A Crossing to Bear: One Family’s Immigration Story

When tens of thousands of unaccompanied children showed up at the U.S. border last year, President Obama called it a humanitarian crisis. Many of the minors remain—and a surprising number of them ended up living with relatives in the Hoosier State. Here is the story of one of those families, caught between grinding poverty in Central America and agonizing uncertainty in Central Indiana.

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Nothing seems to go together in Xoxtac, Guatemala. A crisp, clear river flows past heaps of garbage, through a vibrant green landscape littered with crumpled potato-chip bags. A richly patterned traditional Mayan corte, or skirt, is worn with a Hollister T-shirt. A framed poster of glimmering New York City hangs on the drab wall of a cinderblock home.

This is the home Armando had always loved yet wanted desperately to leave behind.

He took a deep breath. In through his nose, out through his mouth. He felt as though his 16 years on Earth were merely a prelude to this moment. By age 13, he had finished primary school and taken to the fields to cultivate dirt and earn extra money for his family. Night after night, he lay down utterly exhausted, only to wake up at the crack of dawn and drag his weary body out of bed to do it all over again. On weekends, he hopped the bus from Xoxtac to another town at the base of the hill to take classes as his family could afford them.

For the past few years, Armando had been the man of the house, trying to provide comfort to his mother, Maria, and Liliana, his little sister. In 2010, his father, Juan, left their rural village in the lush, mountainous hills of northwestern Guatemala with a plan: He would spend no more than eight years in the United States, working and saving every penny he could for his eventual return to Xoxtac. His wife got through each day, then each year, believing their reunion was drawing closer. Then the money Juan sent home dwindled. Maria began to wonder when, and if, they would ever be united again.

The pressure to work and make money threatened to crush Armando’s dream of continuing his education. So last year, on January 20, he adjusted the straps on a worn-out backpack filled with a few belongings, intent on following in his father’s footsteps.

He gave his mother a quick squeeze and turned away, unable to linger on the pain he saw in her eyes. He knelt to the tile floor so that he was face-to-face with his 5-year-old sister. She begged him in Chuj Coataneco, their indigenous Mayan dialect, not to leave, to stay just one day longer. There in the center of the empty room, Armando suddenly understood how big and scary the world must seem to her. He stroked her hair and pecked her on the cheek, his lips coming away salty from the tears streaming down her face.

He ached to stay. But he was eager to begin the long journey to meet his dad—part of a mass migration of unaccompanied children who set out for the U.S. border in 2014, prompting President Barack Obama to declare the surge a humanitarian crisis.

Armando walked out of the house and closed the creaky gate behind him, leaving the only home he’d ever known, and then hooked up with a hired smuggler for a ride to the Mexican border.
He did not look back. It was time to leave Guatemala. It was time to find his father in Indiana.

 

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Maria at the family’s home in Guatemala, with a picture of Juan

Photo by Kourtney Liepelt

The day Armando left home, Juan went to work, as he did every day, bussing tables in a Mexican restaurant in Monroe County, south of Indianapolis.* He knew his son had embarked on the first leg of the trek north, from Xoxtac to the Guatemalan border town of Gracias a Dios, with a “coyote,” or smuggler, the family had hired for nearly $1,500. Juan had to borrow money from family and co-workers to pay for the trip, but he trusted Armando would be safe—that the coyote would faithfully inform the boy of the route through Mexico, the people he was to meet, and exactly where to join them. Juan imagined Armando hiking the discreet trail to a ranch in the Mexican town of San Cristobal de las Casas, about 100 miles north of the Guatemalan border, where he would meet another guide and spend a week learning Mexican slang to blend in. This first part of the trip, as Juan recalled from his own experience, would be easy compared to the difficult, treacherous journey across the length of Mexico. *(The names of Armando and his family have been changed to protect their identities.)

Juan’s older brothers had gone north in the mid 1980s, when, in the span of two decades, more than 2 million immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua settled in Mexico, Canada, and the United States to escape political upheaval and human-rights abuses. During Guatemala’s own brutal 36-year civil war, the military patrolled indigenous regions and persecuted locals, and Juan, then a young boy, remembers guerilla armies entering Xoxtac as well. As he grew older, he heard stories about violence in surrounding communities. The same could have happened in Xoxtac, he says, but while other towns took up arms to dispel government troops, and often paid for insurgency with death, Xoxtac residents agreed not to resist. It was amid this turmoil that Juan’s older brothers decided to leave for the United States, landing first in Arizona and then working their way across the country until they ended up in Indiana.

In the meantime, the dramatic increase in asylum applications and refugees from Central America sparked changes in U.S. immigration policy. In 1991, litigation resulted in the government creating residency opportunities for those who had entered the United States prior to 1990, and a later relief act passed by Congress granted legal status to a large number of Central Americans who had sought asylum thereafter. The developments meant Juan’s brothers could remain permanently in Indiana without fear of deportation.

As an adult, Juan was lured to the Midwest by his brothers’ stories of stable jobs and better living conditions in Indiana, north of Indianapolis in Cass County. Juan wanted the same for his family, a life he had never been able to provide for them tilling soil in Guatemalan coffee fields. The occasional 35 quetzales he brought home—the equivalent of about five U.S. dollars—wasn’t enough to sustain his wife and two children. Even after Armando began to work alongside his father, Liliana often went hungry, the beans and tortillas that were the staples of their diet barely enough to keep her nourished. Maria did everything in her power to maintain some semblance of a stable home life, but the financial woes put a strain on their marriage. Without an education, Juan knew the likelihood of earning more money and creating that stable life was slim. He was living day-to-day, hoping and praying that something, anything, would change.

In 2010, Juan hired a smuggler, illegally crossed the Guatemalan border on foot, and made his way through Mexico by taking a series of buses. At one bus station in Mexico City, Mexican officials flooded the area and rounded up everyone they suspected of being a migrant. Juan fled, narrowly avoiding capture, and ran for what he says felt like miles, until he felt confident enough to circle back to the station and continue his journey. When he reached northern Mexico, he met a man who offered to lead him and others safely through the desert and across the U.S. border. Juan ate nothing and drank little for three days. Companions who lagged behind were left for dead. In Tucson, Arizona, another smuggler loaded him and several others into a car. The seats were folded down so each passenger could lie low, some on top of others, to avoid suspicion on the cross-country drive.

As Armando began his journey last year, Juan worked his shift at the Mexican restaurant and tried to keep his thoughts from turning to the dangers that lay ahead of his son. Immigration officials, Mexican police, gangs. He couldn’t be sure how long the boy’s passage would take, or when he should expect to hear from him, or whether Armando would even make it.

Juan tried to stay busy to keep his mind off of the uncertainty. He swung his arm in a slow, wide arc across the length of a table, a methodical, mindless action, wiping every inch clean. As his shift dragged into its eighth hour, he straightened up, rag in hand, and noticed a family of three sliding into a booth.

“Juan! Trae la salsa a la mesa!” his boss bellowed. Bring the salsa to the table! Juan obliged; the woman thanked him briefly while her husband kept his eyes fixed on television screens lining the restaurant walls. This was normal for Juan—going mostly unnoticed, tugging a cart overflowing with grimy dishes and half-full glasses, cleaning up after diners who didn’t have to worry about how they would pay for the meal. The routine of it soothed him, on this night particularly.

Juan returned to the family’s table, arms laden with entrees. “Taco salad?” he said in a heavy accent, placing a dish before the woman. As they dug in, the mother and father discussed their plans for the evening. Maybe they could rent a movie, or play Clue.

The conversation prompted Juan to think of his own family. Maybe Maria was preparing rice and beans for Liliana, filling her belly before sending her off to bed. He wondered if Armando was okay.

At 11 p.m., Juan left work and returned to the apartment he shared with two other immigrants. He plopped down on a worn-out loveseat 2,424 miles away from his wife and daughter, an unknown number of miles from his son.

“Triste, la vida,” he said, thinking back on the day. Life is sad.

 

Juan and Maria met at church when they were teenagers, close to the same age Armando was when he departed. She was pretty and shy, and Juan fell for her. He was persistent. They married and started a family.  When Juan went to  live in the United States, they believed their bond would endure.

Arriving in his new country during a recession, Juan had trouble finding a job, so he left his brothers and headed south to a town in Monroe County an acquaintance told him about, where he could get work at a restaurant. Life for Juan and his family improved. He made $350 a week and regularly sent a chunk of the earnings back to Xoxtac. Maria splurged on a hefty corn grinder, which quickly became a town amenity. Morning, afternoon, and night, neighbors lined up outside Maria’s house carrying buckets heaped with kernels to pour into the machine to make flour for tortillas.

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Liliana at the family’s home in Guatemala

Photo by Kourtney Liepelt

Armando enjoyed the idea of working to supplement his family’s income rather than merely toiling to sustain it. Delivering massive loads of firewood uphill and downhill in the afternoon heat, or returning home filmed in dirt from turning soil, didn’t seem so bad as long as he could dream of one day completing his education in the nearest town. Liliana savored the packages she received from her father in the United States: a little pair of metallic-tone gladiator sandals; a backpack with a smiling rainbow unicorn; and thin, sparkly headbands. She wore her new ropa americana proudly.

In those early days, the separation from Juan seemed worth the heartache. “When he left, I was terribly sad, but little by little, I got used to being alone,” Maria says in her Chuj dialect.

Eventually, though, Juan began to struggle to make ends meet. A busser’s wages are hardly enough to survive on in Indiana, let alone support a family in Guatemala as well. Liliana had a hard time putting a face to the voice she heard each day on the other end of the phone. Having been so young when he went away, she knew little of the man she called her father, beyond the fact that he was the man who sent presents.

When Armando left, Maria worried about his journey. She worried about Liliana, who fell into fitful slumber every night, gasping for air between sobs. More than anything, Maria worried about the fragile ties holding her family together.

Neither Maria nor Juan heard from their son for several days. Finally, Juan received a phone call from a group of smugglers Armando had met to help him cross the Rio Grande into the United States. Juan had already paid the $600 they requested for the task, but now they demanded double. Refuse to pay the additional money, the coyotes told Juan, and Armando would be left behind.

He is already with them, Juan thought. What can I do? He borrowed more money and wired it to the smugglers. He waited.

 

A few days later, in early February 2014, Juan’s phone rang again. His brother told him Armando was being held in a detention center in Texas.

Armando stayed in a home crammed with other migrants, waiting for days on end until it was his turn to cross the river.

In the days before he was detained, Armando had boarded a series of buses while carrying fake Mexican documentation so that when immigration officials asked, he could claim he was trying to find his father in northern Mexico. He arrived in the border town of Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, and stayed in a home crammed with other migrants, sleeping on a mat and sitting in a cramped room, never eating, waiting for days on end until it was his turn to cross the river.

He had a vague idea of the law that ensures a court date for minors entering the country illegally. Still, smugglers had urged Armando to be prepared for intense questioning from U.S. Border Patrol if he was caught. He made his way across the river, and then a smuggler drove him and a few migrants into the United States, dropping off Armando along the road to wait while he took the other riders into McAllen.

Armando thought he was home free. Then the U.S. immigration officials pulled up. Fear crept through him, until he felt paralyzed. They asked him what he was doing, why he had wanted to get to the States. Armando panicked and blurted out that he was an orphan. He thought the story would improve his chances of being allowed to stay in the country, and he didn’t want to out his father.

Armando continued, explaining that his father had abandoned the family two years earlier, leaving Armando to care for his mother and sister. He told the officials the money he earned in rural Guatemala wasn’t enough to cover the family’s basic needs. He was headed to Indiana, he said, to find his uncles, who’d promised steady work. He had exhausted all of his options and didn’t know what else to do. He lied.

“I did it because I needed to,” Armando says in Spanish, looking back on the incident. “I felt bad, but I thought about my family and how it wasn’t because I want to lie, but that it’s for them.”

He spent a couple of days in the detention center while officials attempted to clear his story. He slept on a mat and received juice and ham twice a day. Then the officials moved him to a shelter for immigrants, where for 21 days he slept in a real bed and followed a strict schedule that included playing basketball outside with other teenagers. While he waited, the officials called his uncles and told them when they could pick up Armando at Indianapolis International Airport. He had a hearing scheduled for February 2015 in the immigration court in Chicago, which has jurisdiction over Indiana.

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Armando in Cass County, Indiana

Photo by Kourtney Liepelt

Armando took his first-ever plane ride, and Juan borrowed more money to foot the bill: $1,200 for Armando’s airfare and a round-trip ticket for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement official who accompanied him. Because they were living in the United States legally and his father wasn’t, Armando went to live with his uncles in Cass County. Another month passed before Juan was finally able to see his son again, when one of his brothers drove Armando south to Monroe County on a Tuesday, Juan’s only day off from work. At first awkward, their conversation quickly became familiar, as though the four years apart had never happened. And then almost as soon as the anticipated reunion came, Armando had to leave. He felt alone and wondered why he traveled to Indiana at all, if he couldn’t even be with his father while he was here.

Juan sent his brothers additional funds to help pay for Armando’s share of the rent and food. He tried to start saving for the lawyer he knew his son would inevitably need while also chiseling away at the loans he took out to get Armando into the country. Juan was relieved his son made it to Indiana safely. But the debts were piling up.

Armando enrolled in the local public high school where his uncles lived, made new friends, and began to pick up some English. But his father needed him to work, too. “The money I make just isn’t enough,” Juan says in Spanish. In May 2014, as the school year drew to a close, Armando still hadn’t found a job. Juan reached out to extended family living in the Midwest—cousins, nephews, and in-laws, most of whom were also living in the U.S. illegally. Finally, Juan’s cousin suggested that Armando come to central Illinois, where he could clean farming equipment at night and go to school during the day. Armando agreed, and starting last summer he earned $500 a week, working Monday through Friday from 5 in the evening until 2 in the morning.

Armando’s paychecks eased the family’s crunch slightly, but Juan was concerned Armando’s move to Illinois could hurt his court case, since he’d been released into the United States under the condition that he stay with his uncles. If Armando was deported, the money Juan had poured into getting him here would go down the drain.

That same summer, President Obama ordered that the cases of unaccompanied minors be expedited, and Armando’s hearing date was moved up to September. He traveled to Chicago, stayed with a cousin, and appeared in immigration court without representation. The judge granted him more time to retain a lawyer and scheduled another court date. The judge also ordered Armando to return to Indiana, go to school, and stop working.

Now Armando bounces back and forth between staying with his uncles and with another cousin who lives nearby in a rundown part of town, in a modest house with tattered carpet and cracks in the ceiling. With two plush couches, a television, and a modern kitchen, it is luxurious compared to Armando’s home in Guatemala. He goes to school each day and pretends to understand his teachers’ lessons, embarrassed to raise his hand and ask questions in broken English. On June 22, when he is scheduled for another appearance in immigration court, he faces a tough decision: Repeat the lie he told officials at the U.S. border, that his father abandoned him, or reveal that Juan was already living in the country without legal documentation. If the judge does let Armando stay, he plans to drop out of school and find another job. He will turn 18 in September. Education, he says, just isn’t in the cards for him anymore: “It’s not my destiny.”

 

Armando was one of nearly 68,000 unaccompanied minors caught trying to cross the U.S.–Mexico border from November 2013 to October 2014. Most came from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to escape grinding poverty and desperation. Like Armando—who joined more than 17,000 minors from his own country—many planned to meet parents or relatives already in the United States. In Xoxtac, Armando had been lucky to avoid the extreme violence that pushed a lot of young people out of Guatemala, where some communities are so gang-ridden that parents send their children north for safety as much as opportunity.
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement released 525 of the unaccompanied minors detained between October 2013 and March 2015 to sponsors in Indiana. Among Midwestern states, only Illinois and Ohio received more.

In an earlier time, Indiana, far from the U.S. border, might have seemed an unlikely landing place for these Central American children. But a decade ago, the state emerged as an important new destination for Latin American immigrants. A 2005 study by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., found that among U.S. metro areas, Indianapolis had the fifth-fastest-growing Hispanic population and was the only city in the Midwest to crack the top 10. According to the U.S. Census, Indiana’s Hispanic community grew by 80-plus percent between 2000 and 2010, and the number of individuals of Central American origin more than tripled. The state’s Guatemalan population—while still relatively small—more than quadrupled, to nearly 6,000. As the government placed Central American minors with family already living in the country, Indiana was the destination for a seemingly disproportionate number of them because, in recent years, those family members had sought out Indiana in seemingly disproportionate numbers as well.

The state has been fairly welcoming to newcomers—or at least not overly hostile. A 2006 bill that would have denied unauthorized immigrants access to schools and social services failed in the General Assembly, and a federal court struck down a 2010 law that would have required local law enforcement to check immigration status. (Arizona’s version of the law has drawn national criticism.)

Nonetheless, Central Americans haven’t fared particularly well economically in Indiana, at least relative to the U.S. Central American population as a whole. According to recent Census estimates, the median income among Indiana’s Central American households was half that of the state’s overall population, while nationally Central American households made only about 25 percent less. Terri Morris Down, executive director of the Immigrant Welcome Center in Indianapolis, has encountered this economic disparity firsthand. “If a family is ever to be successful and stable, they have to leave their country” of origin, she says. “They come here with such high hopes, for themselves and for their children.” But gaining a foothold in the workforce is a long and difficult process, she adds, even for those living here legally, and it’s often necessary to take on two or three low-wage jobs just to make ends meet.

Families in Central America clung to the perception that the U.S. government was letting children stay, given that many from the past few years were reunited with family members while awaiting court hearings. Department of Homeland Security officials have acknowledged that the exodus is partly the result of a 2008 anti-trafficking law requiring that minors be given a court date before they are deported. The law’s intent was to protect underage victims of human trafficking, and it made it possible for them to remain in the United States in some circumstances. But with a backlog of cases in the immigration courts, and deportations rare, word spread that all Central American children were freely let into the country.

Proponents of stricter U.S. immigration policy shared the Obama Administration’s alarm at the sudden influx. “People respond to messaging, and until the message changes, we should expect to see more people coming illegally,” says Jon Feere of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. Immigrants and their families have interpreted the 2008 anti-trafficking law as permiso, he says, believing they are eligible to stay indefinitely simply for being a minor or accompanying one across the border. If one child is allowed to stay, argues Feere, parents tell their neighbors, who tell their friends, until entire communities believe the United States grants free entry to children.

Advocates for loosening immigration laws agree that migrants get mixed messages, at least to the extent that many of them remain in the United States for years awaiting hearings in the “wildly overloaded” immigration-court system, says Clara Long of Human Rights Watch. But she counters that, facing violence and poverty at home, they are likely to continue seeking out safety and opportunity in this country regardless of government policy.

“It’s dangerous and wrong to reduce the reasoning of that flow to a widespread misunderstanding of U.S. law,” says Long, who researches U.S. immigration and border policy for the international advocacy group. “It’s unacceptable to punish kids for things they haven’t done.” Northward migration is particularly ingrained in Guatemala’s recent history, due to the civil war that drove Juan’s brothers to Indiana three decades ago. After watching generations of family and friends before them find relative comfort and economic security in their new country, many young Guatemalans now feel compelled to seek out the same.

Like Armando, many of the unaccompanied minors who arrived during the “crisis” remain, and as of February, more than 400,000 immigration cases were pending in courts across the country. Republicans in Congress, who now hold majorities in both the House and Senate, have vowed to take action on immigration reform in the coming months. But compromise seems unlikely. In November, President Obama angered GOP lawmakers when he issued an executive order that granted temporary legal status to parents of U.S. citizens who aren’t living in the country legally, and to those who were brought here as children. A coalition of 26 states, including Indiana, filed a lawsuit challenging Obama’s action on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and would saddle states with increased law-enforcement, healthcare, and education costs. A Texas judge granted a temporary injunction against the executive order this past February.

Assessing the public cost of unauthorized immigrants versus their economic contribution is tricky, but research by the Indianapolis-based Sagamore Institute does paint at least a partial picture. A study from the nonpartisan think tank estimated that in 2007, unauthorized immigrants in Indiana had a net-positive fiscal impact of nearly $50 million after taking into account their local, state, and federal taxes paid and the expense of providing them with government services.

Regardless, the federal impasse means any political solution that might resolve Armando’s legal status is probably a long way off. In a statement to Indianapolis Monthly, regional ICE spokesperson Gail Montenegro emphasized that the agency prioritizes the removal of those who have most recently crossed U.S. borders. “Our message to people in Central America has been clear,” she wrote. “If you come here illegally, you will be subject to removal proceedings and sent back, consistent with our laws and our values.” Last July, U.S. Customs and Border Protection launched an ad campaign throughout Central America, trumpeting that message on billboards and in PSAs on television and radio.

In December, the U.S. Department of State launched the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, whereby citizens under threat of violence could apply for authorization to enter the United States as refugees. As of this spring, no one had yet been granted asylum under the program. But Clara Long of Human Rights Watch, for one, says the program doesn’t provide a viable option for people who are fleeing potentially life-threatening situations. She adds that a similar program for refugees from Iraq hasn’t brought anyone to the United States in two years.

Some families of the unaccompanied minors have found their way to La Plaza, an Indianapolis nonprofit that assists Latinos. “We thought we’d get more kids and families coming in after the whole situation unfolded last summer, but people kind of stayed below the radar,” says La Plaza president Miriam Acevedo Davis. “They wanted help getting kids enrolled in school or figuring out healthcare, but they didn’t want to make themselves known.” After they were connected with resources, she says, they disappeared into the woodwork.

 

By the early part of this year, Maria’s marriage was more strained than ever, her situation in Xoxtac more dire. Months went by without Juan sending home any money at all. She relied on a small savings they had managed to set aside over the years, but it didn’t last.

Juan discovered that Maria was borrowing money in Xoxtac and other towns nearby without telling him. The loans carried hefty interest rates, and when lenders demanded payment, she borrowed more money to keep the creditors at bay. Juan was devastated; he felt Maria didn’t value the sacrifices he’d made to provide for the family. He thought about divorcing her. She promised to find a way to help settle the debts.

Maria wondered if the only way out for her and Liliana was the same one her husband and son had tried. As far as she knew, if she crossed the U.S. border and went directly to immigration officials, she’d be allowed to stay. She hoped they would be sympathetic to her situation. She hired a coyote, traversed Mexico by bus, and, in March, she and Liliana crossed the border into the United States, where she turned herself and her daughter over to government officials. A court date was scheduled in Chicago. Then the two took a bus to Indiana to be with Juan. In April, they appeared before an immigration judge, who told them to return on June 30 with a lawyer.

Juan feels Indiana has treated him well. Here, he found work that, at least for a time, allowed him to improve his family’s quality of life. It’s where he reunited with his brothers after years apart, where he met a supportive network of new friends, fellow immigrants who understand the challenges he faces. If any anti-immigrant sentiment does exist in his new home, he hasn’t encountered it. But he struggles with how exhausting everything is for him, when it seems so easy for everybody else. Now that his wife and daughter are here, he wonders how long they will be able to stay. He already quit his job as a busser, moved to another town in Indiana, and bought a fake Indiana license from a friend for $180 so he could pick up work at a meat-processing plant. The money is better, but he still can’t afford to pay for the legal expenses ahead of what could be an inevitable deportation. “I’m not going to lose any more money,” he says.

Indeed, Maria and Liliana’s chances of gaining permission to remain in the country are slight. In similar immigration cases involving a woman and child, only about a quarter of the petitioners have been allowed to stay, according to data gathered by researchers at Syracuse University; the success rate drops to below 2 percent when they are not represented by attorneys.

Though Juan begged Maria to reconsider before she headed north and warned her that he couldn’t afford legal aid if she did, Maria felt she had no choice. How could he expect her to keep waiting? “I want to work and make my own money,” she says in Chuj.

If the weight of separation was heavy on Juan before, it has been replaced by fear of the unknown and even greater pressure to earn money. “Sometimes I think about changing my job—going with my son, or to some other part of the country,” Juan says.

Sometimes, he dreams of dropping everything and returning to Guatemala.

 

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