Vaya Con Mom

After their mother was deported to Mexico, the Brito children embarked on a two-year journey trying to navigate life in the United States on their own

Things stabilized a bit, and Isela and Eduardo moved to Santa Ana, too, and started attending school. But they didn't get along with their uncle's wife and had to move out. They rented a room from an aunt's brother who also lived in Santa Ana. That, too, ended up being a bad situation. "Those people were just horrible with us," Araceli says. "They were mean and rude. We were not comfortable at all."

Thankfully, the tide started to turn in their favor. Roselinn Lee, Araceli's AP U.S. history teacher at Valley and the wife of Santa Ana-area state Assemblyman Jose Solorio, remembers the day she pulled Araceli out of class to talk. "I go, 'What's going on? You're not coming to school,'" Lee says. "She said, 'Well, I didn't have money to come to school. Bus money.' I said, 'Bus money is, like, $1.25. Where do you live? What's going on?' She explained to me her situation, so I ask, 'Do you even have money to eat today?' and she says no. I just said, 'Oh, my God, this is just beyond . . . and I pulled out a 20 and gave it to her, and she starts crying."

Lee made it her mission to get the kids out of the "hellhole" they were living in. She emailed her husband to ask if he had any connections; Solorio forwarded the email to the Orange County Housing Authority, which said housing might be a possibility. In the meantime, Lee sent emails to fellow teachers, who collected money for the Britos. She also worked out deals with her husband to pay the kids to help at his events.

Eduardo Brito meets up in Rosarito with his mom, Ana Maria Sanchez Mateo
Marisa Gerber
Eduardo Brito meets up in Rosarito with his mom, Ana Maria Sanchez Mateo
Isela Brito and her mom, Ana Maria Sanchez Mateo
Marisa Gerber
Isela Brito and her mom, Ana Maria Sanchez Mateo

Everyone at Valley High School was really supportive, the Britos say, but it was Lee and Vice Principal Anuar Shalash (who has since left the school) who went above and beyond. When the kids were approved for low-incoming housing a few months later, they moved to an apartment in Anaheim, where they now live; Shalash got donations to help them furnish it.

Lee dropped the kids off after an event and got to see the apartment. "It was really nice to see that they had separate bedrooms and a kitchen," she says. "They were so dedicated to one another as a family, and they were so committed to doing well here. They're just the sweetest kids ever. They just needed a little help."

They finished that year at Valley High School but ended up transferring to Anaheim High School the next year because it was closer.

* * *

At a scholarship-awards night earlier this year, the Britos met a couple of people who also wanted to help them. One was Amin David, the round-faced, perpetually peppy septuagenarian who led the Latino civil-rights group Los Amigos for 30 years before stepping down this year. David says he attended the scholarship program on a whim, adding that he's glad he did.

"They're angels; they're babies—and babies need their mom," says David, who owns the Anaheim plumbing warehouse where the group met before their road trip to Rosarito, which he helped plan.

Another person was Mario Zapata, an associate attorney at Costa Mesa-based Nicastro Piscopo, an immigration-law firm. Zapata is now representing the family pro bono to help Ana Maria return. While he admits it's "an uphill climb,"  Zapata is working to get the Britos' mother a U Visa, which would grant her a four-year stay in the U.S. The government can give out as many as 10,000 U Visas per year to victims of certain crimes, including domestic violence, Zapata says. Normally, this would be a slam-dunk case, he says, but there are a couple of complicating factors at play.

In 2000, while living in San Diego, Ana Maria called the police after getting into a fight with her husband. Since she was married to—and victimized by—a U.S. resident, Ana Maria self-petitioned for a U Visa under VAWA and was approved, Zapata says, which meant she also got work authorization. For several years, she worked in hotels and at various fast-food restaurants. Sometime in 2007, Ana Maria filed a green-card application. It wasn't until December 2008, however, that immigration officials got in touch with her and asked her to come in. Ana Maria assumed it was for an interview, but really, the officials wanted to arrest and deport her.

She was deported for making a false claim of U.S. Citizenship in 1998, Zapata explains, which is taken very seriously in immigration-law circles. "You're committing fraud against the government, and as far as immigration law, you're permanently barred." In order to get the U Visa, the arresting agency or a judge who handled the case can sign off on a certification saying the person was, in fact, the victim of a crime and that they assisted with any investigation. In cases when he's able to get that signature, Zapata says, the U Visa is almost guaranteed.

Whether he can get the signature, though, isn't certain. "It's unfortunate because I might have the same type of victims," he says, "but in different cities, and I can do something for one of them that I might not be able to do for another."

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