Mother and son win appeal against deportation order after taking sanctuary in a Texas church for eight months.
I remember, when I was a young girl, we used to go to the beach in Tijuana for picnics. Back then, there was no wall and hardly any security or border patrols. I used to walk along the shore into California – you could walk back and forth freely.
When I was 21, my cousin and I wanted to spend the summer holidays with his family in San Diego so I tried to cross the border at the San Ysidro checkpoint. But I didn’t have a visa, so I was detained and held overnight. They took my fingerprints and all my details and told me that I was banned from entering the US for five years.
But the next day, after I was released, my cousin said to me: “Don’t worry about it; let’s just get in the car and drive over.”
In 10 years, they have come to see me in Tijuana nearly every weekend and school holiday. I thank the Lord that I have such an amazing husband and such beautiful boys.
So we got into the car and drove across the border. I showed the guard my passport and he just waved us through. It was different back then – there were fewer controls, less paranoia. My cousin told me not to worry and said they didn’t keep records, but that time I was detained would come back to haunt me.
When I was 24, we drove across the border. It was never my intention to stay in the US – I had finished my studies to become a dental technician, and I planned to work for a few months and save some money to open a little dental clinic back in Guadalajara. But within a month, I met my husband Michael. Soon after, I became pregnant with our first son Alex, so I decided to stay.
Michael always worried about my immigration status and wanted to regulate my situation right from the start. But it was a confusing process. We moved house a few times and never got an appointment. Time passed and my second son, Ryan, was born. After I gave birth to my third son, Brannon, we finally got an appointment at the US consulate in Ciudad Juarez. That’s when my world fell apart.
I remember the date: June 6, 2006. Six-six-six. My husband said it was Devil Day. The immigration officer told me that I had entered the US illegally after being denied entry in 2000. I was told that I had broken the law and would be banned from entering the US for 10 years. It didn’t matter that I had three children who were US citizens, or that my husband was a US citizen and a former Marine. None of that mattered. We cried and shouted, but there was nothing we could do.
When we left the consulate, I saw my three young boys outside and broke down and cried.
“What are going to do?” I asked Michael. “We have to get a divorce. We can’t live like this – me over here and you over there.”
He said: “No way. We’ll work it out, we’ll come and visit you every weekend.”
And they did. In 10 years, they have come to see me in Tijuana nearly every weekend and school holiday. I thank the Lord that I have such an amazing husband and such beautiful boys.
But those first few years in Tijuana were a nightmare. I was so scared and hardly ever went out. Sometimes, I would hear noises on the roof and lock myself in the closet. One time, someone did try to break in, but my dog scared them away.
My 10-year ban came to an end on June 6 of this year, and now I am waiting to apply for a visa.
I dream and pray for the day that I can go back to my life in California and be with my children. It is so cruel to be punished this way, to see my children grow up without me.
What about their rights as US citizens to be with their mother? What about my husband’s rights? Why do they want to create dysfunctional families in good, hard-working, loving families? I really don’t understand it.
Alex Paulsen, 15, Emma’s son: ‘They need to think about how the law affects families’
I was only four years old when they deported my mother. I vaguely remember driving from California to the Texas border to go the US consulate in Ciudad Juarez.
We drove for days and the air conditioning was broken so it was really hot. When we left Juarez, we didn’t go back to California, but stayed in Mexico. It was like a vacation for us.
Eventually, we went back home to the States with my Dad because things were difficult for us in Mexico, and he had to go back to work. My parents also thought it was better if we went to school in the US.
He says we used to ask him where mum was and he would say that she was on a “timeout” – and that became life for us: Mum on timeout.
It has been difficult for us growing up without our mother. We love her so much and miss her every day. It’s difficult for my dad, too, because he had to bring us up on his own. He works two jobs, cooks for us, takes us to school.
One time, my dad needed open heart surgery and they didn't even let my mum come to visit him in hospital. They said he needed to be dead, or be hours from dying, to be able to give her a humanitarian visa.
We miss the little things, like mum making us breakfast, or being there when we have events at school, or when they give out prizes. It makes her feel really bad that she can’t be there, too. She says she has had to watch us grow up in photos.
Sometimes, kids at school ask where our mother is, but we don’t like to talk about it. People think when you get deported it is like being a criminal, so we can’t really explain it to them.
We go to Tijuana every weekend to see her. Usually, my dad finishes work on Friday evening, we go home, pack our bags and drive to the border. We normally leave around midnight and the trip takes about three hours. Crossing into Mexico is easy, but sometimes when we drive back into the States there are long lines at the border and it takes a while, even in the middle of night on Sundays. We normally get home between 6am and 8am on Monday morning and have to get ready to go straight to school.
I don’t think the law should be allowed to separate families just because someone entered the country illegally. They need to think about how it affects families. One time, my dad needed open-heart surgery, and they didn’t even let my mum come to visit him in hospital.
If I could talk to an immigration officer, I would tell them to think about their own families and to imagine what it would be like to have their family separated.
I started going out with my ex-husband, who is several years older than me, when I was 12 years old in my hometown of Guanajuato in central Mexico.
We got married when I was 16. Even back then, he used to hit me. I was so young, I just accepted that that was the way he was.
He persuaded me that we should emigrate to North Carolina. The idea scared me a bit, but I agreed. He paid a “coyote” and we crossed the river near Matamoros. It was a trip that I would try and repeat on my own years later. I would lose everything in that river.
At first, things were OK in the US. My first daughter Carolina, who is now 13, was born soon after we arrived, and my other daughter Catalina was born two years later. They brought me so much joy. But my ex-husband resented them because he wanted a boy.
I'm in a vicious circle: I can't go to the US but I must be in the US to get custody of my girls.
He started drinking more and became more and more violent. He would beat me and threaten me with a gun, sometimes in front of the girls. Then he would apologise and things would be OK for a few months, but then the abuse would start again. This went on for a few years until one day, he almost killed me. I finally decided to leave for Mexico with the girls.
But Mexico was difficult. The girls didn’t speak Spanish and were bullied at school. I couldn’t find a decent job and could hardly make ends meet. One day, my ex-husband called and said he was sorry. He said he wanted us to return and would send money so we could all travel back to North Carolina. I was desperate at the time and completely fell for it. I delivered the girls to him at the border in Mexicali. They are US citizens, so they can enter freely. It was April 23, 2013. I haven’t seen them since.
I had to go back to Matamoros to cross the river again. Only this time, the US border patrol caught us on the other side. They held me in a detention centre for 30 days. I was in there with hardened criminals. I was going crazy thinking about my girls. When they finally released me, they told me I was banned for 30 years from returning to the US. My world crumbled.
I stayed for a few days at a migrant shelter where I called my ex-husband. He told me I was on my own and could forget about the girls. I broke down. Eventually, I headed back to Guanajuato. But all I could think about was getting back to the US to get my daughters – by any means necessary.
Not long after, I went to Tijuana planning to cross illegally again. I was desperate and in a deep depression. That was when I met Yolanda and the Dreamer Moms. They helped me get back on my feet emotionally and convinced me that it would be better to find a legal way to return to the US.
The group has been a huge help for me. We are all deported mothers in similar situations who have been separated from our families, and we have become family as a result. Thanks to our advocacy work, we found out about the U visa, which is granted to victims of serious crimes like domestic abuse. Fortunately, I had filed a police report and this turned out to be crucial for my case. I am currently in the process of applying for a U visa. They only give out 10,000 each year and there is a long waiting list, but it may be my only hope of returning legally because it would overturn my ban and deportation.
Thanks to the Dreamer Moms group, we also managed to get a lawyer in North Carolina to work on my custody case and divorce settlement. In April, there was a court hearing which I joined via Skype. The girls were there. I watched them live on the computer screen. It was the first time I had seen them in three years.
They looked so pretty, but I was nervous for them because I knew he would try and manipulate them and turn them against me. It was difficult too because I couldn’t hear very well, and I felt I couldn’t put my argument across, especially as the judge spoke in English and it was all done through an interpreter.
In the end, they ruled that we would have joint custody, but only if I was in the US. The girls would not be allowed to go to Mexico. So I’m in a vicious circle: I can’t go to the US, but I must be in the US to get custody of my girls. They also ruled that I should be allowed to talk to them via Skype on Wednesdays and every other Sunday. But do you think he has kept up that end of the bargain?
Other than the U visa, my only hope at this stage is to wait. Wait until the girls get older. The last time I spoke to Carolina, she told me she will always love me and that soon she will grow up and she will be able to call me and come and be with me. But in the meantime, my heart is broken. Every minute of every day and night I think about them. There is no greater suffering than a mother being separated against her will from her children. But it is the love for my daughters that keeps me going.
When I emigrated in 1981, we just walked across the border at Tijuana beach. There was no wall back then. I lived in California for almost 30 years: 16 years in Orange County, and when my kids – Edsson who is now 29, and Tanya who is 24, both born here and citizens of the US – were a bit older, we bought a house in Pomona.
I worked all kinds of jobs to support the family: in hotels, retail stores, factories, a jeweller’s, as a cleaning lady. I also volunteered at my kids’ school. I always paid my taxes and never asked the government for anything, never claimed benefits.
Every Sunday, I used to go to Friendship Park in Tijuana - where families meet up through the fence and where I had crossed the border 30 years earlier - because there are often lawyers there who give free advice.
My legal problems started with a minor offence. One day, I got a ticket for driving through a red light, which I didn’t, but the police are always on the lookout for “customers”, so what are you going to do? I went to the courthouse to pay the fines, and the judge said that, because I was undocumented, the fines could not be paid in money or community work, and that I had to be remanded in a detention centre for five days. It was very strange. A week later I presented myself to the detention centre in Los Angeles. I remember it clearly because it was the 4th of July – Independence Day, 2010.
I had never been in a place like that. It was a terrible experience, especially for an older woman like me. After four days, I asked them when they would let me out and they said: “No, you are not getting out, you will be going to Mexico because you are an illegal alien.”
It hit me like a bucket of cold water, and I went back to my bed and cried and cried. I was in shock. The next day, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) came for me and dropped me off over the border in Tijuana.
Like many deported mothers, I decided to stay in Tijuana to be close to my family in California. I have been here for six years now. It was very hard at the beginning. It is a dangerous place for a woman on her own. I didn’t know anybody. My children were worried about me.
Every Sunday, I used to go to Friendship Park in Tijuana – where families meet up through the fence, and where I had crossed the border 30 years earlier – because there are often lawyers there who give free advice.
One day in early 2014, I met Yolanda there and we started talking. She was in a similar situation. She had also lived in the US for many years and had been deported and separated from her children, who are the same age as mine. And that was when the Dreamer Moms group began, as a way for deported mothers to help each other.
One day, we saw a news report on television in which some American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers were talking about how people who had been deported voluntarily would be given the opportunity to legalise their situation. My deportation counted as voluntary because I had presented myself to the courts and to the detention centre voluntarily. The ACLU people came to Tijuana and held an event in City Hall, which we helped them organise, to explain how people could apply and to find candidates who qualified. They came back a few days later and told me I had been selected and that I had a good case. I signed some papers and we started with my application, which was part of a collective lawsuit for voluntary deportees.
A few months later, this July, they called me to say that my case had been accepted by the immigration authorities and asked me whether I was still interested in returning to the US, to which I replied, “Yes, of course! Yes, yes, yes!”
They told me to be patient, but that within a few months I would be given a date to cross the border. They gave me one date, then another, then another, and I was worried that it may never happen,
I didn’t want to get my hopes up until I can hug my children on US soil.
Then the ACLU people called to say they were confident it would happen on Thursday, October 27. And it did.
They accompanied me to immigration at the San Ysidro border crossing where there was a brief interview and I signed some papers. It all happened very quickly. Suddenly, I was in the US. There were my kids waiting for me. I can’t describe what it felt like.
I remember it was Independence Day, 2010, when my mother was taken into custody. We were told that she needed to go and take care of a traffic violation. It didn’t seem too serious.
At first, they said they were going to have to hold her for a day, which was odd because it was just a traffic ticket. And then we didn't hear anything the next day, we couldn't reach her, and the next thing we knew, she was in Tijuana.
They kept lying to us and saying they just needed to question her. It was strange because there was a jail there and they took her into the cells. At first, they said they were going to have to hold her for a day, which was odd because it was just a traffic ticket. And then we didn’t hear anything the next day, we couldn’t reach her, and the next thing we knew she was in Tijuana.
It was just such a shock. All of a sudden, mum was gone.
It really affected my sister. I mean, she’s a woman and she needs her mother in her life, a woman’s opinion. And she also had a child of her own and my mother could have helped her. It’s a child losing a parent. It’s not as extreme as a death, but it’s a big vacancy regardless. And in a way, it messes with your mind more, because she’s so close yet so far.
I guess it became real when I had to start supporting her in Tijuana. I was studying full-time, working full-time, providing for her and myself and my family.
I studied Psychology, Law and Society at the University of California at Riverside. I was fortunate enough to receive a few grants as well as financial aid from the federal government for my studies. I suppose governments work in mysterious ways: on the one hand, they support my education, and on the other, they deport my mother.
Seeing that I’ve been educated and benefitted from this country and considering everything this country has given me and my family, it’s difficult to be entirely on one side.
But living through it and the emotions that come with it, it’s hard. I think that people should abide by the laws, but we shouldn’t be tricked into something, and that’s what happened.
I think there is a prejudice against Mexican Americans and Mexicans coming into this country, and they shouldn’t be treated any differently from any other immigrant from any other country.
As told to John Dickie.
From the Witness documentary “Dreamer Mums” . Watch the full film here.