An American dream deferred
Javier Flores hoped for a reprieve from President Obama, but he was deported to Mexico, leaving his family behind
In La Mixtequita, Mexico
Javier Flores awoke again to the raspy ring of a water-damaged phone, and he lifted himself out of the hammock that had become his bed. He splashed river water on his face and pulled on his only pair of pants, designer jeans he had been wearing when two U.S. immigration officers stopped him on his way home from work. Now it was a few weeks later, and the jeans were stiff with sweat and caked in mud from the lime groves. They hung off his waist.
He stumbled toward the phone in predawn darkness, stepping over a chicken before answering on the fifth ring. The call was from the family he had left behind in Akron, Ohio. On the other end of the line he could hear his wife and children eating breakfast.
Nineteen days since he had been deported to Mexico, and each one had begun like this.
Above: Javier Flores picks limes in his home village of La Mixtequita, Mexico, on Sept. 24. After living in the United States for more than 13 years, Flores was deported back to his home country, leaving behind a wife and four children.
“Good morning,” said Javier, 31, and when nobody responded he spoke louder. “Buenos dias?” he said. He could make out what sounded like a spoon clanking against a bowl. “Hello?” he said again, and then finally he heard his wife. “Hello?” she said. “Hello? Hello? Are you there?” He tried to respond but she couldn’t hear him, and after a few seconds she hung up.
He ran his hands along the phone’s wiring to check the connection. He had bought the phone for his parents in 2002, when he first left the impoverished countryside of southern Mexico for the United States. The phone had sat next to the family Bible ever since, its cords snaking across ceilings and blocking doorways on their way to the lone electrical outlet that only sometimes worked. There was no cellphone service in La Mixtequita, population 900. No high-speed Internet or mail delivery, either. The landline was the only connection he had left to 13 years in Ohio, to a wife and four American-citizen children, who at this moment were calling him again.
“Yes,” he said. “Hello? Hello?”
“If you’re talking, we can’t hear you,” said his wife, Marilu.
“It’s me,” he said “Are you there?”
Maybe it was a problem caused by the rainwater that had come in through his leaking roof and soaked the phone. Maybe it was heavy fog in La Mixtequita or a rainstorm in Akron or some other disruption in the 2,500 miles in between.
“We’ll try again later,” his wife said, so he hung up again and waited.
How much of these last 19 days had he spent waiting? And how much more time before then, home in Ohio, just hoping his circumstances might change? In June, he had watched on TV as President Obama promised he would stop deporting certain kinds of illegal immigrants by the end of summer. The president and his staff said they would bypass Congress by issuing an executive action to help people with clean criminal records and American-citizen children — people like Javier. “This means you!” an immigration advocate had written to him, and even though Javier had already been ordered deported he believed his miracle had come. He would be able to stay with his children, ages 10, 7, 4 and 9 months. He would be able to keep his job at the window factory, where he managed 30 people and paid $850 in U.S. taxes each month. “A perfect case,” the advocate wrote again, and all Javier had to do was wait for Obama to say the things he had promised to say.
But then July turned into August, and August turned into September, and Obama decided it was more politically prudent to delay his executive action until after November’s midterm elections. So instead of being offered his reprieve, Javier was sent back to the poorest state in Mexico, where the advocate had sent him one final note. “Sorry,” it read. “Terrible timing.”
Now Javier rechecked the phone cords. He tested the outlet. He wrote down reminders of things he wanted to ask his wife: Had she signed up for food stamps? Had she put antifreeze in his truck?
He waited 10 minutes, then 20. “This is crazy,” he said, so he dialed them, even though outgoing calls to the United States cost 10 times more per minute.
“Hello,” answered Rocio, his 7-year-old daughter. “Dad? Where are you?”
“It’s me,” he said. “I’m here.”
“Hello?” she said.
“I’m here,” Javier said.
“I’m here. I’m here!” Javier said, shouting, but all he heard was dial tone.
Javier Flores, right, talks with his family in the United States by phone as his Mexican family watches television. With no cellphone service, high-speed Internet or mail delivery in the town, the spotty landline is his only connection to his wife and kids.
It had taken him 13 years of work in restaurant kitchens and chicken plants to find the version of the United States he’d first come looking for: a four-bedroom house in the suburbs. A doormat imprinted with his last name. An F-150 truck. A family membership to the Akron Zoo. Then it had taken only a week in detention and a three-hour flight in handcuffs to remake him into what Mexicans called a naco, a villager, a nobody.
“What are you returning with?” asked a question on the repatriation form, which he received after the United States had deposited him in Nuevo Laredo, more than 1,000 miles from La Mixtequita.
“Nothing,” he had answered, although that wasn’t quite true. He had the clothes he was wearing, the keys to his truck, his iPhone and his wallet.
How quickly could a life change from one of possibility to one of regression? On his first day back in Mexico he had been forced to accept charity, when a nonprofit group bought him a bus ticket home on the cheapest route, a 38-hour trip with four connections. On the second day, he had called his wife, who said she was worried about running out of money, so she had broken their lease and moved in with a friend, where she and the children were sharing one room. On the third day, his bosses at the window factory stopped returning his e-mails. On the fourth day, he arrived in La Mixtequita and his family threw a party, where for the first time he met two brothers-in-law, four nieces and three nephews.
Now it was the 20th day, and his family was still trying to understand exactly why he had come back. His parents had rarely left the state of Oaxaca, much less Mexico. They didn’t understand the nuances of immigration policy in the United States.
“So they just forced you to leave after all this time?” said his father, Cresencio, speaking in Spanish, asking again why such a thing would happen.
“Because I came illegally,” Javier told him. “Because I crossed through the desert.”
“You didn’t do anything else?” Cresencio said. “Nothing but that?”
“Right,” Javier said.
“But did you steal something?” his mother asked, still not quite believing it.
“Of course not,” Javier said.
“Did you get drunk?” his sister asked.
“I don’t drink,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” his father said, and so eventually, over many conversations, Javier had told them the story of his deportation from the very beginning. What happened, he explained, was that he had been pulled over for driving with an expired license plate in 2011, and he had given the police officers a fake name because he was scared, and then he had thought better of it and told them his real name, Javier Flores. They referred his case to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and to make the case go away Javier signed a form promising to leave the country within a year.
What happened was that Javier never left as the years went by — good years, another baby, a promotion at work — and ever so slowly the country’s politics started to shift. The president made his big announcement about bypassing Congress with an executive action by summer’s end, one of the biggest risks of his career. But then his political opponents threatened to impeach him, and some of his allies worried about the effects on their own jobs, and eventually the president made another announcement, this one much quieter. He was going to delay, he said. The immigration changes would still happen, his aides clarified. At least most of them. Or some. But later.
What happened then was that Javier was flying to Nuevo Laredo, busing across Mexico, and riding in the bed of a rickety truck up the dirt road to La Mixtequita, where it seemed to him like nothing had changed: Same church. Same dilapidated school. Same muddy creek. Same flooded gravel road leading to the same tin-roofed house, where everyone had questions and where the most difficult to answer were his own.
“How can I get back across the desert?” he asked his father, one afternoon. “There’s no money. There’s nothing.”
“I don’t know,” Cresencio said.
“Can I bring them here?” Javier asked, speaking about his wife and children. “Will they hate it? Is that fair?”
“I don’t know,” Cresencio said.
They sat in plastic chairs on the cracked outdoor patio that functioned as their living room. For years, Javier and Cresencio had spoken only by phone, summarizing their lives for each other every few weeks. They had talked about the growing seasons in Oaxaca until Javier had forgotten the right questions to ask or stopped caring enough to ask them, and his father had started passing the phone a little more quickly to his mother. Distance had eroded things. They were still learning how to sit together in silence.
“What am I going to do?” Javier asked, after awhile.
Javier Flores sleeps in a hammock at night. Much of his day is spent waiting -- waiting for his mother to cook tortillas, waiting for the rain to clear, waiting for more limes to ripen on the trees. Waiting to figure out a way to be reunited with his family in the United States.
There was only one thing to do in La Mixtequita, the very thing that had driven Javier to leave in the first place. One morning, he grabbed a machete and returned with his father to the lime grove.
Cresencio usually hiked the two miles from their house, but on this day a family friend offered them a ride. They climbed into the bed of a dilapidated truck and bounced over potholed roads into the hills above town. The truck got stuck in the mud, so they pushed it. Cows blocked their path, so they honked and waited for the animals to move. The truck climbed over a high hill and dipped into a valley, until 137 lime trees came into sight.
These were not Cresencio’s trees, at least not exactly. The land was owned by another local family that had decided long ago that limes were not worth the trouble, so they had moved their business on to cattle while the fruit rotted on the trees. Eventually that family had given Javier’s great-grandfather permission to harvest the fruit in the 1960s, and the trees had been their livelihood ever since. This was where Javier’s grandfather, 83, still came to pick, and where Cresencio had spent every workday of his life. It was where Javier had worked for two years after quitting school at 15, until the smell of citrus turned his stomach and he could think of only one answer when his older brother asked if he wanted to climb into a stranger’s car and sneak into the United States.
“Let’s get started,” his father said now, strapping a tank of fertilizer onto his back, kicking off his sandals and walking barefoot into the grove.
“What about your feet?” Javier asked.
“They know every step in this field,” Cresencio said.
Javier followed him in steel-toed work boots he had been required to buy for his job in Ohio, $150 deducted from his paycheck. He yanked a cord to ignite the motor on an old weed trimmer, but the machine refused to start. He grabbed his machete instead and started swinging at the vines and grass that inched above his waist. The lime trees needed space to grow. They needed water, pruning, fertilizer and sun, and if everything was tended exactly right then every three months the fruits would begin to ripen, and the men would deliver their harvest to an exporter who bought limes wholesale and sent them to the United States. The price for a 50-pound crate was 15 pesos, or a little more than $1. A great picker could haul a ton of limes in a day, earning $20.
Javier was not a great picker. “Everything hurts,” he said, as the wooden handle of the machete blistered his hands and his shoulders began to ache. After 45 minutes, he stepped back to consider his progress. He had almost cleared the space around a single tree.
“This is killing me,” he said, dropping his machete, his shirt soaked through in the heat. He waited until his father disappeared over a hill to fertilize more trees and then collapsed in the shade for a break. In Ohio, his work breaks had come every two hours, when the assembly line at his window factory stopped for regular maintenance and employees went to the air-conditioned break room to eat free cookies and watch TV. He had worn a walkie-talkie then in his role as a manager, and it was his job to call everyone back to the line at the end of each break. He had never felt more a part of America than he did in those moments, hearing his own voice over the factory loudspeakers, issuing orders in English.
His younger brother saw him resting in the shade and sat next to him. This brother had been 3 years old when Javier left for the United States. Now he was 17 and thinking of leaving himself. He picked a lime off a tree and hurled it into the river.
“These things are expensive over there,” Javier said, picking up a lime and throwing it, too.
“How much?” his brother asked.
“Two for a dollar at the grocery store,” Javier said. He pulled out his wallet and showed his brother his Acme grocery discount card. His brother took it carefully into his hands, admiring it. Then Javier handed him more: Walgreens Rewards, Speedway, Aéropostale Insider Club, AutoZone and his timecard for work.
“You get paid by the hour over there,” he explained.
“How much?” his brother asked.
“Eighteen an hour,” Javier said. “But that was good. That was at the end.”
“Eighteen dollars,” his brother said, laughing. “Eighteen to give orders.”
Their father came back for more fertilizer and joined them under the tree. It had devastated him when his two oldest sons decided to leave for the United States, and he had spent a week trying to change their minds. Didn’t they understand the value of working alongside their father, uncles and cousins? He had always found comfort in routine, in knowing the exact parameters of his life: a town of 987 people and 47 cars, where he owned 26 chickens and two cows. Over the years, when his sons called home after midnight shifts from their bunk-bed apartments, he would remind them of the simple things they had chosen to leave. Their mother’s tortillas on the wood-burning stove. The relief of chilled coconut milk after a day in the fields. Fourteen relatives living within a quarter mile. “A family should be together,” he had told them, and at first he felt vindicated when Javier returned home.
But after a week of Javier’s daily phone calls to Ohio, the sight of him hunched over the phone had started to remind Cresencio of the years he had spent missing his own sons. One night, when the phone was broken again, Cresencio had taken Javier to the church, where they lit a candle in prayer that he could return to the United States.
Now he kicked Javier playfully in the leg. “You got lazy over there,” he said. “A big boss, yeah? You got soft. We’re just starting.”
“Let’s go,” Javier said, and he grabbed his machete and began to clear the ground around a second tree.
Javier Flores, right, travels to a fishing hole with his brother, Carlos Uriel Flores Luna, and father, Cresencio Flores, in La Mixtequita, Mexico.
When they returned home, the phone was already ringing. “She’s been calling all day again,” his mother said, so Javier answered already knowing what to expect: a small voice, a high whine. “Daddy,” the girl said.
It was Heidi, who during the first week had sometimes dialed him every 10 minutes, until the only thing Javier could think to do was let the phone ring. She was 4 years old and not yet ready to carry on a conversation. There was nothing to say.
“Hola, mi hija,” he said.
“Daddy. Daddy,” she said again, extending the syllables, turning the word itself into a plea.
“I love you, mi hija,” he said.
Javier had met his wife, Marilu, at the window factory, and she had entered into their marriage with two young children before they added two more. There was Edwin, 10, and Rocio, 7, and Heidi and Mia, the baby, her weight so familiar in his hands. He parented them alone at night while Marilu worked. He cooked dinner, supervised homework and put them all to bed. The baby went down first, and Rocio and Edwin usually retreated to their rooms without a fight, but it was Heidi who had always needed him. She was his first child, the one for whom he had learned to read children’s books in English.
“Que quieres, mi hija?” he said now, speaking to Heidi in a mixture of Spanish and English. “Que quieres? What do you want?”
“Daddy. Where are you?”
“I’m very far, mi hija. Very far.”
“I want to, mi hija. It’s too far.”
Every member of his family had suffered in their own ways since his deportation. His wife was sleeping two hours each night, since she was taking care of the children during the day and still working her regular shift at the window factory. She was too exhausted to breastfeed, so the baby was having stomach pains from cheap formula. The pain caused the baby to fuss all night, which kept everyone awake since they were all sleeping in the same room.
Heidi didn’t understand what it meant to be deported, no matter how many times Javier tried to explain. “They forced me to leave,” he had told her, again and again, but still Marilu had detailed the meltdowns that followed each call. Heidi screamed for him. She demanded. She cried until her body shook. As a last resort, Marilu sometimes calmed her by saying that Javier was at work and would be home in a few days. But the days continued to pass and the lie grew bigger. “I don’t know how to deal with her anymore,” Marilu had told Javier, and so they had begun talking about sending Heidi to live with him in Mexico.
It was the most realistic option they could agree upon. Javier dreaded crossing the desert illegally, risking arrest or dehydration or worse, but he would already have been on his way if he had the $8,000 to pay a coyote. Instead all they had was $1,320 in a bank account that was shrinking fast, just enough to buy one plane ticket for Heidi. But first she would need a passport, and that passport required her father’s signature, and there was no way for Javier to receive mail in La Mixtequita. Even if she did get the passport, how did a 4-year-old girl who spoke mostly English travel alone to a remote village in Mexico, where the schools ended in ninth grade and the most common job for women was selling tamales door-to-door to neighbors who couldn’t afford to buy them?
Javier pressed the phone to his ear. “Daddy. Daddy,” Heidi said again, starting to cry. He sang to her. “It’s going to be okay,” he said.
Hearing her cry made him antsy, desperate, but it also brought a sick relief. Already he was wondering how long it would be until she stopped needing him. He had seen families move on from deportations; his was one of them. Marilu’s first boyfriend — Edwin and Rocio’s father — had been sent back to the Mexican state of Chiapas after a drunken driving arrest in 2005. The boyfriend had been an uninvolved father, never once bothering to call from Mexico, but still Javier had seen how quickly the men at the window factory offered to console Marilu, to buy her dresses or take her to dinner. He had been one of those men. How long until they began their pursuit again? How long until one was singing his children to sleep?
“When do you come home?” Heidi was saying now.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“When? When?” she cried.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Now,” she cried. “Now! Now! Now!”
“I’ll be there soon, mi hija,” he lied.
The truth was that nothing would ever happen soon — not in this place where his relatives spent the day rooted to the plastic chairs of an open-air living room, waiting for his mother to cook tortillas, waiting for the rain to clear, waiting for more limes to ripen on the trees.
“What are we doing today?” Javier asked his father.
“There’s nothing for us right now,” his father said, swatting at a mosquito, pouring himself a small glass of beer. “We’re doing this.”
“What about work?” Javier asked.
“There’s nothing,” his father said again.
Mexican national Javier Flores endures separation from his family north of the border and the challenge of living where he started. Click for more photos.
They had already cleared the ground around all 137 of the lime trees. They had picked the fruit, sold it, and used the money to buy four chickens. Now, for the next several days, there would be nothing to do but sit on the porch and wait until they could work again. The men moved their plastic chairs into a different corner of the porch to find the shade. The sun shifted, and they moved their chairs again. They ate tortillas. They talked about maybe going fishing. Javier napped in the hammock. They ate more tortillas. A storm rolled in. Javier napped again. The weather cleared. They talked more about fishing. They moved their chairs. Hours passed. They moved their chairs again.
“I can’t sit in this place anymore,” Javier said, finally, the day giving way to dusk, and so he started walking to the Internet cafe.
The cafe was a one-room hut with six broken computers, but its shaky wireless Internet was the only connection in town. Javier entered and saw four people sitting in a tight circle around the wireless box, pointing at it with their cell phones. He tried to log on but got an error message. He tried again and received a faint signal. He read an e-mail from the Akron Zoo about his membership and another from a friend who didn’t know he had been deported. “We due for some Chipotle?” it read.
“Ugh,” Javier said, feeling wistful, looking up from his phone for a minute before logging back into Facebook and clicking on his brother’s page.
His brother had been his closest friend in the United States; they had moved there together and worked the same jobs in Texas and South Carolina before making their way to the window factory. Just a few months earlier, it had been the brother’s immigration status Javier was worrying about, after his brother was pulled over and issued a DUI. But his brother had found a good lawyer who knew how to work the backlogged immigration system, so a few days after Javier was deported with a clean record his brother had been given a court date for sometime late in 2017.
“At work,” read a status update on his brother’s Facebook page.
“Ugh,” Javier said again, looking up at the clock, calculating that it was nearing the end of his old shift in Ohio, and for the next few minutes he searched the Internet for pictures of the windows he had once made.
“Eighty-two different varieties,” he said, admiring one.
“Best glass in the country,” he said, clicking on another.
At first the window factory had felt no different from the chicken processing plant or the restaurant prep kitchen — just another assembly line with abundant overtime, where nobody questioned his legal status so long as he kept pace with the work. His first job had been one of the factory’s most demanding, cutting a wood frame to exact specifications, a different measurement to follow every two minutes. He was good with a saw, and after two years his bosses asked him to supervise the framers. After six years, they asked him to manage the line. The goal was 370 windows each shift; he usually hit 425.
But what he cared about as much as the quota was the elegance of each window: the clean lines of the frame, the subtle strength of the glass. He took pictures of windows and stored dozens of them on his phone. When his paychecks grew big enough to rent a home in the suburbs, he found one with windows made in his factory — two oversized models in the living room that became his favorite feature of the house. He could play with the sliding panels and the blinds and decide how much light he wanted to let in. A window offered comfort. A window provided dominion. To sit on the inside of a window was to view the world at a comfortable remove, judge the outside elements and control them.
Now the wireless signal at the Internet cafe disappeared, so Javier paid his four pesos and left. He walked back into the streets of a town where he knew of only one window, a 20-inch sliver of stained glass near the front of the church. The town consisted of open doorways, half-covered roofs and cinderblock walls, through which everyone and everything was free to come and go. In came the rain. In came the neighbors and the chickens and the women selling their tamales. Now Javier slept inside a mosquito net, which he never done before. He wore rubber boots to protect his feet from scorpions and lizards, which he had never done, either. “Americano,” his father sometimes teased him, and once, when Javier tried to tell him about his windows, his father had marveled at the strangeness of them. “A lifetime’s savings for some wood and glass?” he had asked.
Javier had taken out his phone to show his father pictures from his factory, trying to make him understand. But where Javier saw security and comfort — the view from inside his old living room — his father saw something else.
“La jaula de oro,” he said, using a term for the window that he also sometimes also used for the United States, with its barriers and its need for control. The golden cage.
Javier Flores walks home from the Internet cafe in La Mixtequita. The cafe is a one-room hut with six broken computers, but its shaky wireless Internet is the only connection in town.
Nights in La Mixtequita meant torrential rain, mosquitoes and total blackness, and now Javier navigated by flashlight to the phone for his last call of the day. He reached for a family calendar near the phone and counted off the 22 days since he’d left Ohio. The calendar was from 2008, but there was nothing in it. There had been nothing to schedule here, not in six years.
The phone rang and Javier reached for it, knowing it would be Marilu. They had spoken to each other over the phone almost every night since their first date, her calling from the break room before he went to bed. The nighttime call was their chance to speak uninterrupted, with the house quiet and the children in bed. It was at night, over the phone, when he and Marilu had first talked about trying for a third child, and then a fourth.
“Our bedtime call,” Javier told her now.
“That’s right,” she said. “It’s busy here. I almost forgot.”
“How are the kids?” Javier asked.
“They’re fine,” she said. “Why are you always asking about the kids? Aren’t you going to ask about me?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, but before he could ask, Marilu was already telling him about her day, another disaster, the 22nd consecutive terrible day. Two hours of sleep. A call from a teacher about Edwin. Another paperwork problem at the food stamp office. A crying baby. A sore throat. This was what their nighttime calls had become since Javier’s deportation. Marilu’s frustrations accumulated over the course of a day, until talking to her at night felt to Javier like trying to defuse a bomb.
“You are doing so much,” Javier told her now, his voice quiet, deferential.
“I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this alone,” she said. “Each day there is so much on my chest.”
“I’m worried about you,” he said, and because he didn’t want to risk upsetting her and didn’t know what else to say he sat for a few seconds in silence. He thought about the two naps he had taken in the hammock while Marilu worked. He thought about the limes ripening on the trees and wondered how long it would be until he could work again. How many $10 workdays until he could send Marilu some money? And from where could he send it?
“Just come back. Cross the desert,” Marilu said, breaking the silence. “We need you.”
“I want to,” he said. “You know that I want to.”
“Just come,” she said.
“It’s not that simple,” he said.
And so once again he started talking to her about their options. A coyote would cost $8,000, and they didn’t have it. He could try to cross on his own, but what were his odds of evading both Border Patrol and the cartels that controlled the smuggling routes? “Dead or in jail and all of our money gone,” he said. Maybe Marilu could move with the children to Mexico, but first they needed passports, money for five plane tickets, and a place to live when they arrived. “I would want to build you a house,” Javier told her, knowing that this too was impossible. He suggested relocating near the border — to Nuevo Laredo or Matamoros — where the children could cross each day to attend a U.S. school, but who would they know there? And where would they work?
“It’s a difficult situation,” he said.
“You’re making it sound impossible,” she said.
“There has to be a solution,” he said.
“Then what is it?” she said. Her break at work was almost over. She told him she needed to go.
“One more minute,” he said.
“I can’t,” she said. She told him she loved him and hung up, and he returned by flashlight to the hammock. He switched off the light and the house went dark. He lay awake and thought about Marilu’s description of the last time his family had seen him.
He had called Marilu from his truck as soon as the immigration officers pulled him over, and without thinking she had piled their children into a car and driven toward that spot. They got there just in time to see Javier being placed in the back of a government vehicle, and then the vehicle started to drive away. Marilu and the children had followed behind for a few seconds, their panic rising, the children calling to Javier as Marilu honked the horn. Javier had never heard them. He had never turned around. They had been there to say goodbye and he had missed it. That was how the first day began.
Now it was long after midnight, the 22nd day having turned into the 23rd, and still Javier couldn’t sleep. He drifted off and awoke a few minutes later. The rain was deafening. It came in through the windowless walls and seeped through his clothes. He moved from the hammock to the floor and back to the hammock and waited for the night to end.
The first sound of morning in La Mixtequita came before dawn. It was the ringing of a phone, and Javier was already in his chair, waiting to answer it.