Photo by Carolyn de Berry
Guadalupe Vazquez came first, leaving his family in Mexico and heading for California, looking to earn some money to send home. From what his daughter, Carolina, has been told by an aunt who accompanied him on the journey, the siblings went through some tough times, and eating sometimes meant foraging for food in trash bins.
Eventually, Vazquez made contact with a family friend who helped him settle in High Point.
Meanwhile, his family stayed behind in Mexico City, where they lived in a three-bedroom house. Each of the two bedrooms included a bed and a chair, and the kitchen was so small that it could fit only a stove and a table. Six of them — Carolina, her five brothers and her mother — shared one of the bedrooms. The other bedrooms were occupied by two separate families, including one headed by Guadalupe’s sister.
“Obviously, that was no way of living,” Carolina said in an interview in the atrium at the High Point Library. The fifth of six kids, Carolina, who is now 28, occasionally cast glances into the children’s room at the library to check up on her own children — 8-year-old Dayami and 6-year-old Anthony. “That’s how we got the idea to come here and join my father.”
Guadalupe returned to Mexico to bring his wife and their six children back to High Point in 1992. They had to walk for a short distance, and Edgar, the fourth oldest of the children, remembers hiding from helicopters at the border. He added that the journey was nothing like the difficulty experienced by today’s migrants, who might walk for days or weeks in the desert at risk of dehydration because of the militarization of the border and have to worry about criminal predators. Edgar was 6 at the time of the journey and Carolina was 4.
[pullquote]’He got deported for driving without a license. I read all these stories about how they say they only deport criminals, but I have firsthand experience that says that isn’t the case.’ — Edgar Vazquez[/pullquote]Carolina summed up the reasons for her migration to North Carolina with her mother and five brothers in four words: “For the American dream.”
Among the cruel ironies of the Vazquez family’s story is that they followed their father to North Carolina seeking a better life, but Guadalupe was deported nine years ago. He returned to Puebla, his home state, and now makes a living operating a salvage yard.
“He got deported for driving without a license,” Edgar said. “I read all these stories about how they say they only deport criminals, but I have firsthand experience that says that isn’t the case.”
Carolina’s mother remains undocumented. Carolina obtained a U-visa — a document granted to survivors of domestic violence to prevent abusers from wielding their immigration status as a weapon of control. Edgar applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, in 2013. The following year he received approval for the program, allowing him to obtain a Social Security card and a work permit. One brother obtained a visa through marriage to an American citizen, Carolina said. Three other brothers do not hold papers.
One of the realities of life for immigrant families that is not widely understood is that legal status often varies within families from one member to the next. “Legal” or “illegal” is something of an artificial binary imposed on families thanks to the fraught debate over immigration that erupted in the summer of 2006 and escalated through the emergence of the tea party and the rise of Donald Trump. And for individual family members, immigration status can also be a matter of evolution through a halting set of bureaucratic steps towards citizenship. In Carolina’s case, her U-visa makes her eligible to apply for a green card, conferring lawful permanent-resident status. Just to get a U-visa, Carolina said she had to undergo therapy and drug testing. Now, she’s working with an immigration lawyer in Greensboro to assemble character references for her green-card application.
Earlier this year, Edgar, who is now 30, visited Mexico to pay last respects to his maternal grandfather, using travel documents known as “advanced parole” that are associated with DACA, but customs officials prevented him from re-entering the United States. To aggravate matters, Edgar received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security notifying them that his DACA status was being canceled because he requested permission to re-enter the country after his travel documents had expired.
The efforts to reunify Edgar with his family in North Carolina and advance his sister’s efforts to obtain lawful permanent residency — agonizingly slow under the best of circumstances — are suddenly charged with an acute sense of urgency considering Trump’s impending inauguration on Jan. 20.
After Trump won the election, Carolina said she dropped off some documents required for her residency application and wrote on the back of the packet: “Does my application even have a chance of coming back or is it a waste of time?”
Carolina said Dayami, her daughter, started crying when she told her that Trump had won.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to go back to Mexico,’” Carolina recounted. “The funny thing is she was born here. My kids are both citizens, of course.”
Edgar said he stayed up until 3 a.m. on election night listening to the returns on the radio, and found the result “terrifying.”
(Read more by clicking page 2 below)
Guadalupe’s deportation in 2007 exacted a psychic toll on the family. Between Guadalupe’s efforts to run a business in Puebla and Carolina’s responsibilities as a single mother, Carolina said it’s difficult to maintain much of a relationship with her father.
Now, with Edgar’s exile in Mexico, the cycle of separation seems at risk of repeating itself.
“I’m a single mom, and he helped me raise my kids,” Carolina said. “My kids see him as their dad.”
Edgar, who is two years older than his sister, worked for a company in High Point that sets up furniture showrooms before he left to visit his family in Mexico in May. Carolina said he’s the kind of person who knows how to do a little bit of everything, from gardening to construction and electrical work, and he likes to keep busy.
“He’s quiet; he keeps to himself,” she said. “He keeps occupied all the time. He’s always taking care of people.”
Edgar is especially close with his mother.
“I know parents are not supposed to have favorites; my mom’s favorite kid is my brother,” Carolina said. “My mother lived to please him, to cook for him. They ate three meals a day together. He was so proud of his roses. Every morning he would get up and cut a rose for my mother. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I would get one, too. They did everything together. They would watch movies together, too.”
Over the years, the Vazquez family has become friendly with Eustace Conway, an author and naturalist in Boone who is a subject in the History Channel reality TV show “Mountain Men.” Conway said he got to know Guadalupe first.
“I met him years ago at the flea market and realized he’s a nice person,” Conway said. “I enjoyed talking with him, and enjoyed learning some Spanish and some culture from him. I took him deer hunting and enjoyed sharing that with him. I enjoyed having the family come and visit my farm. And when my house burned down, he sent his children and extended family to help out in rebuilding my house. It was a very kind and deeply meaningful gesture.”
Conway said Edgar sold him some produce right before he left for Mexico.
Edgar had been renovating Carolina’s house. She said he left interior walls stripped down to the studs and electrical wiring disconnected, promising to finish the job when he returned.
When he learned that his maternal grandfather in Oaxaca, a southern state on the Pacific coast of Mexico, was dying, Edgar applied through the US Department of Homeland Security for travel documents in February. By the time his travel papers were approved, on May 15, his grandfather had already died, but Edgar decided to make the journey so he could visit his grandfather’s grave and see family members. He drove to the US-Mexico border in Texas. He wanted to be on the safe side to make sure the documents would allow him to travel freely between the two countries. The officer told him he had to return to the United States by July 15, Edgar said in a phone interview last week from San Martin Alchichica, Puebla, a state due south of Mexico City where he lives with his father.
[pullquote]’I know parents are not supposed to have favorites; my mom’s favorite kid is my brother. My mother lived to please him, to cook for him. They ate three meals a day together. He was so proud of his roses. Every morning he would get up and cut a rose for my mother.’ — Carolina Vazquez[/pullquote]Edgar’s reunion with his mother’s family in Oaxaca after 24 years was a joyous occasion, but it was also a difficult time. Two great-uncles died and a distant relative was murdered during the visit.
The day before his travel documents were to expire, Edgar left Oaxaca in a car borrowed from his father, but encountered a delay because of a teacher’s strike that shut down major roadways in the state. Eventually, he arrived in San Martin Alchichica, the town where his father lives in Puebla. His father drove him to the outskirts of Mexico City, close to where an aunt lives, and from there, Edgar took a taxi to the airport. At the airport, he presented his visa to an airline employee. Out of concern that they would be saddled with the expense of transporting him back, the airline refused to allow Edgar to board the flight because the flight wouldn’t arrive in the United States until the following day. Panicking, Edgar and his aunt took a taxi to the US Consulate in Mexico City.
“I was turned away,” Edgar recalled. “There was a security guard there — it was a Friday — they told me they’re closed for the weekend. I came back on Monday, and the same security guard told me: ‘You have to have an appointment.’ He could have told me that the first time. He said he didn’t remember me. He gave me a phone number, and they told me there was nothing they could do for me to help me at all.”
Cognizant of the dangers of traveling in the country, Guadalupe insisted on accompanying Edgar in his journey to the border.
“Just give me a couple days to get some money together and take care of some things,” Guadalupe told his son. Walking from the bus station to the bridge across the Rio Grande at the border, Edgar said they were stopped by members of a drug cartel, who wanted to know what they were doing in their territory.
By the time Edgar was able to speak to a customs agent at the border, it was July 20 — five days past the deadline.
“They fingerprinted me and they held me there for six hours questioning me and trying to get me to stumble in my answers,” Edgar recalled. “Finally, they pulled me aside and said, ‘We can’t let you back in.’”
(Read more by clicking page 3 below)
Ann Marie Dooley, the immigration lawyer who helped Carolina with her visa and later took on Edgar’s case, said she always advises client not to cut it close.
“When it says ‘by the day,’ it really means ‘by that day’ and that’s it,” she said. “I’m sure Edgar did not realize it was so hard and fast.”
Conway said he finds it regrettable that customs officials took such an inflexible position.
“He had no idea he would be stuck in Mexico,” Conway said. “It’s bizarre, it’s almost surreal: He’s a few hours late and all of a sudden his whole life has changed. He can’t get back to where his family is and his job and his life is. It’s very unfortunate and very wrong. I wish it hadn’t happened.”
The decision left Edgar with no other choice but to go back to Puebla. For a while he stayed with his paternal grandparents, who live up the hill from his father. At his grandparents’ place he slept on a sofa in a living area, with a rod and curtain making a partition for his grandparents’ sleeping area. Guadalupe’s place is even more primitive, lacking electricity, running water and sewage. It’s difficult to find work, Edgar said, and the pay for a full day’s work is the equivalent of only $10.
“My dad has an employee that works with him in his salvage yard, and he’s not a person to do wrong by people,” Edgar said, “so he’s not going to fire someone just to hire me if they’re good people. Also, my pride would not allow me to just take money from him.”
Edgar said he occasionally helps his father, although he doesn’t take money for the work, and does chores around the house for his grandparents.
“I just try to help them out and do whatever I can, trying to keep busy so my mind ain’t on my problems,” he said.
Carolina said her grandfather told her mother that she needs to do something about Edgar’s situation because he’s getting depressed and hardly ever talks.
“My brother is so Americanized he wouldn’t survive down there,” she said. “He’s been here since he was 5. In the house there is no plumbing, no electricity. The bathroom is brick room outside with a bucket. It’s not a bathroom. There’s no heating. There’s no air conditioning. The house has no floor; it’s just dirt. That’s stuff he’s not used to.”
[pullquote]“My dad has an employee that works with him in his salvage yard, and he’s not a person to do wrong by people, so he’s not going to fire someone just to hire me if they’re good people. Also, my pride would not allow me to just take money from him.” — Edgar Vazquez[/pullquote]For Carolina and her brothers, North Carolina is the only home they know. Edgar’s trip back to Mexico was his first since he came to North Carolina as a child.
At the end of my interview with Carolina, perhaps motivated by a desire to cement my bona fides, I mentioned to that I had traveled to Oaxaca with a Witness For Peace delegation in 2009. She smiled politely, and her lack of reaction prompted me to say more. I went on to say that I had also visited Mexico City, and was awed by the city’s staggering population, along with the complexity and diversity of the country as a whole.
“I don’t really know much about it,” Carolina finally responded. “I’ve never been back.”
The news that Edgar could not return to High Point hit their mother, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, especially hard.
“When he called and let her know he couldn’t come back, her health started [declining],” Carolina said.
Their mother doesn’t have health insurance, and Edgar typically paid out of pocket for her doctor’s visits. Carolina said she doesn’t have much extra money, and consequently her mother has had to cut back on visits to the doctor.
Carolina texts with her brother, but reserves data on her phone so he can talk with her children every other day to ask how their day is going.
Edgar said being away from the children is the hardest part of his ordeal. It’s small things like going to their school awards ceremonies, taking them to the movies on Saturdays or treating them to ice cream when they do well in school that he misses the most.
As if being exiled in Mexico — a country where Edgar feels like a foreigner — weren’t depressing enough, his status in the United States has deteriorated in his absence. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, Edgar received a letter from Homeland Security accusing him of trying to re-enter the country illegally, apparently because of the time he presented himself at customs on July 20.
“I got a letter to my house in High Point saying I tried to enter the country illegally,” he said. “They canceled my DACA permit. It’s messed up.”
Ann Marie Dooley, the Greensboro immigration lawyer who helped Carolina obtain her U-visa and is helping her with her residency application, has filed something called an application for humanitarian parole on Edgar’s request.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Dooley said. “They certainly can do it, and I don’t know why they wouldn’t. There’s an urgent need for this young man to come back and be with his family and resume his life.”
Rob Brisley, a spokesperson for US Customs & Border Protection, said that while he is not allowed to comment on any specific case, humanitarian parole is only “sparingly used” for specialized needs such as “life-saving medical care in the US” — an exigency that wouldn’t apply in Edgar’s case.
Brisley said Customs & Border Protection has the discretion to grant “port parole or waiver of documents.” Edgar’s lack of DACA status — caused ironically by Edgar presenting himself to customs agents at the border when he tried to return to the United States — undermines his chances of relief. “Discretion cannot be exercised favorably for aliens who may contribute to the illegal population of the United States,” Brisley said.
Customs and Border Patrol also considers previous criminal history and previous violations of immigration laws in determining appeals for relief. In that regard, Edgar said his only offense are two parking tickets in the past 10 years, with the possible exception of his parents bringing him to North Carolina as a child.
Edgar said he wouldn’t consider illegally crossing the border to reunite with his family in High Point.
“Doing it the illegal way is really dangerous and expensive,” he said. “That’s not something I want to do. My job requires that I have a valid driver’s license. I talked to my boss, and he assures me that I still have a job waiting for me.”
Trump’s election creates uncertainty in Edgar’s case, Dooley said. While using inflammatory rhetoric to describe Mexican immigrants during the campaign and pledging to carry out mass deportations, Trump has made contradictory statements about how he actually intends to implement a national immigration policy.
“Many people were surprised by the outcome of the election,” Dooley said. “We have requested that they expedite the request. There’s some uncertainty about whether the DACA program ends with the next administration. I don’t think our chances are good. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty and as we get past Jan. 20 I’m not as hopeful, given the rhetoric I’ve heard.”
Brisley did not respond directly to a question about whether Customs & Border Protection is attempting to expedite immigration cases to get them resolved before Trump’s inauguration, saying in an email only that the agency “enforces the laws that currently exist and we are in no position to speculate on what/if any changes would occur under a new administration.”
Edgar acknowledged he feels depressed in Mexico, while saying that he and his lawyer are hoping for a good result.
“We’ve been Americanized,” he said. “We do Thanksgivings and Christmas. For the first time in 24 years, I missed Thanksgiving. It looks like I’m going to miss Christmas and New Year’s Eve, too.”
While Edgar loves his father and his grandparents in Puebla, he described them as “an estranged family.”
“The family I know and love is in America,” he said. “Everything I know and love is in America. My true family is in America.”
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