Border Story

I couldve smuggled in an illegal immigrant but didnt: A tale of regret

Editor's note: The names in this story have been changed, but everything else is, unfortunately, true.

I've seen too many lives ruined by illegal immigration—the lives of illegal immigrants who work crappy jobs, suffer without insurance, sleep in apartments that would shock Jacob Riis, survive in a shadow society with little hope of escaping and drop out of college just to hear their employers and neighbors rail against Mexicans.

And I've seen the crosses and monuments along the jagged metal fence that separates Mexico from the United States, crosses and monuments dedicated to the hundreds of migrants who die each year trying to reach el otro lado.

So when I learned about Ezequiel Ureño, I vowed not to let him become another victim.

I heard his story in August, a week after immigration officials raided his family's home under cover of dawn; took Ezequiel, his father and his older brother away in handcuffs; and dumped them in Tijuana.

I never met Ezequiel—he's the friend of a friend of a friend of a son of a friend. I spent the week after his deportation tracking down every tip until I found someone with his cell phone number. Our few conversations were rushed—he didn't have a battery charger for the cell phone, and the land line to his uncle's house in Tijuana sounded like an echo chamber.

Ezequiel was a stranger, but he really wasn't. Ezequiel was me. I would get him back into this country, I told him, even if it meant sneaking him in myself.

* * *

Ezequiel Ureño was going to have it all. It didn't matter that he was an illegal immigrant. So he couldn't apply for federal financial aid to attend college: that wouldn't stop the 23-year-old from pursuing a bachelor's degree this fall. Ezequiel would just have to save and scrimp and borrow and work full time, just as he did through five years of community college.

Ezequiel was 11 when his brother Gabriel; their father, Lorenzo; and their mother, Griselda, left their native Mexico in 1993 for the United States; Ezequiel's oldest brother was already here. The family hadn't returned since. They didn't want to risk the trip. The United States-Mexico border has devolved into a deathtrap during the past decade: while 23 immigrants died trying to cross in 1994, at least 460 have perished in the past year. Life for the Ureños had become los Estados Unidos.Mexico was the past.

While Ezequiel's parents struggled with English and menial jobs, the young man quickly became an American. He graduated from high school with good grades. Worked in an office. His English is almost impeccable, tainted only by a slight accent that sounds Italian. He's an emo kid, wears Chuck Taylor sneakers and an ironic T-shirt, loves Death Cab for Cutie and MySpace. Likes Indie 103.1. Bleaches blond streaks in his hair. Owns a car and, until recently, shared a room with his best friend, a gabacho named Harvey whom the Ureños had embraced as a son.

Ezequiel and his family rented a trailer-park home in North Orange County—Harvey and Ezequiel in one bedroom, Lorenzo and Griselda in the other. Gabriel slept on the couch.

* * *

It was about five, just before dawn, on a blistering August morning when agents with the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) finally came for the Ureños.

"Police! Open the door!" an ICE officer yelled as he banged with a flashlight. Gabriel and Lorenzo let the officer in. Griselda was working the graveyard shift. Ezequiel and Harvey, still in their boxers, peeked out from their room.

"Can we ask you some questions?" the ICE officer asked. Four of his partners entered the living room. Another officer explained in Spanish that they were looking for Ezequiel's older brother, Rodolfo. Seemed the feds wanted Rodolfo for robbing stores across California.

Another officer unfolded a flier featuring a picture of a Mexican. They asked the Ureños if this was Rodolfo.

Lorenzo pointed to the picture of Rodolfo on the trailer wall. Rodolfo didn't look at all like the man the ICE claimed was Rodolfo. Lorenzo explained that someone had stolen Rodolfo's car and identity about six months earlier and was committing crimes using his name. Rodolfo had reported the identity theft to police in the Inland Empire, where he lived. If the officers wanted to call him, Lorenzo said, they could do it right now.

The ICE officer who had banged on the door apologized for the mistake. He turned to leave.

His colleague piped up: "Can you men show us some identification?"

Lorenzo and Gabriel owned fake driver's licenses. Ezequiel had just picked up a freshly minted student ID from the local university he would soon enter. All the Ureño men received fake Social Security numbers as part of the $2,000 fee that had bought them a truck ride through the desert into the United States 12 years earlier. But the lies would stop this morning.

The three Ureño men showed the ICE officers their matrícula consular, an ID issued by the Mexican government that allows its citizens in the United States to open bank accounts but doesn't qualify as a visa. The officers weren't satisfied. They wanted something that showed the men were in this country legally. Ezequiel flashed his student ID. Still not enough.

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