only when a person becomes a legal adult, is what typically bars a person from changing his visa status.
Javier’s only hope to change his status would be if he had a spouse or a child who was a U.S. citizen.
The proposed DREAM Act could allow him legal status.
DREAM, an acronym for the Development, Relief and Education Act for Alien Minors, is bipartisan legislation that addresses the plight of young people who immigrated as undocumented children, grew up here, stayed in school and kept out of trouble.
Introduced in 2001, it stalled in Congress in 2003 and again in 2007. In March 2009, it was reintroduced.
Javier holds out for that slim hope.
Javier goes home to Kansas City most weekends to see his family and Haley, a freshman at Rockhurst. She keeps him motivated when the barriers of being undocumented trip him up, whether it is the embarrassment of having Haley drive everywhere even though she says she doesn’t mind, the pain of his uncle’s death and the separation from his family in Mexico, or the possibility that he could be deported.
Haley is a regular visitor at the tidy burnt orange bungalow that stands out from the muted white and grey of its neighbors. In a row of yards where weeds compete with trash, the neatness of Javier Sr., and Ester’s enclosed lawn seems to gleam.
On the front of the house, a small sign proclaims, “Jayhawk fans live here.”
Inside, Ester flips hot tortillas onto plates. She fusses over her children and husband, making sure everyone has enough to eat. Javier tells his father a story in between heaping bites of menudo, a traditional Mexican soup. Ireri glances up from her phone to grin at her brother. The family is talking and laughing, but living in limbo, not knowing when the life they have here could end.
PART TWO: RAUL
Raul is disoriented as he stands next to the bus. It’s September 2008, and he is miles away from anyone or anything he knows, staring at the bridge before him.
It begins to rain.
The 75 deportees pass through border check-in points — small structures that resemble tollbooths — and then onto Del Río-Ciudad Acuña International Bridge. It crosses over the Rio Grande and connects, yet divides, two countries, two worlds.
Raul tries to move quickly: He doesn’t want to get wet, and he doesn’t want to get left behind. Gang members are lurking across the border, waiting to rob any stragglers. It’s hard to keep up — the guards took his shoelaces and his belt.
For a minute, Raul pauses. One chapter of his life is over. As the rain pelts his back and he walks back into Mexico, he thinks, I have to change my plan completely.
Not so long before, Raul’s plan had been different.
Raul, now 26, graduated from the University in 2007 with high hopes and frequent worries. He wanted to get a master’s degree, but he was worried about finding a good job, about caring for his family. One day, he wanted to take his godson to visit his homeland of Mexico.
He never dreamed his arrival back in Mexico would be like this: dropped at the border after being arrested at his workplace in Olathe and deported five months later.
Now, he is barred from seeking legal entry into the United States. If he tried to re-enter the United States after being formally deported, he would face a felony, up to 10 years in a U.S. prison, and a second deportation.
These days, it is hard for Raul to remember his life in Lawrence.
But people here remember him.
His mentor, Juan Izaguirre, assistant director of the Multicultural Resource Center, remembers Raul as the first to volunteer for activities — even if it meant moving around shifts at work.
Friends remember him as “always on the go” as he balanced responsibilities and his academics, his job, his family, his friends and his fraternity.
After the Provost’s speech praising him, those who didn’t know Raul now did. Yeah, he was quiet, but he had flair. He was the kid who went to a U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute Conference wearing a sherbet green suit. He had a leather jacket decorated with fake $100 bills. He wore sparkling earrings he insisted were diamonds. Friends called him “Flash” or “Speed Racer.” Even people who didn’t know him personally knew his hair — shaved in intricate designs.
But few knew his whole story.
In 1999, when Raul was 16, his parents started talking about making the journey North.
His father had worked as a salesman for the Sabritas potato chip plant in Tijuana, a rough industrial border town in northern Mexico close to San Diego, but he lost the benefits that would help him pay for Raul’s higher education.
Education had almost mythical qualities for the Raul’s family. His parents finished only middle school and were sure they struggled in life because they were uneducated. More than anything, they wanted a better life for their children.
Raul didn’t want to move to a foreign land where he was sure people would look down on him because he couldn’t speak English.
He didn’t know his parents were serious about the move until they started selling the family’s belongings.
Then, he asked his mother: “Why are we going?”
“Because we are a family,” she said, “and families stick together.”
Raul started studying English.
The family crossed using tourist visas. His parents decided on Kansas and moved to Kansas City, Kan., with their four children: Raul, his younger brothers Hugo and Sergio, and his sister Claudette.
Raul learned English quickly at a rough urban school in an industrial area of Kansas City, Kan. His first quarter, he enrolled in every English as a Second Language class he could. By the beginning of the second quarter he was enrolled in regular English classes. He graduated with a 3.98 GPA and went on to Johnson County Community College for the 2001-2002 school year. There, he first learned how fragile his dream was.
“It’s expired,” the customs agent at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport stated, holding Raul’s passport and staring at him.
Raul was shocked. It hadn’t been a problem on the way down. He had spent two weeks on a service trip to Jalisco, Mexico, through Johnson County Community College. The students volunteered at a community of low-income families called Las Pintas. They needed an interpreter, and Raul, eager to help, had signed up.
On the way down, his passport and tourist visa were no problem.
But during the trip, his passport had expired, and Raul could no longer legally enter the United States.
Authorities separated Raul from the other students and took him into custody. There, he signed a voluntary deportation form and was placed on the next flight back to Jalisco.
Frustrated, alone and 19 years old, he cried the entire flight.
Trapped in Mexico, Raul had only two thoughts on his mind: his family and his education. He worried about his brothers. His parents worked more than 80 hours a week at two jobs, and Raul had acted as a father figure to Hugo and Sergio. He knew the family was hurting without his income and guidance.
He decided to make the journey back. He tried to go legally first by applying for a visa, but it was denied.
The only other option was crossing illegally. Desperate to go home, Raul paid a coyote, a guide who transports undocumented migrants, to lead him across the desert that spans the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Raul remembers the desert as dark and cold. They traveled at night, and he wasn’t able to sleep for almost a week. In the middle of his journey, he was robbed of the only money he was carrying — 20 pesos, roughly equivalent to $2.
Border Patrol officials, la migra, arrested some members of his group, but Raul ran without looking back and escaped capture.
Raul kept thinking about his family, knowing that his mom would suffer if he didn’t make it. He thought about his education. He had visited the University during high school and thought he was destined to go there.
Raul made it back and enrolled in fall 2003. Then, in the spring of 2004, his father was deported. Raul dropped out of school and worked 75 hours a week to support his family.
He returned to the University in spring 2005, when his father re-entered the United States. Raul thrived in the classroom, yet he continued to work two jobs. He slept as little as two hours a night.
“I was born and raised to work physically until I drop dead tired,” Raul said. “That’s how my mom and dad work.”
Even though he was juggling family, academic and job responsibilities, he was active in Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity, the International Student Association and the Hispanic American Leadership Organization. He practiced step dancing, a vibrant form of dance traditional to many Hispanic and black fraternities and performed in the University step show for three years.
He was an inspiration to his friends.
“He helped us, whether he knew it or not, in that way that we looked at him and said — if he can do it, so can we,” said Eloy Gallegos, a KU alumnus and a 2008 graduate and Raul’s friend. “He helped us indirectly with his attitude and his character. He’d make us laugh all the time. I don’t ever remember him saying, ‘No, this cannot be done.'”
Raul’s family came to his graduation in May 2007. Raul felt happy, proud, successful — everything a graduate should feel. He also felt a huge responsibility as a Latino with a college degree and the first member of his family to get a degree. He had a future but not the one he expected.
It was 10 a.m. on April 17, 2008, almost a year after Raul’s graduation. Raul was eating lunch in his cubicle at an Olathe car dealership where he worked as a salesman, when a detective arrived.
The detective said he was looking for Raul.
He began to question him.
When Raul truthfully answered all of his questions, the officer put him in handcuffs and took him to jail.
Raul’s mother was at home, cleaning the house on her day off.
The phone rang.
It was Raul. He had been arrested.
Pain washed over her. All of his accomplishments are useless now, she thought.
The family sought help at Raul’s alma mater.
The message on Juan Izaguirre’s phone was from someone named Claudette. Izaguirre, in the Multicultural Resource Center, didn’t recognize the name, but the caller introduced herself as Raul’s sister.
She told Izaguirre something he couldn’t believe. The talented student he had known for four years was in trouble. He had been arrested. He would be deported.
She wanted to know if Izaguirre — who had coached him, been part of his fraternity, had hired him for HawkLink — could help him.
Izaguirre had no idea Raul was undocumented.
His first thought: Oh my god. Why didn’t I know?
His second thought: I’m paralyzed. He felt his hands were tied. He had hired Raul that summer as part of the HawkLink program. Even though he had no idea at the time that Raul was undocumented, it is illegal to hire an undocumented worker.
Izaguirre told Claudette that on an institutional level, as a KU employee, there was nothing he could legally do to help Raul.
On a personal level, he’d do anything the family needed.
She never called him back.
Raul was sentenced to four months in prison. The charge? Identity theft. Raul had been using someone else’s Social Security number so he could work.
He was transferred four times to different prisons in Missouri and Kansas. Upon completion of his prison term, he was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the largest investigative agency of the Department of Homeland Security.
ICE officials questioned him repeatedly, trying to get him to sign deportation papers. Raul refused. Finally, it didn’t matter whether he had signed them. His deportation date was set. Raul never appeared before an immigration judge.
In September 2008, Raul was taken by bus to the border, a trip that lasted three to four days because of the many stops and starts. Raul was handcuffed the entire journey, sometimes to the man next to him.
It wasn’t until he was actually there, standing in Ciudad Acuña in the state of Coahuila, Mexico, that he closed the chapter on his American life.
In the Grupo Beta aid center, Raul wearily called his grandmother in Mexico City and prepared to move there.
He ran hot water over his aching red wrists and worried about his parents and siblings back in Kansas City.
They have many reminders of him.
His flashy red car, damaged in a wreck, now sits in the family’s yard.
His mother recalls how Raul would come home after classes, sit at the dining room table and in the moments before his departure for work, tell her about his day and all the things he had learned.
Raul’s absence is a special loss for his younger brother Sergio, 16. He remembers trying to translate complex mail into Spanish for his parents shortly after Raul left.
“It was overwhelming, having to do all that grown up stuff while I am still just trying to settle down,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility.”
In Mexico, Raul dreams about his family.
“A lot of times, I want to go to sleep and not wake up, not because I want to die but because I see them in my dreams, and in my dreams, nothing stands before us, no borders — nothing,” he said.
Raul texts or calls his family daily, but the technology available to him in Mexico City isn’t good, and he doesn’t always have access to the Internet or phone service.
Eloy Gallegos, his friend at the University, thinks about Raul and others like him.
“There are hundreds of Rauls in Lawrence. We just don’t know them,” he said. “It’s about putting yourself in their shoes. Would you be able to work a 12-hour shift and then go to class and somewhere in that process make time to sleep? It’s about opportunities in front of you — becoming better than what your parents are.”
Raul’s new life is worlds away from his old one. He returned to his family in Mexico City and now lives with his grandmother, aunt and uncle in a suburb. Each day, he volunteers at an old cinderblock house converted into CAMISE school, a school for children with special needs. CAMISE, which serves 35 children from low-income families, is in Tultitla’n, one of the most dangerous and poorest parts of the city. On weekdays, Raul works with children with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. To make ends meet, he sells sporting goods at flea markets over the weekend.
“If you have a college education here, they treat you like a god,” he said. “But there are still no jobs.”
Raul says that what matters in Mexico is who you know. Unlike in the United States, where a hard-working person from any background has a chance at success, in Mexico, you have to have contacts.
Raul no longer has money to buy flashy clothes or jewelry. Even if he did, it would be too dangerous to wear them.
Nice tennis shoes are an invitation to be mugged.
The kid formerly known as “Flash” has to dress down in Mexico.
Raul now dreams of helping those around him: He wants his grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins to feel safe when they leave their homes. He wants to help people at the community center where he works. He wants to get the kids wheelchairs and walkers and to raise awareness about impoverished places like the one he lives in now.
He dreams of change, but he knows they are just dreams.
Sometimes, Raul goes online and looks at the KU website — and he remembers.
“It just seems like another planet,” he said.