At home here
A wife and mother speaks about living undocumented in Tulsa
“When we talk about deporting people from the City of Tulsa, we aren’t talking about strangers we’ve never met. We’re talking about our children’s classmates. We go to their stores. We go to their restaurants. We know them.”
— Reverend Barbara Prose, All Souls Unitarian Church
For a couple of hours in a small coffee shop, Elena shared part of her family’s story. Her two teenaged daughters sat nearby in track pants and hoodies and played on smartphones. Linda Allegro, New Sanctuary Network Tulsa program director, translated.
Elena has been married to her husband, Hector, for 20 years. She has lived in the U.S. for 18. Their family has called Tulsa home since 2005. Hector worked in landscaping. Elena cleans houses.
Last year, Hector was detained and held by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center. He was deported to Mexico three months later.
To protect their privacy, names have been changed for this interview.
Liz Blood: Tell me about coming to the United States.
Elena: My husband came to the U.S. first with a coyote in 1997. I came in 1999. It took many tries before I was able to finally get in. It felt awful. I just kept getting knocked down, but I knew I had to stick with it because I needed to be with my husband. We wanted to have a family. We wanted to be together. Even though it was really hard to leave my extended family in Mexico, I knew I needed to join my husband.
First, we lived and worked in New Jersey. In 2001, [Hector’s boss] gave my husband an opportunity to get a work permit, but to get it he had to go back to Mexico.
We thought it was a great idea initially. We thought this was a way for us to become legal. From what we understood, if you have a work permit for over 10 years, you could end up getting a green card. It was an annual work visa, a permission for nine months. He could only renew it in Mexico, so he would go back for three months at a time, renew it, and then for nine months he would be with us.
The first and second year this worked well, but after that I was pregnant with our first child. Two years later, our second daughter was born in November and he had to leave in December. He didn’t want to leave me alone with an infant and another small child. It was very hard. Those were during the winter months and I had to do it all by myself—work and get the kids to daycare. He didn’t want to leave, but his boss insisted that was the only way he could keep his work permit, so he did it. Then, in 2005, when he was supposed to come back, they didn’t issue him a permit.
By that time, they were fingerprinting for permits and doing thorough background checks. They discovered he had two U.S.-born children. They said, “You have two U.S.-born daughters. We’re not going to give you the permit because you’re going to want to stay in the United States. The arrangement is just for you to live and work temporarily and then come back to your home country. But now that you have kids born in the U.S., you will want to stay.”
So, he went back to our village and we had to hire a coyote so he could cross again.
I had brothers living here in Tulsa. They wanted us to join them, so that was our motivation to come here. And it is more affordable. We got here in 2005. And just like everybody else—we started at the bottom, just started a new life.
Blood: Tell me about your husband’s arrest, detainment, and deportation.
Elena: He was arrested because he’d been drinking. That day when he was arrested my youngest daughter blamed me. She blames me because I didn’t feel like going to pick him up where he was drinking—over at my brother-in-law’s house—and if I would have gone … I should have gone to pick him up. I didn’t, and so my daughters blame me.
Apparently, when someone is detained you have five hours to get over there and pay a fine, a bond, to have them released, but I didn’t know that. I had no idea. I was just waiting until the morning.
The next day my husband called me, because they’re allowed one phone call. He said, “The only way that I’ll get out is if I fight this.” I said, “How could that be if you have no criminal record? They can’t deport you for a one-time first offense.” He said, “No, we have to get a lawyer. That’s the only way I could possibly stay.”
A month later, I found two lawyers—a criminal lawyer to try to resolve the DUI and then an immigration lawyer. The immigration lawyer said there was a 50/50 chance that Hector would be released. Because of the new president, the policies are a lot stricter. They really do a thorough background check on each one of the detainees. We thought they would see he has no criminal record; he has never done anything.
The first court was a criminal court for the DUI, and that judge was somewhat sympathetic. He saw it was a first offense. But the immigration judge was harsh. He was not as sympathetic. Hector saw that judge via video conference because the judges are in Dallas. The lawyer is in Dallas advocating for the detainee. But the actual detainee is here in Tulsa, attending via video conference.
We were hoping the immigration judge would let him bond out but he said no. So the lawyer said we need to assemble a whole case to try to get Hector to stay. We had letters from his boss, we had letters in support from the community, we had records of having paid taxes, we had all our titles of things we own. We had a full case that this was an honorable person with no criminal record—even so, they denied him.
My eldest daughter has a learning disability. We were hopeful the judge would take into consideration that there’s a daughter with a disability and that maybe this was a reason to allow Hector to stay. To the judge, her disability wasn’t among the kind … they don’t consider a learning disability on the list of things they’ll consider, like autism.
The judge said if it was a child in a wheelchair he would consider that yes, the child in a wheelchair needs the father. But the judge didn’t think this kind of disability made it essential that the father be present.
Three months after his arrest, at another court date, the lawyer didn’t seem prepared. The judge asked him, “What are the names of the girls, and what are their ages?” He didn’t know how to answer. The judge didn’t like that. He accused both my husband and the lawyer of being liars, told them to get out of the courthouse, and gave them another date.
My husband told me, “There’s very little chance that we’re going to win this. And we’ll have to pay a lot more money … I’ve been in here now for how many months?” A lot had happened in those three months. He was starting to get at his wits’ end. On top of it, his mother died in Mexico while he was in detention, so he felt trapped. We had a final conversation with the lawyers and decided on voluntary departure. The judge made it very clear to him: “We’ll give you a voluntary departure, but if we catch you trying to come back in, we will put you in prison for five years.”
Earlier, the lawyer had told me things had really changed. He said, “If you go visit [your husband], it’s at your own risk. If you go, we don’t know if they’ll detain you as well.” I decided I could not do that, so I did not see him while he was detained.
Blood: What is your husband like?
Elena: He’s a good person. A very simple, humble person. He’s very friendly with everybody. He likes to joke around. That’s why I think I fell in love with him. He always tells me, “I’m ugly. For you to have fallen in love with me must have been because of my humor.” And I was attracted to him because he’s funny and he’s very affectionate. He’s always been very good to us. He’s been good to me and to the girls.
In 20 years, we’ve never had any serious problems in the marriage. Sure, we’ve had arguments about all kinds of things, like any marriage. Some of our fights were because he would drink. My daughters were even telling him, “Don’t drink, please stop drinking, you’re going to get involved with the police.”
I have to now be the mother and the father at the same time. My husband has always worked. He’s been the principal breadwinner. He always made a little bit more money than me, so he was the provider. We are really hurting. I can’t explain it so well, but it’s been hard for us.
It is very hard [for my daughters] because they’re very close to [their dad]. They would always wait for him to get off work and say, “Oh, daddy, you’re home!” He would say, “Don’t hug me right now—I’m all smelly. I’ve been landscaping.” They would hug him anyway. And now he’s not coming home. That’s the hardest part—right at the end of the day, when we’re expecting him to come home, waiting for him to come up to the door, and he’s just not there.
Their grades have gone down in school. We are working with the counselor, going through therapy so that they can try to adapt to this loss.
Blood: Is it possible for him to try to return legally?
Elena: Only with a work visa like he’s had in the past.
Blood: Does he plan to come back?
Elena: Yes. It would be very hard for me to go back, because we have no home there. We’ve been living here for 20 years. We have no place [in Mexico].
My girls would be … they’ve never been there. It would be very difficult for them to start all over. We’re going to try to see. He’s going to apply for a work permit to see if he could come back. But, of course, we’ll run up against the same risk that they’ll fingerprint him, they’ll run it through the database and see he has daughters here, and it will be the same denial that we’ve had before. Coming through the legal option is a very difficult process. We’ve tried it before.
Blood: Are you thinking of trying to become documented? Is that an option?
Elena: The immigration laws are changing a lot. Lawyers told us that once one of our U.S.-born children turns 21, they can petition for the parent. That used to be the case. But from what we understand now, with the new administration, they’re not going to allow that option anymore. If I would have entered legally, like on a visa and just overstayed, I would have possibly been able to get sponsored by my child. But because I entered illegally, my daughter is no longer eligible to sponsor me. And even if there was this option, we couldn’t adjust our status here. We would still have to go back to Mexico and wait it out.
Blood: What are the misunderstandings or misconceptions about undocumented immigrants who live here?
Elena: You can feel the racism. People look at you—and they don’t look at you nicely. They look at you in a distrusting way. They second-guess you.
What I would tell those people is that we’re here to work. We’re not here to do any harm. Life in Mexico is not easy. Overall, here, you can find consistent work. If you lose one job, you can get another. In Mexico, you don’t have that security. We come here to work; we come here for a better future. We really don’t want to hurt anybody.
And even finding work is beginning to be more difficult. It’s not as easy to get a job if you’re not documented. They don’t want to give you employment because you don’t have documents.
I do housekeeping. I’d like to have my own business where I’m not working for other people. I’d like to work for myself, find my own clients and my own houses, have my own deal. It’s hard because people don’t know you, and people often ask you for papers and want to know if you’re legal or not.
Blood: Do you feel that you have a community here?
Elena: I have a lot of friendships. I have some family members—a cousin and my brothers-in-law. We all support each other. We’re all basically from the same village, and we’ve all found each other. I would just give anything to have my parents here. You know, if I had them here, it would really feel like home.
The one thing I want to convey—there’s a lot of us that are going through this right now. But we’re so afraid that we don’t say anything. We keep our mouths closed. I think it is important to get the story out so that others who are afraid know they can share and still be protected.