The Frustration of Being Illegal

By Marcela Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

Celia Llanes came to the United States 4 1/2 years ago with typical immigrant aspirations. She hoped to provide for her family, earn enough to buy a patch of land back home and perhaps take her girls to Disney World. Today, her wish is far simpler: that when she is deported her girls will be deported with her.

"I am waiting for immigration," she says with a matter-of-fact tone. She has begun sending some of her more valued belongings (such as a set of Royal Prestige pots she paid for in installments) to Guatemala because, she says, "they don't let you take anything."

As the anti-illegal-immigration backlash grew last year in Prince William County, where Llanes lives, the 32-year-old Manassas resident said she started to feel the world around her change. She said supermarket cashiers suddenly grew annoyed and acted as if they didn't understand her. She said her girls told her, "Mami, las maestras prefieren a los Americanos." ("The teachers prefer the Americans.")

Prince William county supervisors voted in October to enact some of the region's toughest policies against illegal immigrants, including the use of police to enforce immigration laws. Llanes says the new measures have become such a source of personal anxiety that she is convinced they are taking a toll on her health. She has sharp stomach pain apparently caused by gallstones, and her frequent headaches have gotten worse.

Llanes, her husband and their children don't venture far from home for fear of being stopped while driving without a license. In the summer, she did not take the girls to the neighborhood pool because she has heard of raids at public places. On Christmas, they only went to a brother-in-law's house nearby and did not stay long.

Llanes is resigned and, in a way, agrees with those anti-illegal-immigrant forces around her. As someone who entered the country illegally, she does not feel she is entitled to much.

"If they are going to take me away, let them; after all, this country is not ours," she often says.

These days, she most fears that she'll be alone when she is finally stopped and deported, just as she heard happened recently to a young man whose mother had sent him to buy shrimp at the local Global Food market. She can't bear the thought of leaving her girls behind. One separation "already cost me too much," she says.

Building a New Life

Llanes started her journey north in summer 2003. She left the girls in the care of a friend in Tecun Umán, near the Mexican border, telling them only that she was going to Mexico to visit one of her brothers in the hospital.

Indeed, her brother, who had been attacked by bandits with machetes in his first attempt to get to the United States, was a main incentive for Llanes to leave. She hoped to send him enough money so he could pay for a safer way north. She soon began also sending money, clothes and toys to the girls.

As daughter Yancy's fifth birthday was approaching, Llanes sent money for a cake. But it was that day, Oct. 4, 2005, when Hurricane Stan hit. Floods destroyed many homes and were responsible for the deaths of more than 1,500 people in Guatemala. Yancy later told her mother that she saw their few belongings -- and her cake -- floating away in the muddy waters.

It was then when Llanes and her husband decided to scrape together $12,000 to pay a smuggler to get the girls here.

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