The almost Americans

The almost Americans

When President Obama drew a line on immigration, it went straight through their family

Published on December 20, 2014

In Akron, Ohio

Their TV was showing another rally celebrating President Obama’s long-awaited announcement about immigration reform, but to Marilu Morales it just sounded like more white noise. “Gracias a Presidente Obama!” shouted an anchor on Univision, as Marilu, 29, returned home near dawn after another midnight shift and collapsed onto the couch. Lately, she needed the sound of a TV to help her sleep. She needed Tylenol, blackout curtains and anything else that could numb what her life had become in the 10 weeks since her husband, Javier Flores, was deported.

ABOVE: From left, Rocio, Heidi, Edwin and Mia are driven to school late.

Her four children were already awake and getting ready for school — the 4-year-old dressing the 1-year-old in shorts and mismatched sneakers; the 10-year-old helping the 8-year-old with the last of her math homework. They watched cartoons and ate leftover pizza. They packed their backpacks and let their mother rest until exactly 7:30 a.m., just like Marilu had asked them to do. Then they climbed onto the couch and began trying to rouse her.

An American dream deferred

Javier Flores, Marilu’s husband, ponders in his home town of La Mixtequita, Mexico. Flores was deported after being pulled over with expired tags. Click for Javier's story

“We have to go,” said Rocio, 8. “Come on. Get up. You said we couldn’t be late again.”

“Okay,” Marilu said, her eyes still half closed. “I just got back from work. I need a few more minutes.”

They had been late to school 17 times in the past few months, an unraveling that began when Javier was pulled over with expired tags on his way home from work, detained and sent back to Mexico with only the clothes he was wearing. Soon after that, Marilu had started arriving late to her job at a window factory because she was caring for the children alone, leading to her demotion to a longer, overnight shift. Next, exhausted after work, she began sleeping through the drop-off time at her children’s school. Then, without Javier’s salary, she had failed to pay rent on their suburban house, so they had moved into a friend’s cramped apartment, where all five of them slept in one room.

“Mom, seriously, wake up!” Rocio said again, louder this time. School started in 10 minutes. The drive took 15. “Please,” Rocio said, but Marilu waved her away.

The apartment was decorated with balloons and streamers left over from two weeks before, when Marilu had hosted a few friends to watch Obama announce the specifics of his executive action on immigration. “Finally!” she had written to Javier earlier that day, as he also prepared to watch from his new home after 13 years in Ohio, an open-air hut surrounded by the lime groves of southern Mexico. They listened as Obama said it was cruel to separate children from their parents. They heard him say America was in the business of keeping families together.

“It’s time to draw the line,” Obama had said, explaining which illegal immigrants could apply for legal status and which ones could not — and then he drew a line that ran right through their family and nearly a million others like it, ones already separated by recent deportations.

Under Obama’s executive action, Javier, who would have qualified for relief if only it had come 10 weeks earlier, would instead be stuck in Mexico. Their children, all American citizens, could only live with both parents by joining him in a town of 900 near the Guatemalan border. And Marilu, an illegal immigrant who under Obama’s plan was suddenly secure in the U.S. for the first time in 13 years, had begun wondering if now was the time to leave.

“You are almost an American!” Javier had written to Marilu that night, after Obama’s announcement, trying to be hopeful.

“Maybe it’s better to be Mexican,” she had responded. “Every day here is a mess without you.”

Now, on this messy day, Rocio jumped on the couch and shook her mother’s shoulders. “School!” she said, and finally Marilu got up. She put on slippers and grabbed her car keys. School already had started. Her children would be late for the 18th time — another failure in the country that Marilu believed was offering to improve her life while simultaneously ruining it.

Obama had made his decision. Now she needed to make hers. Stay or go?

“Hurry,” she said, and she rushed the children into the car and drove to school.

Illuminated by headlights, Edwin walks with his sisters, Mia and Heidi, to their family's car.

Her 13 years in the United States had unfolded in a series of emergencies she had somehow managed to solve. So surely, she thought, there was a way out of this, too. “We need a reason to hope,” she wrote to Javier, one night, and then she skipped work to attend a community meeting about Obama’s plan, expecting to find a solution embedded in the details. She brought all four children to a church basement and sat in the back row. Edwin, 10, took brochures off an entry table and folded them into paper airplanes. Heidi, 4, ran circles around the room. Marilu took out a notebook and a pen. “Possibilities,” she wrote, and then waited to hear what they might be.

The event had been organized by Marilu’s friend, a local immigration activist named Veronica Dahlberg, who began by sharing what she considered welcome news: Parents of children who were born in the U.S. could stay and work. Up to 5 million illegal residents qualified for relief. “This is progress!” she told the group, but before she could finish people began raising their hands.

“So, does this make us citizens?” one asked.

“No, not exactly,” Dahlberg said.

“Is it permanent?” another asked. “We can be here for good?”

“No,” Dahlberg said. “It lasts for three years.”

“Then what?” said a man in front. “We give the government our information, and then in three years they can use it to find and deport us?”

With her two youngest children in tow, Marilu pulls into a parking space at St. Mary’s Catholic School to pick up her oldest two children.

A few people clapped in agreement, a few others stood to ask more questions, and soon the church was so loud that Marilu couldn’t hear Dahlberg. She thought about all the other times when it seemed like her life in the United States had reached a dead end. She had grown up in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico, and left for the U.S. at 15 with the first person who would take her, a man she recalled as being twice her age who began abusing her after they made it to Akron. She had been too afraid to report him to the police, so she lived for a year in a house run by nuns. She had moved a dozen times in the next decade, from one cash-only apartment to the next, worried that signing her name to a lease might lead to her deportation. She had lost her work authorization papers and found a co-worker to fudge new ones. She had lost her ride to the factory and summoned the courage to ask a co-worker to teach her how to drive without a license. This was Javier, and he had taken Marilu to drive circles around a Wal-Mart parking lot until one day he said she was ready to drive home.

For as long as she could remember, hers had been a hidden life: Always some new problem. Always some solution that came just in time.

She stood up from her seat and walked to the front of the meeting with Mia, the 1-year-old, in her arms. The room was still loud. Dahlberg saw Marilu and tried to introduce her to the group. Marilu turned away from the room and started asking questions of her own.

“What about people who were already deported?” she asked, still carrying the notebook, still waiting to write down the first possibility. “Can they come back?”

“I’m sorry. Not yet,” Dahlberg said.

“But Javier has only been gone two months.”

“I know.”

“He was good. He was perfect. He would have qualified.”

“I know,” Dahlberg said again.

The room had quieted, and people were watching them now. A man handed Marilu a tissue. She looked at the floor and tried not to cry.

“Please,” she told Dahlberg. “Tell me something good.”

Dahlberg had been helping immigrants for 30 years, and she still felt unsure of how to deal with the issue of hope. What constituted optimism and what was a lie? Was it best to give Marilu some small amount of belief — enough to bolster her up, to keep her functioning? Or was it better to say the truth: that Obama was promising to strengthen enforcement on the border, and Javier’s return to the U.S. seemed at best unlikely and at worst impossible; that it could take months, or even years, to sort through the possibilities; that Marilu’s best chance to reunite her family quickly was to collect passports for the children and buy plane tickets south.

“Maybe we can still find some way to push,” Dahlberg said. “Can you hold out for another six months?”

“Six months?” Marilu said. Mia started to cry. She tried rocking her. “No. I don’t think so.”

“Three months?”

“No.”

“How long can you manage?” Dahlberg asked.

“Maybe a month,” Marilu said. “A week. I’m losing my mind. I don’t know.”

As her children grow restless around her, Marilu becomes overwhelmed by emotions while attending an event organized by a local immigration activist, where she addressed the audience about the effects of her husband being deported.

A few days later, she received another voice mail from the principal at St. Mary’s Catholic School.

“Mrs. Morales, I’m very sorry, but things can’t go on like this,” the principal said. “We are worried about your children. Edwin is being disruptive again. We need you to talk to him.”

Marilu replayed the message as she made the 15-minute drive across town to the school. She had trouble with English, having relied for too long on Javier as her translator, but she understood enough to know this call was bad. She phoned Javier from the car, reaching him on the scratchy landline in the open-air house he shared with a dozen relatives. He had just gotten back from nine hours in the lime fields, clearing the ground with a machete, saving another $3 from his pay so that maybe, one day, he could give $8,000 to a smuggler, hike five days across the desert, bus to Ohio and reunite with his children.

“Is everything okay?” he asked Marilu. Lately, he was always worried; he reminded her each morning to sign the children up for free school meals and to give Edwin his medication.

“They don’t listen anymore,” Marilu told him now. “Not to me, not to their teachers.”

Marilu had long considered St. Mary’s the best reason to stay in Akron. For $100 each year in subsidized tuition, the school had turned Rocio and Edwin into prayerful Catholics and capable students. Rocio was two years ahead in math. Edwin’s artwork was displayed in the halls. Their classmates had introduced them to Disney, the NFL, hand-clapping games and Thanksgiving. It was St. Mary’s, Marilu believed, that had turned her children into true Americans — assertive and self-assured, better at speaking English than Spanish. In the aftermath of Javier’s deportation, teachers had offered her children free breakfast, coats, aftercare and counseling. The clergy had prayed for Javier’s return. “A miracle school,” Marilu called it. But now the school’s relationship with her consisted mainly of these phone messages, at least a dozen saved on her cellphone, the narrative of a family trauma.

Marilu lives in a room with her four children in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with friends.

“Mrs. Morales, I can’t stress this enough, it really is important to arrive at school on time,” the principal had said, one week after Javier was deported.

“Edwin has been refusing to sit down in his class,” he had said, a few weeks later.

“We know this is a difficult time, but these are serious issues of classroom obedience,” he had said, a few days after that.

“I’m sorry, but Edwin is down to his last chance,” he had said, in his next message.

“We are relying on you to get through to him,” he was saying now, in this latest message. “You need to come up with a plan.”

Marilu pulled up to the school, where Edwin and Rocio were waiting out front. “I’m not happy,” she told them, and they drove home in silence. Edwin ran into the house and went to his bedroom to grab a video game. “No way,” Marilu said, taking it from him. Rocio turned on the TV, and Marilu turned it off. She gathered all four of her children on the couch and stared at them. “I don’t know what to say,” she said. She was furious with them and heartbroken for them and exhausted by them. “You are making me crazy,” she said.

They had each rebelled in their own ways since Javier’s deportation, but the one Marilu worried about most was Rocio, 8, because until recently there had been no reason to worry about her at all. “One of our best,” her teacher had written, in an evaluation weeks before Javier’s deportation. St. Mary’s awarded its top students with a currency called Dino Bucks, and at the beginning of the school year Rocio had earned the most in the second grade — 42, a testament to high achievement, a mark of status within the school. But students who arrived late were docked two Dino Bucks, and now Rocio was often late, so she began her days by reluctantly handing over some of what she’d earned. “You are ruining everything!” Rocio had screamed at her mother, once, and then one day at school she had seen a few actual dollars sitting on a classmate’s desk and decided to take them. “Stealing,” the teacher had written in a note home to Marilu, and so Rocio had been suspended for the first time in her life. Marilu had punished her by forcing her to stare at a wall in their apartment, but instead Rocio had kicked her foot right through it, creating a gaping hole. Now the friends who had been kind enough to let them stay in the apartment were suggesting it might be time to move out.

“I am tired of apologizing for all of you,” Marilu said, sitting across the couch from her children. She told them she was taking away TV and Nintendo. She was locking up the snacks. “You need to do better or you won’t have a school or a house,” she said. “We’ll have no place to go.”

“Good,” Rocio said, glaring back at her. “Let’s leave. I hate it here. I want to go to Mexico.”

“Me too,” Heidi said.

“You don’t know anything about Mexico,” Marilu said, thinking about the future that awaited them in Javier’s village, where public school ended in ninth grade and the few jobs available paid $10 a day. The boys would pick limes. The girls would grind corn and make tortillas over a wood stove. “There’s nothing for you,” she said.

“I want to live with Dad,” Rocio said.

“Me too,” Heidi said again.

“He told me he has to bathe in a river,” Edwin said. “I’m never doing that. I’m waiting for him to come back.”

“He can’t right now,” Marilu said. “He wants to. He loves you. But he can’t.”

Rocio looked at her mother and started to cry. “But you said he was coming back in a little while,” she said. “When is he coming?”

“I don’t know,” Marilu said.

“You lied,” Rocio said.

Marilu reached out to hug her. “I want him, too,” she said, and she crammed next to her children on the couch. She had to leave for work in an hour, and the children would be alone until her friends came over to watch them. She turned on the TV. She got out the snacks. She handed Edwin his Nintendo. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Mia listens to the voice of her father, Javier.

She got up from the couch to cook dinner. She drove to the factory and worked a 10-hour shift. She came home, fed the baby, did the dinner dishes and then slept in her work clothes for two hours on the couch. At 7 a.m., a phone call woke her up. It was Javier, calling like he did three times every day.

“Did you remember?” he asked.

“Of course,” she lied, sitting up on the couch, trying to think of what she was forgetting.

“My birthday,” he said.

“Thirty-one,” she said.

“Thirty-two,” he said. “Are you taking the day off work?”

“Yes,” she lied again.

It had been one of their traditions in seven years together: Whenever someone in the family had a birthday, both Javier and Marilu requested the day off. They both had worked 12-hour shifts at the window factory, six days each week on opposite schedules to avoid paying for child care. They had never had time or money to take vacations together, so birthdays had become their mini-vacations. Marilu liked to take the children to restaurants and movies. Javier always chose the zoo.

Photo gallery

Javier Flores endures separation from his family north of the border and the challenge of living where he started. Click for more photos.

Now it had been a month since Marilu had so much as taken the children outside to a playground. Heidi was going stir-crazy and sometimes drawing on the walls. Rocio kept asking to go for a walk. They had lived in the new apartment for two months, but already Marilu resented every corner of it: the clothes spilling all over the bedroom since it lacked a closet; the stove that would never turn on and the kitchen faucet that would never turn off. “Can we please go somewhere?” Heidi kept asking, and Marilu wanted to, but it was winter, and she was working, and she was tired, and their new neighborhood consisted mostly of boarded-up houses and unlit streets.

“I can’t take them anywhere by myself, not all four,” she told Javier now. “We sit. We wait. We don’t do anything.”

“That’s not true,” Javier said.

“It’s different now,” she told him.

“Then what can we do?” he asked.

Marilu wasn’t ready to tell him about the list she had been making, comparing Mexico to the United States. America was better for the children, she had decided — safer, nicer, richer, better schools. But she couldn’t manage it without a co-parent, someone with whom to split bills and child care. A few times, she had dressed up for community meetings where she knew there would be men, layering her eyes with makeup, streaking her dark hair with blond highlights. Two co-workers had asked her to dinner and a man from church had invited her over, but each time she had declined. As much as she needed someone, she had decided, she needed Javier more. He was the first man she had loved — not just a caretaker but also a father and a husband.

“We’re stuck,” she told him.

“I know,” he said.

After returning from a school disciplinary meeting for her older children, Marilu arrives with her youngest two children to the apartment they share with friends.

"America!” the Univision anchor was shouting early one day. “Finally, we can act like real people! We don’t have to hide! We can live!” and something about the way he said it cut through the white noise of another disastrous morning and lifted Marilu off the couch. She made herself coffee. She showered. She got Edwin and Rocio to school on time. She took the baby to a park. She came home and called Javier: “I feel good,” she told him, because it was true. On this day at least, she knew what she wanted to do.

She met with Dahlberg, her friend and the immigration activist, and for once she drove through downtown Akron without fixating on the speed limit. She passed the police station and didn’t feel nervous. She saw a building adorned with American flags and official government seals and, instead of avoiding it, steered into the parking lot. She walked up the stairs into Akron’s central post office and approached the main counter. Dahlberg came to translate.

“I’m hoping to get passports for my children,” Marilu said, when she reached the front of the line.

“When are you traveling?” the employee asked.

“Soon,” Marilu said. She explained that none of her four children had travel documents. She hoped to get them right away.

“Okay,” the employee said. “If they are under 16, both parents will need to be present.”

“That’s not possible,” Marilu said.

“Then we will need a copy of both parents’ driver’s licenses.”

“We don’t have those,” Marilu said.

“Then we will need certified consent from the other parent,” the employee said, and Marilu stepped away from the counter and let Dahlberg take over. Dahlberg spoke to the employee, collected a stack of forms and translated for Marilu on their way back out to the car.

“This won’t be easy,” Dahlberg said, beginning to explain what it would take for this illegal resident of the United States to leave. First, Marilu would need to send Javier a stack of forms in Mexico, even though his village had no mail delivery. He would need to sign those forms, and to somehow get them notarized, and to somehow send them back to the United States. Marilu would need to secure her own travel documents, which meant tracking down her birth certificate in Chiapas and bringing it to the Mexican Consulate in Detroit. Then she would need to pay for the children’s passport photos ($20 each) and for the processing of their paperwork ($105 each) and for their plane tickets ($1,200 each). And then, if all went well, they would be on their way to Javier’s village, where there was no house for them, no beds, no running water, no English-speaking teachers and no jobs.

“Okay,” Marilu said. “I can do this.”

Her mind would change again and again during the next days, but for now she drove home from the post office feeling certain enough to begin the paperwork. There were forms for each child, and she studied the questions and considered the answers.

Place of birth: “USA,” she said.

Citizenship: “USA.”

Country of residence: “USA.”

“Please explain in detail the reason for your request,” one question asked, and her mind flooded with so many possible answers: bad timing, money, politics, family, Rocio, Edwin, Heidi, Mia.

In the America where President Obama had suddenly given her options, one seemed like the best.

“We need to leave,” she said.

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