Photo Illustration: Phillip Toledano
Anna is standing before a slammed door, chuckling. Her teenage daughter, Lucy, is on the other side, yelling about band practice and how her special t-shirt hasn't been washed. Anna suggests she put on something else.
"But I'll be the only girl there wearing the wrong thing!" she shouts.
"It's not that dirty," Anna says. "Maybe we can figure something out?"
Lucy is disinclined to figure anything out.
"You just don't understand!" she wails from behind the door.
Anna sighs. "Teenagers," she says, and walks into the living room. It's Me or the Dog is playing on the flat-screen. Her mother, Carmen, is watching, feeding her pet pug, Robin, carrots as she does. Fresh mums sit on the coffee table. A blanket is folded neatly over the back of the sofa. Anna pauses, watches the dog watching the television, sighs again, louder this time.
She has been up since daybreak. Working in eldercare, then off to a YWCA fund-raising meeting, then to her son Ernie's school for pickup, then home to make his snack, get him started on homework, and prepare a chili tamarind paste for a potluck tonight, after which she will retrieve Lucy from band practice, if Lucy will even go, given she will not be wearing the right shirt. Anna's phone rings. A friend needs her to run by the grocery, pick up some supplies for the dinner.
"Sure, no problem," she says, smiling. She hangs up, scribbles "apples, forks" on her to-do list.
"My girlfriends and I are always on the move," Anna says, pulling her hair into a loose bun. "We are like a blur, racing everywhere, doing everything, trying to survive. Just like all women."
Which is true. And not.
Anna is your typical overextended working mother—volunteering and taking care of her family, including her mom, who suffers from arthritis. She likes Maroon 5 and caramel lattes from Starbucks and wishes she were a little thinner. She wears snappy conservative pantsuits and freshens her lipstick after she eats. She dances with her husband at birthday parties, and lives in a quiet Tucson neighborhood, not far from her favorite Chinese restaurant.
She is also what some call "an illegal." A person whom official policy suggests the country would be better off without.
"Right now, I am the enemy," Anna says with some chagrin. "And not just to my teenage daughter."
America is home to an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants. Anna, 39, her husband, Manuel, 40, Lucy, 16, and Ernie, 12, are four of them.
Eleven years ago, Manuel lost his job repairing and building computers in Mexico. For two years, he stayed put in the border state of Sonora, looking for work. Anna searched too, but neither succeeded. Before Manuel's unemployment, the family enjoyed a relaxed, pleasurable lifestyle. Anna attended college and met friends for coffee. She and her husband had couples game nights every week. For a time Anna even ran a little gift boutique. The family vacationed in the United States, coming over during Christmas to visit her mother—a citizen by marriage—and shop.
Though Anna and her family had saved wisely, 24 months with no income proved devastating. Desperate, Manuel came to America on a tourist visa. He stayed past its expiration after he found work as a janitor and day laborer. For two years he and Anna lived apart.
"I tried to find any job I could in Mexico so he could return," Anna explains. "I applied to waitress, hostess, but I was 'overqualified.' At Carl's Jr., I was told I was too old. I cleaned, I babysat. I even wrote letters to the Mexican government. I was that person. I wanted to do everything the right way."
Anna took her children to America to visit her husband whenever she could. But it was not enough. "My family was divided. My kids were suffering."
It was during one of these routine family visits in 2003 that something unusual happened. Anna was traveling with her aunt, cousins, and other relatives, ten people total. She was handing her paperwork to Border Patrol when a wave of commotion began to ripple through the crowd. According to the Border Patrol guards, one cousin had an outstanding medical bill in the States. The whole family was detained. After hours of questioning, everyone present had their tourist visas revoked.
"I couldn't believe it," remembers Anna. "I wasn't responsible for my cousin's bill. I didn't even know about it."
When she appealed to the officials, asking them to reconsider, the head guard pointed at her cousin and said, "Hate her, not us." And just like that, Anna and her children were no longer able to visit the United States legally.
Blindsided, Anna wrote a letter to the U.S. consulate saying the action was unjust. A letter came back confirming that fact, and telling her to go ahead and apply for the visa. So she filled out the onerous paperwork, deciphering the convoluted governmental lingo, and waited. Months later she reported to her interview, handed over the $350 in fees—only to be told she wouldn't be granted a visa. "Try again in five years," the consular officer said, dismissing her.
It was then, Anna remembers, that something inside her broke.
"I was calculating how old my children would be in five years. How they would be being raised without a father. I thought about how I had done nothing wrong, committed no crime, and yet my kids were being sentenced. I was living with my grandma. We had no money. I called Manuel and he said, 'Well, now what?'"
Twelve weeks after her visa denial, Anna folded Ernie into a too-small stroller, took Lucy's hand, and walked across the border at a legal checkpoint.
"I was with two Anglo couples and their kids. There was one officer on duty. I had no papers. I just prayed and tried to act normal, like a tourist."
The officer smiled, said "Good morning," and waved Anna and her entourage through.
"I cried the minute I crossed."
Anna begins to sob.
"I still feel like I did something wrong. It isn't the way I am. I didn't want that for my kids."
She wipes her tears with her fingertips, exhales slowly through her mouth.
"People say there are always other options," she says, her voice cracking. "But I couldn't find any."