Border Story

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

Lorenzo put his matrícula consularaway. "We're illegal immigrants," Lorenzo admitted.

The authorities told the three men to get dressed. Ezequiel reached for his glasses. "Don't make any stupid moves!" an ICE agent screamed. Harvey watched helplessly.

"I wanted to say something so bad," Harvey said of that moment. "But I was afraid if I did, I would have made the situation worse."

The Ureño men felt the squeeze of handcuffs on their wrists, and the immigration agents led the family into a windowless van. A couple was already there, crying. By the end of the day, a bus would drop Ezequiel, Gabriel and Lorenzo on the other side of the United States-Mexico border.

* * *

"I feel like my life is being truncated," Ezequiel told me when I first talked to him. His voice was distant, and not just because of the lousy phone connection. He was depressed. "My life is pretty much up there [in the United States]. I have my family and friends and school. I was only 11 when I went there. I didn't have a choice to go up there. I don't quite remember a lot from here [in Mexico]. It's been traumatic and depressing."

According to Ezequiel, the immigration van visited at least two other houses the morning of his family's deportation. The Ureños and about five others arrived at an ICE bureau close to his home. Ezequiel remembers an ICE staffer yelling to the howls of the commanding officers, "So, did you pick them up at Home Depot or their houses?"

Ezequiel, his family and other detainees sat in a cold cell with an open toilet for a couple of hours before they were put on a bus, chained four to a row, and shuttled to the ICE's Office of Detention and Removal facilities in Los Angeles.

"The things that I saw at the places," Ezequiel told me later. "It's really depressing. You see women and children and men and all kinds of people—they're bleeding and dirty and wet and crying. It's so depressing. They risked their lives so much—for what? To go to work in freaking hotels and yards? They just risked so much that it might not even be worth it at the end."

In LA, they waited for a couple of hours, boarded the bus at 4 p.m., familiar Orange County outside the windows, and then San Onofre, Carlsbad . . . and the border. The bus barely entered Mexico and stopped to the sound of wheezing doors and then the order to get out. Every deportee received a small bag with his or her possessions—except IDs.

The Ureño men found the home of a distant relative of Griselda's. Ezequiel had met the man, some kind of uncle, maybe once. Desperate to find Griselda, they called their home in Orange County—no answer. They called Harvey, who told Ezequiel that he and Griselda were staying at another relative's house. They were too terrified to return home.

Relating that story—of exile and loss and separation from his mother—Ezequiel's voice cracked. He had to drop all his classes the day after his deportation, he told me. "I don't have any education down here," he said. "I'm just lost. I don't know what to do. I have no idea. It's hard. It's totally different."

For most of my life, looking at film or photos of war, genocide, starvation, I've wondered what it would be like to be the man who took those photos or shot that film—instead of offering help. Now I knew.

* * *

My father sneaked into the United States for the first time in 1969. He and three strangers squeezed into the trunk of a Chevy driven by two San Clemente hippie chicks, whom the Mexicans paid $50 to drive them across the border. He doesn't remember much of that trip—darkness and heat, and the smell of other men, I'd guess—but he remembers the radio playing the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face."

My father repeatedly entered the U.S. illegally for a decade—used fake papers, cut through barbed-wire fences, flew in private planes and, one time, crawled three miles through a Tijuana-to-San-Diego pipeline, ignoring rats and toxic sewage in search of prosperity.

Papi became a legal resident in 1979 when he married my mother, who was already a legal resident; they became citizens a couple of years later. But my life has always been intertwined with illegal immigration. In elementary school, we Mexican kids would play a game called "La Migra," a Mexican-American version of hide-and-go-seek in which one kid yelled, "¡La migra! ("Immigration!"), and everyone ran for a bench or room to hide from him. The array of women who raised me and my siblings while my mom worked full time at the old Hunts-Wesson tomato packing plant in Fullerton were an illegal immigrants from my father's hometown of Jomulquillo, Zacatecas. My best friends in high school were two brilliant Pakistani brothers who moved to New Jersey after graduating from Anaheim High to work at a convenience store because they were illegal immigrants. My political awakening came in 1999, after the Anaheim Union High School District board of trustees threatened to sue Mexico for the cost of educating the children of illegal immigrants.

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