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Yearning for Home: Undocumented Immigrants Challenge the Border

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Posted on Mar 13, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  A member of the group Border Dreamers and other supporters of an open border policy march toward the United States border, where some plan to ask for asylum, in Tijuana, Mexico, on Monday. (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)

When I asked Edgar Torres how he felt about the fact that he would soon be spending the night at a detention center he said, “I honestly don’t mind, I borderline don’t care. All I want is to simply be able to go back home.”

Torres was in Mexico near the U.S. border with San Diego, and two hours away from presenting himself to border officials when I spoke to him Monday. He was accompanied by more than 30 other undocumented immigrants who, like him, consider the U.S. their home and want to be let back in. Most had been deported for things like minor traffic infractions and some had voluntarily left due to financial difficulties and other pressures. Torres returned to Mexico in 2010 after 13 years of living in the United States. He was 7 or 8 years old when his parents brought him to the U.S.

With no viable option to emigrate legally back to their homes, Torres and his fellow immigrants decided to show up at the border and turn themselves in to the authorities. They risked not only being thrown into a detention center indefinitely like thousands of other undocumented immigrants, but also being deported back to Mexico right away if they were permitted to re-enter the U.S.

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Their actions are the third chapter of a deliberate and coordinated effort by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance to force the U.S. government to face the human cost of our broken immigration system. In August NIYA launched its #BringThemHome campaign with nine young undocumented immigrants turning themselves in at the border. When that action resulted in all nine being allowed to submit asylum requests while remaining in the country, NIYA arranged for 30 more people to try the same tactic in October (about which I wrote here). At least 17 of them were approved to submit asylum requests, while seven were denied.

For those who were denied, the pain of family separation is ongoing and real. Rocio Hernández Pérez, 23, was the first in that group to be deported to Mexico for reasons that are still unknown. Hernández Pérez had lived in the U.S. since she was only 4 years old. Activists are campaigning for her to be allowed back in to the country based on fears of being killed by drug cartels. Her parents publicly posted a video of their heartfelt plea to be reunited with their daughter.

Immigrants like Hernández Pérez and Torres are often derided as lawbreakers by anti-immigrant activists. But they consider the U.S. their home and are usually not accepted in their countries of origin. Torres told me, “When people tell me we should go back home, what they don’t know is that we are considered the ‘Benedict Arnolds’ of that country. We put the U.S. first, before our own countries.”

Benedict Arnold was a U.S. general who defected to the British side during the Revolutionary War. In Torres’ case, it is perhaps a literal comparison; he told me that while living in the U.S., he strongly considered joining the U.S. Air Force or Navy.

The past four years that Torres has spent in Mexico have been difficult particularly because English is his first language. “There’s simply no fitting in,” he said. “I don’t even speak Spanish well. The jobs I had to get had to be in English. The entrance exam at the university was pretty hard because it was in Spanish. I passed the math with flying colors but every other thing I had a difficult time with simply because it was in Spanish.” Before he left the U.S., Torres had been studying robotics engineering, specializing in robotic prosthetic limbs.

After this latest border action, the fate of Torres and his fellow immigrants remains unknown. Family members are not informed of the plight of their loved ones at the border. Mohammad Abdollahi, an organizer with NIYA, told me, “This is very much a reality for us. When you’re pulled over [as an immigrant in the U.S.] and taken into detention, the immigration system is nothing like the criminal justice system in the sense that people are not given a phone call or allowed to call out. We haven’t heard anything from them.” As far as NIYA knows, the immigrants are either being processed or taken to a detention center.

Border officials have caught on to what NIYA is doing. Before this third campaign that Torres was a part of, immigration agents approached NIYA ahead of time to request a meeting. They wanted to know how many people to expect at the border, particularly if there were unaccompanied children or families with children, so they could be better prepared to handle the processing. Abdollahi told me the meeting was affable if awkward, with officials telling him, “We have children too, and we’ll treat them like our children.” But Abdollahi retorted, “I don’t know any parent who would put their child in a glass cell for 24 hours or pat down an 8-year-old and check his shoelaces.”

 


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