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.
* * *
THE EMO STUDENT
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.
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.
Children like me.
Children like Ezequiel.
* * *
I called Ezequiel with a plan. I would load up my Camry with a group of college friends, drive to Tijuana, pick up Ezequiel and cross the border by blending into the waves of hung-over college students returning from the Baja California Labor Day weekend bacchanals. I reasoned this crush of Americans would eventually wear on the border keepers, who would probably just wave through a carload of drunken gabachosand one Mexican who looked like he could play bass for the Mars Volta.
Because illegal immigration is so ingrained in my day-to-day life, I always assumed the execution was a cinch. Now that I was old enough, I could participate. Ezequiel had a legitimate student ID and was about as pocho–Americanized—as I. It would be simple.
* * *
It's really not that difficult to illegally cross the United States-Mexico border, provided you know your shit. You don't bother with the treacherous desert or unscrupulous smugglers. Fake documents are a plus but not necessary. All you need is patience and the nerves of a suicide bomber.
The easiest route leads through the 24 inspection gates that separate Tijuana from San Ysidro. It's the most frighteningly mundane experience a criminal can encounter. You stew in traffic for at least an hour, usually two or three. Many passengers leave their cars and amble around the lanes, talking to the carnival of 2,500 or so cripples, preachers, children and vendors who hawk doodads of every price and make—ceramic Mickeys, religious icons, snacks, tabloids with victims of the border's ruthless narco-wars on the cover.
But about 100 feet from the gates, the market stops. Time to face la linea—the line.
Sixty feet from each inspection gate, you enter a kind of narrow corral created by waist-high metal poles spaced two feet apart. I'm not sure of the purpose—you can probably kick the posts down with a little effort—but their effect is chilling: it's as if you're part of a herd trotting down the stockyard chutes toward the killing floor. Cars enter the corral, stop and wait for a green signal to let them advance to la linea.
Driving those last 60 feet is like trying to tell a lie. You can't go too fast or slow or be too deliberate or sudden or breezy lest you catch the immigration officer's attention. The more inconspicuous you are, the better—but be too inconspicuous, and they'll nail you.
I've crossed the United States-Mexico border hundreds of times. But every time, it's those last 60 feet that make me nervous and sweaty. And until Ezequiel, I never attempted anything illegal—never mind major felonies, I've never smuggled so much as a firecracker. And I still got stopped occasionally, and it was always humiliating. It provokes a feeling that exists under the surface of all Mexican-Americans: the idea that, at any moment, my fellow Americans will declare me a Mexican. A wetback. A wab.
So I put on hip-hop, punk—anything but Spanish music. I roll the windows down, wake everyone up, arrange all our identification—passports for my parents, driver's licenses for me and my siblings or friends—in a small stack and hand them to the officer.
The first two questions are always the same: "Where are you going?" and "Bringing anything back?" Answer too fast or slowly, and you'll usually have to open your trunk. Try to be too friendly with a hello, and you'll usually have to open your trunk. Answer too generally—say, "Orange County" or "Los Angeles"—open your trunk. One time I was so nervous I sputtered, "Nevada," then quickly corrected myself and said, "Anaheim." I got to visit the secondary inspection station for that gaffe.
But if you haven't done anything to draw attention, if you haven't stirred the gatekeepers from their boredom, they'll lazily wave you through. When you finally navigate the maze of concrete barriers that snake to the 5 freeway, you breathe a sigh of relief. Another deportation scare averted—until you reach San Clemente.
Like I said, I've crossed the border hundreds of times. It's never been a breeze, but I'm used to the stress. And Ezequiel had a legitimate student ID and was assimilated, I reminded myself.
It would be simple.
* * *
But I began to panic as Smuggling Day approached. Ezequiel no longer had his student ID—ICE officials confiscated it when they caught him. His backup plan—use his community college student ID from a couple of years ago—failed because Harvey couldn't find it in their trailer.
The situation was getting desperate. Ezequiel, Gabriel and Lorenzo tried sneaking across the desert near Tecate shortly after their deportation, only to get caught by American immigration officers. Now they were looking to hire a coyote, Mexican slang for an immigrant smuggler. Asking price: $6,000. Each.
Ezequiel's family agreed that I—a stranger—was his best hope. They wanted to cross together, but everyone figured Ezequiel had the most to lose if he stayed in Mexico. A cousin who looked like Ezequiel drove to Tijuana to let Ezequiel borrow his authentic driver's license. Ezequiel swore they looked the same.
Ezequiel related all this during what would turn out to be the last of our daily phone calls. I was skeptical about the cousin's driver's license. Ezequiel is 23; the cousin is 18. The cousin's hair is shorter than Ezequiel's, and it's not dyed. Ezequiel is a shade or two darker than his cousin.
I told Ezequiel to put his father on the phone. I asked Lorenzo if the ID looked like Ezequiel. Lorenzo was quiet.
"No," the father finally replied. And then he said it again, with the resignation that must come when you tell your kid no—no, you can't go to college, can't have a good job, can't work your way up into the American middle class, can't live in anything better than an aluminum trailer in Anaheim: "No."
He handed the phone to Ezequiel. I told him I was sorry. And then I remained silent.
I had failed Ezequiel. I was his one chance—and now I was telling him I couldn't do anything. I offered cash, but Ezequiel refused it. He was resigned to his fate; I was inconsolable. Tears welled in my eyes—Ezequiel must have sensed it.
"Thanks for everything," he told me. "Don't worry—we'll sneak back in somehow."
We hung up. I never heard from Ezequiel again. I've called his cell phone, Harvey's phone, but there's nothing.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.