Imagine being taken from your family, denied a phone call, and dropped off in the desert, miles from home all for the crime of wanting a better life. Welcome to the new normal for America's undocumented immigrants. One woman's story.
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."
"Let them come here the legal way."
That is the chief criticism leveled at undocumented immigrants. On the surface it makes sense—fill out your forms, submit your papers, and let the legal process take its course. And yet it is so hopelessly tangled, and the wait list so long, it can grind on for a lifetime—or longer. By one estimate, it could take some Mexicans 131 years to get to the front of the line.
But conditions in their home country have grown so dire, the incentive to flee can be intense. Nearly half the Mexican population lives below the poverty line. Jobs are scarce, one of the country's growth industries being the drug trade: Small businesses in northern and central Mexico have closed as a result of cartel-bred violence, while the surviving ones are forced to pay "protection" fees to drug gangs. Last year alone, some 12,000 people were killed in drug-related violence. With newspapers carefully tracking the mayhem, including kidnappings and beheadings, it's no surprise that Mexico's tourist industry has taken a hit as well.
On this side of the border, the struggling economy and loss of jobs have made many Americans less than hospitable to foreigners in search of work. Tensions have been mercilessly stoked by a cast of fearmongering pundits and politicians—from one-time mild-mannered CNN host turned immigration rabble-rouser Lou Dobbs to Arizona senator John McCain, who'd counseled humane treatment of illegal immigrants and derided building a border fence—until attempting to shore up his conservative base while running for president in 2008. In this year's primary season, Herman Cain proposed erecting electrified fences, to applause from his supporters. Then there is Joe Arpaio, the swaggering five-term sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, known for aggressive racial profiling, currently under investigation for abuse-of-power allegations. As for Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, she has been unstinting in her criticism of undocumented immigrants, routinely referring to them as "criminals," linking them to (imaginary) Stateside beheadings (a claim she was later forced to recant), and staunchly backing the bill known as SB 1070.
Passed in April 2010, SB 1070 (drafted with the help of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, designated a "hate group" by the civil rights nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center) makes it a crime in the state of Arizona for immigrants not to carry identification papers at all times. Officers are supposed to ask for papers only during a so-called lawful detention, arrest, or stop, which can include the most minor of traffic infractions; as such, a broken taillight or driving a few miles under the speed limit could potentially thrust an immigrant into deportation proceedings.
In July 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Arizona, calling SB 1070 unconstitutional, and a federal district court judge granted a preliminary injunction. The Supreme Court is examining the state's right to establish its own immigration policy this spring; a verdict is expected by summer. No matter the outcome, the climate that begat SB 1070 has already wreaked havoc. While border apprehensions have actually declined in recent years due to fewer migrants crossing, annual deportations of immigrants already living in the U.S. nearly doubled between 2000 and 2011. And it's not just bad guys being driven out but, in large measure, law-abiding contributors to the economy, like the men who leaf-blow your yard, tile your bathroom, cook your restaurant food. The women who vacuum your floors, take your lunch orders, burp your babies. The kids who play soccer, dream of college, and don't even speak Spanish, having lived here since infancy.
Church leaders in Arizona told members of Congress that SB 1070 has led to a 30 percent drop in attendance in some congregations. Local businesses have also reported declines in customer traffic, and schools have seen hundreds of children withdrawn from class. In 2010 the think tank Center for American Progress estimated that Arizona lost at least $141 million in tourism alone due to SB 1070. Fear may be an effective means of control, but it is bad for business.
Still, support for the measure remains widespread, thanks largely to inaccurate perceptions of the undocumented—that they drain social services, don't pay taxes, take away jobs, bring crime to our towns. Generally speaking, none of this is true: Most undocumented workers pay property, sales, and payroll taxes like Social Security, even though few will be able to claim their benefits upon retirement. To the notion that they steal jobs, a 2006 Pew Hispanic Center national study found no consistent relationship between the employment rate of native-born Americans and the number of immigrants living among them. As for the supposed immigrant crime wave, a University of Colorado study finds that the foreign born might be responsible for a 9.3 percent decline in homicides and a 22.2 percent decrease in robbery rates; in fact, the cities with the largest influx of immigrants saw the steepest drop in crime.
"I didn't used to think I was a criminal," Anna says, vexed. "I was an immigrant like any other." But perception has a way of being taken for fact. Anna has been called dirty. She has been told she is a "rat." A "dog." She has been snarled at by white checkout girls at the grocery, hissing at her to "speak English!" (She does.) At the park with her son, she has seen old men lift their jackets to reveal pistols tucked inside. She has been screamed at while walking down the street, told to get out of the U.S. She has been spit on in front of her children.
Still, she loves this country.
There is a saying in Mexico about America. "Everything is better there." Children are raised hearing this phrase, uttered with ultimate conviction, the way true believers talk about heaven.
For immigrants, heaven is minimum wage. Heaven is clean water. Heaven is an end to the constant threat of violence. For people like Anna, the heaven bar is pretty darn low, which is why so many immigrants embrace the thankless jobs most native-born Americans refuse to consider. If you can find paradise working in a meatpacking plant or emptying bedpans, imagine what your hell must have looked like.
Now imagine raising your children there.
What would you do to escape?
What wouldn't you do?
When Anna arrived, her mother petitioned for a visa for her daughter. The documents are in process, but the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the State Department are currently reviewing requests like hers dating back to 1993. So Anna waits. And while she does, she remains at risk. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time could lead to her deportation. She learned this firsthand in March 2010.
"What I remember most is the smell."
Anna is eating a dinner of salad and lasagna as she recalls her stint in a Border Patrol detention center. She talks of acrid rot, the scent of bodies crammed like cattle, bodies empty of food, wet with fear. She describes the faces of the detainees. Dead eyes, swollen shut from crying. There was no room to sit, to lie down. They could only stand.
Anna was picked up with her husband for driving "under the speed limit."
"It is always something like that," she explains. "A cracked windshield. Changing lanes. Not using a signal."
At the detention center they were separated, searched. Anna was stripped of her belongings and handed a form to sign in English. It was a voluntary departure agreement.
"Most people don't know what the form says," she explains. "They sign it because they are told they have to, and what they are signing is their own doom."
Anna did not sign. Instead she asked to call her lawyer. This did not thrill the agents. Nor did it go over well when Anna informed all the other women in the center of their right to contact the Mexican consulate, that they did not have to sign any papers, and that they shouldn't feel coerced into anything.
"I asked the women if they'd been abused or mistreated. They told me their stories; most tried to give me the names of family members. I tried to remember as many as I could, but I had no paper or pen."
Agents were dismissive. So Anna calmly restated her rights. Asked again to call her lawyer. Explained that she was in process, that her mother, a citizen, had petitioned for her to stay in the U.S. and that her documents were working their way through the system. She did all this in English, something that further incited the agents.
"They didn't like that I could understand them," she says.
She was not allowed to call anyone. When she asked if she could, the agents laughed.
"I had to say, 'I'm stupid. I forgot my papers.' I had to say I had good moral character. I asked the young one, 'Why do you laugh at me?'"
Seven hours later, at 2 A.M., Anna was finally granted a call to the consulate. They rang her mother, who until then had no idea where Anna was. Nor did her children. "You are just living your life one minute, and the next, you are taken away and nobody knows where or how to find you," Anna says, her voice thick with fear. "And many of the people taken, they end up gone forever. Just like that."
She is speaking of the detainees who are processed, denied the opportunity to notify their families, then loaded into vans and dropped in Mexico, into towns they have never visited, with no money or contacts, their fates the worst kind of uncertain.
After her incarceration, Anna began to have panic attacks. She hyperventilated at the sight of a police car. She was too terrified to drive. On more than one occasion, she nearly fainted behind the wheel.
She found a therapist, who talked to her about deep breathing and post-traumatic stress disorder. Anna could see the logic, connect the dots. But that did not eradicate the fear. This was not a one-time trauma she'd survived and needed to recover from. This was a new way of life.
"When I came here I had dreams. I wanted to be a party planner," Anna says quietly. She wanted to fill fishbowls with candy and play music and string empty rooms with a thousand twinkling lights.
"I could see it all so clearly."
"I tell all the people I represent to have a plan B."
Attorney Claudia Arévalo is at her favorite coffeehouse, talking about Anna's husband, Manuel, a new client. Her words tumble out fast, like an auctioneer's. Arévalo, 38, with short, curly hair and striking features, credits her excitability to a brush with cancer while she was in law school. "Time is a gift," she says, taking a rare pause for a sip of water, "not a guarantee." The same could be said for her clientele, principally unauthorized immigrants who've been snared in the system.
"Nobody is helping them," she says. "They don't have the money. The resources. That's where I come in." (More than half of detainees lack legal representation.)
Arévalo works pro bono, guiding her clients through the quagmire of immigration law. Today she is focusing on Manuel.
In June 2011, Anna's husband was detained driving through one of the increasingly ubiquitous checkpoints (a gun-toting officer stationed at an intersection) in the suburbs, another facet of life since SB 1070. He'd driven the route many times before when traveling with white members of his construction crew, but this time he was only with Mexicans. They were stopped and asked for papers. Manuel did not have them. In minutes he was taken. He was locked up for more than a month. Released after hiring Arévalo and posting $5,000 bail. In a few months he will appear before a judge, who will decide if he can stay with his family in Arizona.
"There is no margin for error," Arévalo explains. "Applications"—for citizenship, visas, green cards—"are rejected for the tiniest flaw. I have clients who have five kids, hardworking, but they didn't understand the application. And now, after 20 years in this country, they have to leave. This is the reality."
Arévalo attempts to explain the litany of mind-bending catch-22's. For example, in order to avoid being sent home, qualify for an adjustment of status, and gain permanent residency, an undocumented immigrant is required to live in the States for ten continuous years—illegally. Being here on a student visa, for instance, wouldn't count toward the time required.
"It is crazy, I know," Arévalo says.
You must also be "of 'good moral character' and you need a spouse, parent, or child who is a U.S. citizen to demonstrate to the court that they would suffer 'exceptional and extremely unusual hardship' without you."
"They added exceptional and unusual. It used to be 'extreme hardship.' But they decided you couldn't just show that your kids would have no parents anymore."
Now parents hoping to stay in America with their American children must convince a judge the children would be better off with them around, something that should be as obvious as the sun, and yet, as Arévalo explains, she has seen cases where the kids are funneled into foster care instead.
According to the Applied Research Center, the Obama administration deported more than 46,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens in the first six months of last year, the fate of many, suddenly, a matter for the courts. Detainees are not told about the juvenile hearings, not that they could attend them even if they were. As a result, the children are typically alone in the courtroom. The results are predictably disastrous.
"We see the children dropping out of school. Depression. Regressive behaviors. Loss of appetite. Fear of leaving the home. Bed-wetting. Separation anxiety."
Arévalo also represents children who were brought to America as infants. "They are 10, 12 years old. They are in shock. Their English is perfect. In court they say, 'Why am I here? I thought I was American.' And they say, 'No, you came when you were a year old. Now you are in deportation proceedings.'" Her cases have doubled in the past two years.
"The detention centers are really prisons," Arévalo explains. "No one reports abuses, because they are told they will never see their kids again. The authorities will ask for a $7,000 bond to bail you out. Phone calls are several dollars a minute. Old people request medicine, jackets, and the guards say, 'Put it in writing and we'll see.' These are people who can't speak English, let alone write it."
They say this is done in the name of national security; Arévalo has been told the bail is so high because her clients are considered flight risks.
She breaks into a throaty laugh, shaking her head as she does. "Flight risks!" she repeats.
Employers visit her office upset when their best workers have suddenly gone missing. She wonders why they didn't file papers on their behalf. "I ask, 'Why didn't you help this man in the past 17 years?' You know what they say?" She pauses, eyes wide. "The forms were too complicated."
Arévalo leans into the table.
"After I left Mexico City, it took me 13 years to become a citizen. We are very patient people. We don't say anything, we wait. God willing, this is going to get better. But how can we tolerate all this?"
When asked what Manuel's chances are of staying in America, Arévalo is uncharacteristically quiet. She will not articulate the demoralizing odds. Instead, she drains her latte and packs some loose papers into her handbag before heading back to work.
"In court I turn up, they look at me, and inevitably they ask, 'Do you need a translator?'" Arévalo smirks. "And I want to say, 'I am the fucking attorney!'" But she doesn't. She says nothing to give anyone a reason to dismiss her. It is an old habit.
Manuel met Anna when he was 13. He was goofing around, wrestling with friends, and fell to the ground.
"When I opened my eyes, I saw a pair of red Converse sneakers," he remembers. "They were hers."
For their first date, they went to a horror movie. Anna was cold. Manuel gave her his jacket. She was frightened of the aliens. He covered her eyes. At 22 they got married.
"She was there the one and only time I ever got drunk," Manuel, a teetotaler, recalls. Anna laughs, touches his shoulder.
"Drinking was not for you," she says, smiling.
In their small kitchen, beans and rice on the stovetop, Anna and Manuel talk about the week ahead. Ernie plays with Legos. Manuel reminds his son he needs to pay more attention to his toothbrushing. Anna reminds Manuel about picking up their daughter after band practice. Anna says Ernie is so Americanized, he can no longer read Spanish. When she told him he wasn't a citizen, he didn't believe her.
"That was a hard day," she recalls.
After dinner, Manuel tinkers with a computer console in the bedroom. He is making it for his son, he says, threading wires together.
"My wife says I am depressed," he mumbles, keeping his eyes on the disembodied keyboard. "I don't know."
Manuel says that many of their friends no longer leave their homes to socialize. They imprison themselves before someone else can. Illnesses go untreated. Crimes unreported. Children play indoors alone. Dogs run circles along their fences.
"I have to prove I am a good person," he says. "Then I can stay. Maybe."
Manuel chooses not to think about his predicament too deeply. "Anna calls it denial," he says, shrugging it off.
Anna herself is not in denial. "When I have a full day, I can get diverted enough to forget," she says. "I schedule enough so I can only focus on the next five minutes."
Anna's strategy is to "act normal." Which is to say "not Mexican." In her car she drives neither too fast nor too slow. She keeps her radio on American pop and at low volume. She does not hang a rosary from her mirror. "They pull you over for that. Call it an 'obstruction.'"
Anna explains she and her friends have what she calls "the whoosh." When reality gets to be too much, they simply take their arms and thrust them in front of their bodies, exhaling loudly as they do. "Whoosh!"
She knows it seems goofy, shoving away such awfulness with air. But it is something she can do.
To live the life of an undocumented immigrant is to master the art of compartmentalization. You go to work, you grocery shop, you take your child to soccer. You carpool and pick up batteries and forget to buy milk. You do exactly what every other American family is doing. Only you do it in a fog of fear.
It is 3:30 on a Wednesday and Anna is waiting outside Ernie's school. Clusters of kids in navy uniforms burst from the doors, giggling and chasing each other. Anna sits in the makeshift car line with the other moms, peering into the chaos, trying to spot her boy.
Today she is worried about money. She works full-time looking after the old and sick, earns $300 a week, which covers her mother's electric bill.
"It is hard when your kids need tennis shoes. All summer Ernie wore slippers until we could save enough."
As tight as things are, Anna says it would be worse in Mexico. Dollars here would be pennies there. On the radio, Pink sings about being a rock star. Anna glances over her shoulder.
"It's hard to be judged every single day," she confesses. The presumed guilt—it is wearing her down.
"The simple exercise of retrieving your kids at school becomes about not getting caught," Anna says wearily, picking lint from her pants. "It is a tremendous stress."
Just then Ernie opens the car door, slides into the seat, dumping his heavy backpack on the floor.
"I'm hungry," he announces with a grin. "Can we have Chinese?"
She turns her face to his, forces a smile.
As we drive home, Anna shares a story about how she and Ernie were picnicking with friends in the park when someone snapped a photograph of her.
"Ernie started crying, wailing. He was hysterical. I hugged him tight, tried to calm him. He said his friend's parents had been taken because they were identified. He was terrified someone would see my picture and take me from him, too."
Anna tried to tell her son there was no need to worry. Even as she did, she knew it was a lie.
It is nearing dark when Anna, Manuel, and Ernie pull up at the downtown senior center. They are attending a potluck fund-raiser sponsored by the Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition). Outside, the Occupy Tucson tents offer shade from the unrelenting heat. In the meeting room, activist and Arizona legal defender Isabel Garcia greets the crowd, gray hair curling wildly around her high cheekbones. "No human being is illegal," she repeats at each table, shaking hands with the 60 or so attendees, teeth gritted tight. Garcia has been lobbying for immigration reform since the '70s. She has appeared before Congress and the United Nations, gone toe-to-toe with racial separatists on television. For her, death threats are common as colds.
"People have been coming here for generations. But what is happening now is a tragedy," Garcia says with the reflexive urgency of a lifelong activist. She introduces Danielle Alvarado, a woman who, along with her humanitarian group No More Deaths, has been monitoring the changes along the border.
In 2009 almost 400,000 immigrants were deported, reports Alvarado. "The most in history." On any given day, more than 30,000 immigrants are locked in detention centers. "These are not drug mules or criminals," Alvarado stresses. "They are families living in the U.S. an average of 14.4 years before deportation. America is the only home they know."
During dinner, Alvarado shows video clips her team has recorded, one from an interview with Neri, a man in his 20s who has lived in Phoenix since he was 3. Neri was sent to solitary confinement when he refused to sign voluntary departure papers and was eventually deported.
"All we want to do is live our lives," he says, with no accent. "We just want a better life...for our kids. Not everything is what they say it is," he pleads. His eyes flood with tears; he is overwhelmed, confused. Neri has a fiancée at Arizona State University and a newborn baby. He supported them both. He may never see them again.
As the crowd munches on empanadas and Domino's Pizza, Alvarado recites the human rights violations she found in detention centers. No food. No water. Threats. Physical violence. Torture. In 2008 No More Deaths documented 345 cases of abuse over a two-year period. By 2011 they found over 30,000 more.
"Personal belongings were confiscated and kept, including shoes, medication, lists of phone numbers, birth certificates, and money," Alvarado says flatly. "Border Patrol deported the members of 869 families separately, including children and teens. Almost 200 teens and 94 children were repatriated after dark."
The audience listens intently, envisioning these children being dropped off alone in the night, in areas where they likely knew no one. In the back, a man with a white ponytail begins to weep. Then Alvarado plays another video.
It starts with footage of Border Patrol officers emptying water jugs left by humanitarian and church groups into the sand. (The jugs are placed there so migrants do not die of dehydration in the desert.) One officer pours the water into his hat, then offers it to his horse. As they drain the jugs, the men talk about the "felons" they are thwarting. They laugh and strut. It appears to give them joy, this emptying of the water into the sand.
The video ends. The room is silent. Heavy with recognition.
In the hallway just outside, Ernie and the other children play hide-and-seek. They do not watch the video. They do not see their parents cry. Instead, they tuck into tiny spaces, gobble iced cookies, squeal with the delight of being found.
During breakfast, Anna's mother, Carmen, watches her daughter's face as she struggles with their new normal. She too feels the strain. Immigration was different for her. Not easy, but there were no neighborhood raids, no whisking away in the night. To combat the sadness, Carmen has decorated the house for Halloween. Robin, her pug, prances around the pumpkins and hanging witches, sniffing at their strangeness.
"I like that Patrick Swayze," Carmen says idly, tugging down her Cancún cruise shirt. "So handsome."
"He's dead, Mom," Anna says coolly.
The two women bicker in the way only a mother and daughter can, the words about nothing and everything, the love buried deep under layers of mutual irritation and misunderstanding. Anna is grateful to be able to live with her mom, but it is not an ideal situation for either of them.
Carmen has ideas about what is best for the children. "She wants Ernie to be more of a man," Anna says. The notion crushes her. His is the only innocence left in the family. "Lucy is starting to question everything."
Lucy has mastered four instruments and is being recruited for math scholarships at Caltech and Berkeley. Ernie is flourishing creatively. He wants to go to a performing arts school and build robots when he grows up. Anna's children have dreams. She wonders for how much longer.
Anna pulls out photographs from Lucy's sweet 16 party. The whole family is in formal party wear, ball gowns and suits. They are smiling wide, the flash blanching their faces.
"I worked extra shifts for two years to pay for it," Anna says. "I made chimis and tamales. I decorated."
Seventeen kids attended. They all danced.
"I never told Lucy how hard it was to pull off," Anna says. "I wanted my daughter to see, just for one day, that she deserved good things."
That afternoon Anna drives to visit her friend Silvia. Silvia lives on the Southside, in Little Mexico. In her kitchen, women are making tamales, stacking them in gallon-size ziplock bags. The smell of corn and chilies hangs thick in the humid air. Steam trails from pots, across the glass cabinets, each door painted with a sprig of gladiolus. The women talk about Lost in Detention, a PBS documentary exploring abuse and repressive Border Patrol policies. They laugh mirthlessly.
"It is not news for us," says one. "We could have made 100 of those films," says another.
Silvia, a U.S. citizen by marriage, tells the women she just returned from Virginia. The state has considered its own version of SB 1070. She traveled to protest, to speak out. "I wanted to warn them, nothing will prepare you for what will happen if you pass it. It destroys the entire community."
Recent evidence shows that even citizens are being detained, some as long as a year. Teresa, a psychologist, says that she is seeing epidemic depression in her neighborhood.
"These are women who used to be outgoing, happy, full of hope," she says. Now they sit alone, "afraid to leave their homes."
Outside, an ice cream truck approaches, the unmistakable singsong jingle echoing off the streets. No one waves it down.
"Whenever I leave the house, I fill several extra bowls for the dog," says another woman, Sophia. "I don't want him to starve if..." She shrugs, doesn't finish.
"Papers or not, we are all suffering," Silvia says. "Especially the kids."
She talks of a friend who is a citizen, how her son wakes up in the middle of the night in a sweat, asking what to do when she is taken. No amount of reassurance seems to work. "He just wants to know what to do when they come."
In the rear or the derechos Humanos, rows of metal shelves are stacked high with extra-large, clear plastic storage bins. Inside the bins are 18-by-12-inch wooden crosses, pressed tight together like stems in a bouquet. The crosses, symbolic of a life lost in the desert, are painted white with names and ages written across the front in ink. The bins are labeled: ARIZONA—RECOVERED REMAINS. The year and total printed at the bottom: 205, 237, 253. A cross for each body found in the desert.
In all, there are thousands of crosses crammed into the bins, sitting on shelves amid piles of copy paper and staples and shipping envelopes. The women who work in the building clarify that those are only a portion of the casualties. The desert makes short work of remains. There is no way to know the actual death toll, only that the rate is growing every year despite fewer crossings. The more fence, the more migrants are funneled into inhospitable terrain, the barrier not so much a deterrent as a displacement.
Just below the shelves there is an altar holding a cross, a candle, salt (to clear the energy), flowers, and a jug of water.
"They are always thirsty," say the women who tend the shrine. "We need to refill the water often."
Occasionally, they add, the spirits get restless. Bells are rung. Papers scattered. When children visit, they claim to see the dead. The women have witnessed toddlers animatedly chatting with the air.
"Honestly," one office worker says as she removes fallen rose petals from the altar, "you feel at times like your head is going to explode in here."
Anna's friend Maria sits in a chair by the shrine, hands shaking. Last year her brother Mario was asked for his papers outside a Circle K convenience store. He had none. Border Patrol was summoned. Mario had three jobs and was a father of five. His wife was a stay-at-home mother. They had lived in Tucson for ten years. They were, Maria says, "a very happy family."
After processing, Mario was deported. Realizing his family would starve without the income from his jobs, he made the decision to walk back to Arizona.
Maria pauses, the shaking marked now. In her arms she cradles a photograph of a handsome young man in a black cowboy hat, dress shirt, and leather jacket. You can see the smile in his squint, as if he is both embarrassed and flattered at having his picture taken.
Thirteen days after Mario entered the desert, his body was found. He had died from heat stroke. At the morgue on the U.S. side of the border, the family was not allowed to view his body; he was too far gone. It is because of this, Maria says, that her mother sits at her window every day.
"She refuses to believe he is dead. She watches, believing eventually he will come home."
Maria has no such illusions.
"Some days I couldn't get out of bed. My kids would come in and say, 'Mama, live. Live, Mama!' But I couldn't find any will."
Her brother's children have no father now. The household earns no money. The church provides their only food and clothes. Maria tries, but she can't understand why this happened.
She looks at the photograph, traces her brother's face with her pinkie. "His smallest child?" she says quietly. "She screams when she sees the police."
Later that day, Anna is driving again, always driving, this time to retrieve Lucy from school. As she navigates the roads, eyes darting back and forth, she lists the reasons she came to America.
She begins with the obvious: Economic stability. Educational opportunities for her children. Safety. These reasons are valid and true, but aren't the whole story, aren't in fact even close to the soul of the matter, which is something more elemental—the pull of hope, the promise of the promise, the notion that it is here and only here that she and her family could experience infinite possibility and become, against all odds, the best version of themselves. It is the same dream shared by every immigrant from every country before them. The dream of all Americans.
"In college in Mexico I took French and German. But I was obsessed with the United States. I liked the possibility of becoming someone from scratch."
Anna tilts her head, gnaws for a moment on her bottom lip.
"You want to know what I really wanted?" she asks, eyebrows raised conspiratorially. She takes a deep breath.
"I wanted to live where the Gilmore Girls did!"
Anna begins to laugh, slapping her hand on the steering wheel.
I ask whether she and her kids will move back to Mexico if Manuel is forced to go.
"I suppose. Yes. Families have to stay together, don't they?"
Suddenly she remembers something. "You know I have a certificate of appreciation from Governor Brewer?" Anna was honored for her "significant contributions to the community." She has a photo of herself holding up the framed paper, smiling.
"I was so proud of that," she says.
As we roll past the strip malls, the streets dusty and long, Anna tells me about the best two days of her life in America.
"In November 2010, we rented a cabin in Mount Lemmon for Thanksgiving. It was snowing."
Anna had never seen snow. It was a lifelong wish.
"We built a fire. We had these giant cookies. My son loved that."
As she remembers, her face floods with joy. The white everywhere "was like heaven," she whispers.
"That is why we went," Anna explains as the joy evaporates, knowing this American holiday might no longer be theirs to celebrate. "There are these moments we reach for."