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