Hiding in Plain Sight: Inside the Life of an Undocumented Immigrant
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.