How many times can you start your life all over again from zero? If there’s anyone who knows the answer to that question, it’s Claudia Amaro. She had to do it for the first time when her father was murdered, when she was ten years old. She started over again for a second time when she was thirteen and her mother decided to move the whole family, including Claudia and her three sisters, to the United States, fleeing violence. She had to hit the reset button again when she was thirty and a deportation order for her husband destroyed her family and the life she had built over the past two decades, sending him, Claudia, and their US-citizen son back to Mexico, a place she no longer felt was home.
And with nothing left to lose, in the hope of getting back a little of the life that had been hers, in 2013, at thirty-seven, Claudia started over for the fourth time. She was prepared to spend as much time as necessary in a detention center in the US. She crossed the border north and at the entry gate said she wished to apply for political asylum. A few months later, her husband, Yamil, did the same. Claudia spent three weeks in detention. Yamil was locked up for two years and three months.
Back in Kansas, a place they both consider their home, Claudia and Yamil live under the ever-present shadow of possible deportation. Neither of them knows if they would be able to start over from nothing for a fifth time.
Claudia Amaro was born in Tijuana, Mexico. When she was ten years old, the family traveled to Durango state, where her father was killed under circumstances that have never been explained by law enforcement. For the next two years, the family fluctuated between anger at the authorities for not pursuing justice, and terror from the threats they started getting from the killers. Three years after her father’s murder, Claudia’s mother, Elvia, decided to go to Colorado with her four daughters. Claudia is the oldest sister.
She recalls, “There were very few Hispanics at the time; there were only three or four Mexicans born in Mexico at school, and the first year was really hard. I didn’t know the language; I got bullied. I went without any lunch for a long time, because I didn’t know the system; I didn’t know how to take a tray and serve myself.”
I talked to Claudia for the first time in 2013, after she reached out to me on Facebook, expressing interest in a series of reporting pieces I had written. At that time she was still living in Mexico. In a message, she told me her story in brief and said she planned to return to the US. I decided to talk to her over the phone to find out more. We have stayed in touch since then. Through our interviews I have documented her experiences from before 2013 and the path her family has taken in the years following her application for political asylum in the US.
It takes a great deal of strength for a thirteen-year-old girl to overcome the challenges that come with starting over at a new school, in a new community, in a new country, in a different language, in a completely unfamiliar structure. Claudia had that strength. With the support of some of her classmates and one of her teachers, she became the first Hispanic student to graduate from her school in Colorado with course credits in algebra. When she was seventeen, the family moved again, this time to Wichita, Kansas. There she began developing into her adult self, during what she calls “the best years of my life.”
I love the Mexican people; I love how hardworking they are, but my heart has stars and stripes. I’m going home.
“I felt at home for the first time. I didn’t miss Mexico. My sisters and I joined a youth group at church, and that’s where I met my husband. We got married in 1998, when I was twenty-three. In 2000, my son was born.”
Claudia’s husband, Yamil, was born in Durango, Mexico. He worked as a housepainter and played soccer in a semiprofessional league. Claudia taught classes and took care of their son, Yamil Jr. Her life unfolded peacefully, until she got a call in April 2005. Her husband had been pulled over in a traffic stop, and the police discovered he was using false identification. Claudia had to go down to the police station. When she got to the station, she explained she was Yamil’s wife and asked what she had to do. In response, the police took her into a room to interrogate her. They handcuffed her and brought her to immigration authorities. Claudia and Yamil were released on bond and were both facing deportation when Yamil received an order of deportation in January 2006.
“When we explained we had a six-year-old son who was a US citizen, the judge said he was still young so he could adapt to life in Mexico,” Claudia told me in our first conversation over the phone, her voice breaking. Over the course of the nine months of the legal process, she and Yamil were not allowed to work. “We lost the house we had been paying for, the car, everything. We went back to Mexico with nothing.”
The very hard process of adaptation she had had to face when she moved to the US was repeated once again, but this time it was twofold: Claudia and Yamil had to adjust to a country that no longer felt like home, while their son entered a completely unknown world. They went to live in Torreón, where Yamil had family. When Yamil Jr. started school, he was held back a grade because he did not speak Spanish very well. They enrolled him in a private school where he would get more individual attention, but even that did not spare him from bullying by his peers for being American. Some months before leaving Mexico, Claudia and her husband had to make a formal complaint after their son was beaten up by six other boys.
“They called him ‘pocho’; they made fun of him,” Claudia says. “In first grade, he got really depressed; we had to take him to see a therapist. The therapist told me and my husband that part of the problem was we had not fully accepted that we lived in Mexico now, but how could we accept it? We had lived in Torreón for seven years, and we couldn’t adapt. I don’t feel American or Mexican. I feel like a human being whose home is in Wichita; that’s where my family and my history is.”
I could hear the anger and frustration in Claudia’s voice as she talked. She told me that a few months earlier, they had been robbed at gunpoint. After seeing a gun put to his father’s head, their son, thirteen at the time, began avoiding going out.
That’s when Claudia and Yamil decided to find some way to go back.
“The first time I left Mexico [was] because my dad was murdered and the authorities didn’t do anything. I don’t want a life like that for my son. I want to go back to our home. I want my son to live the life he has a right to as a US citizen, because he’s been through things here he should never have had to go through. I’m going to the US, land of immigrants, that I feel a part of. I love the Mexican people; I love how hardworking they are, but my heart has stars and stripes. I’m going home.”
A few days after we talked, on July 22, 2013, Claudia and eight other young adults walked up to the border entry gate in Nogales, smiling brightly, accompanied by supporters shouting “Undocumented and unafraid!” Claudia had Yamil Jr. with her. Claudia’s mother was on the other side of the gate, waiting for her grandson. He reentered his country without incident. Claudia took one last look at her son before being handcuffed, put in a van, and taken to the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona.
Eloy is in the middle of nowhere. The 115 miles stretching between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona’s two biggest cities, are pure desert and sky. The detention center is right at the halfway point. To get to Eloy, you have to drive on Interstate 10, the seemingly endless highway that spans the country from the Pacific Coast in California to the Atlantic in Florida. Sometimes the wind whips up and pelts the cars on the road with sheets of desert sand. Or the sun, beating down for twelve hours a day, heats up the pavement to such an extreme it causes car tires to burst. At the sign for Casa Grande, it’s time to take a left turn onto a dusty road and drive for another fifteen miles until you reach a complex of squat cement buildings planted crudely in the heart of the desert, consisting of three prisons and the immigrant detention center. These four buildings hold five thousand lives in a state of suspended animation, contained by barbed wire and electric fences.
Eloy is one of six detention centers in Arizona operated by CoreCivic, the company that manages most of the private prisons in the United States. Previously called the Corrections Corporation of America, the company changed its name to CoreCivic just a few days before Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. The detention center has 1,596 beds and is filled with men and women accused of being on this side of the border without a piece of paper. For thirty years, CoreCivic has earned millions of dollars in profits for holding people who have been detained while they wait for their cases to be decided by a judge.
In the six months after November 8, 2016, the day Trump won the election, the stock prices of CoreCivic and GEO, the other major private prison company running immigrant detention centers, saw gains of over 100 percent. Beyond the financial windfall this brought the two companies, it meant their futures were secure, with plenty of business on the horizon.
When Yamil Yáujar arrived in Eloy, he knew what was in store. His wife, Claudia, had been held in the same place seven weeks earlier.
Four months earlier, during the Obama administration, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates issued a directive to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to reduce their government contracts with private prisons, with the goal of ultimately phasing them out entirely. After that announcement, stock prices for CoreCivic and GEO plummeted by 40 percent. Two months later, just as the presidential campaign reached its apex, CoreCivic announced that it would have to make staff cuts in order to balance their budget. Trump and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had staked out opposing positions. Clinton vowed to uphold the decision to cut private prison contracts, while Trump maintained that the private prison and detention system was good for the country.
Yates’s decision to cut the contracts was based on a Department of Justice report summarizing the dramatic growth of the immigrant detention system in the United States — an 800 percent increase between 1980 and 2013 — and showing a decrease in the number of immigrants in detention from 220,000 in 2013 to 195,000 in 2016. According to the report, the high costs associated with paying private prison companies were no longer necessary. The private prisons also had a history of accusations of abuse, human rights violations, labor exploitation, and a lack of transparency, some of which resulted in fines levied against the companies and the closings of some installations.
In spite of this, on February 23, 2017, the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, reversed Yates’s order, injecting new life into CoreCivic and GEO. Sessions argued that maintaining contracts with private prisons and detention centers conformed with the “future needs” of the federal corrections system. It was most likely no coincidence that both GEO and CoreCivic supported the Republican Party and Trump with donations during the presidential campaign: GEO donated a total of $673,000, while CoreCivic donated at least $130,000.
In the years to come, at least during Trump’s first term in office, 15,000 new immigration agents are expected to be hired to detain immigrants, even though as of 2017 there were only 301 judges in the entire country hearing immigration cases to handle over 500,000 cases pending, not to mention all of the cases resulting from future detentions. This means more immigrants will be held in detention and, therefore, there will be a greater need for private detention centers; longer periods spent in detention for those seeking a chance to stay in the country or simply to save their lives; and higher profits than ever for the private prison companies.
When Yamil Yáujar arrived in Eloy, he knew what was in store. His wife, Claudia, had been held in the same place seven weeks earlier. I heard the story from two points of view, first from Claudia, talking by phone from Kansas, where she returned after a judge released her on her own recognizance while her asylum case was pending. Then I spoke in person with Yamil in Eloy’s visiting room, where I was allowed a visit with him in February 2015. Claudia and Yamil shared details of their shared life with me, memories they’d held fast to over the course of the two years and three months they were separated.
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In the visiting room at the detention center, where around two dozen families gather to spend an hour with a loved one detained for crossing the border undocumented, or for working without proper documentation, or, as in Yamil’s case, for turning oneself in to immigration authorities to apply for asylum, Yamil tells me his side of the story. We are sitting in the back of the room shaped like a shoe box, facing each other across a table. In this room, adults are not allowed to sit next to each other. Yamil, forty-four at the time of our visit, tells me that in the years his family lived in Torreón, he and Claudia had a hard time getting jobs, and the violence unleashed during President Felipe Calderón’s six-year term had begun to ravage the region. Shoot-outs and murders became a normal part of their daily life. Then, cases of extortion proliferated. Until one day it was their turn.
After years of hard work, Yamil had opened up his own small business, a hamburger stand. He had only been open for a few weeks, and he had a secondhand pickup truck he used for the business. On January 26, 2012, which happened to be Yamil Jr.’s birthday, two men came by his hamburger stand and asked him who owned the truck. Yamil told them it was his. The men told him they had to take it, because it had been reported stolen. Claudia offered to show them their title to the truck, to no avail. The men forced Yamil into the truck and drove off with him. A few hours later, Yamil’s family got a call demanding a ransom of a thousand dollars in exchange for his release. His family got the ransom together, and Yamil came home. A few weeks after his kidnapping, the men came back and stole the truck at gunpoint.
“After that, for three days, they kept passing by my stand. I had to close it,” Yamil recalls, sadness in his eyes. But he is not bitter or defeated. The khaki jumpsuit uniform he wears makes him look even thinner. His short hair, shaved close to his scalp, accentuates his lively eyes, like two black cherries.
A few months later, Yamil and Claudia had to go to the public ministry of Torreón to file a complaint because their son had been beaten up by several other boys who called him “gringo” and “pocho,” derogatory terms. While they made their statement, Yamil recognized one of the police officers there. He was one of the men who had stolen his truck. After that, it wasn’t hard to make the decision they had to make.
After a long pause, his shining eyes trained on mine, Yamil tells me why a man would choose to spend over two years locked up in a detention center rather than go back to his country.
In July 2013, Claudia and Yamil Jr. went to the border gate and she declared her intention to apply for political asylum. A few weeks later, Yamil did the same. In the US, the political asylum application process takes five years on average to complete. While the asylum case is pending, it is at a judge’s discretion whether to release the applicant on their own recognizance. Claudia was released after three weeks spent in detention, but Yamil was not. And even though he could have signed for his voluntary release at any time to return to Mexico, he decided to stay in detention.
After a long pause, his shining eyes trained on mine, Yamil tells me why a man would choose to spend over two years locked up in a detention center rather than go back to his country: “It’s worth it for my son. He misses me right now, but he can live in peace. In Mexico, we couldn’t live.”
In mid-June 2017, Yamil and Claudia were counting down to an important day: August 29. That is when Yamil had a date in immigration court in Kansas City in what could be the first in a long series of appearances before a judge to move his asylum case forward. When asylum applicants appear before a judge, they have to demonstrate a credible fear of physical harm or death if they are returned to their country.
If the judge determines there is a credible fear, then the case proceeds, one step closer to the granting of asylum. But if the judge does not find sufficient evidence, then the applicant, in this case Yamil, could be taken into custody right there — as he was in 2005 — and deported to Mexico immediately. For Claudia and Yamil, the old fears resurface, because this time could turn out the same as before. In that sense, Claudia and Yamil are different from other undocumented immigrants, because they have already experienced the worst-case scenario, and it scarred their family forever.
Ever since they were released from detention — Claudia in June 2013 and Yamil in December 2015 — they have lived in Kansas with their son. Claudia’s first court date was initially scheduled for late 2019, but because of changes made in immigration courts under the new administration, another judge was assigned to her case and the date was moved up to January 2018. Then she was rescheduled to 2020. In any case, they have the same fear: this family’s anxiety is directly related to the changes the Trump administration has started to make in the criteria for prioritizing immigrants vulnerable to deportation.
In 2011, under instructions from President Obama, a document was published by immigration authorities known as the “Morton Memo,” referring to John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The memo said that, since the agency only had the capacity to deport four hundred thousand people annually, immigration agents should focus their efforts on those individuals who posed a danger to the country. Priority should be given to people representing a threat to national security, meaning those with criminal records or ties to terrorism and, in some cases, those with prior minor offenses, at the discretion of immigration authorities.
Since the beginning of the Trump administration, policy changes in how immigration laws are applied indicate that authorities may use their discretion to qualify any violation of the law as a “crime,” widely and arbitrarily broadening the spectrum of people who could be considered a “danger” to the country. People like Yamil, who was charged with using false documents and has a previous deportation on his record, could be deemed a threat to national security.
Although Claudia’s concerns are certainly legitimate, this broad application of discretion by immigration authorities is not completely new. During the Obama administration, judicial discretion led to the deportation of people who did not meet the standards of the Morton Memo. As is well known, during the course of Obama’s eight years in office, more than three million people were deported, significantly more than the two million deportations under George W. Bush and the 870,000 under Bill Clinton, his immediate predecessors in the Oval Office.
During the first year of his administration, pro-immigrant organizations warned that by his second term, Obama, the president who had centered his election campaign on themes of “hope” and “change,” could become the “deporter in chief,” a play on the president’s role as commander in chief. During his first three years in office, the number of deportations reached 390,000; from year four to six, that figure surpassed 400,000. In Obama’s last two years in office, although the number of deportations declined somewhat, there were still no fewer than 300,000. On average, 1,100 people were deported every single day during Obama’s two terms.
Aside from the sheer magnitude of the number, the deportation issue became a thorn in Obama’s side because of the profiles of the people being deported. A study by the Transactional Records Analysis Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University published in 2014 found that of all the people deported by ICE in 2013, 41 percent had not committed any type of crime and only 12 percent had been charged with a Level 1 felony or greater. Of this last group, 25 percent had only committed the crime of unlawfully reentering the country. An analysis of the nationalities of those deported in the same report found that over 65 percent were Mexican.
Many of the deportations carried out under Obama’s administration involved people such as Claudia and Yamil, parents of US-citizen children. Between July 2010 and October 2012, immigration authorities deported two hundred thousand parents with US-citizen children. This is double the number of such deportations carried out from 1997 to 2007, according to a 2012 ICE report.
During one of our phone conversations, Claudia told me she shuddered at the thought of Yamil’s upcoming court date in August. “The whole thing makes me think about what happened before. That time, when we were in court, Yamil was released on $10,000 bond. But when his first court date came up, they said there wasn’t sufficient evidence and he was taken into custody right there. All I have is my faith in God and my community, because we’ve worked so hard and I believe we have their support. We know the senators, the representatives, the mayor, the police chief, the people.”
In the years they lived in Mexico, Claudia often felt guilty for having taken her son to live in a hostile environment, even though as a US citizen he had the right to remain in his country.
Comparing their two cases, Claudia has a better chance of gaining legal status than Yamil. She has not been deported before, and she returned to Mexico voluntarily to be with her husband. And according to the criteria of some immigration judges, the longer someone has lived in the US, the better the chances of being allowed to stay. If, at her court date in 2018, the judge would have decided to deny her asylum application and deport her, or if that happens at her next date, in 2020, Claudia has some recourse. In January 2021, Jamil Jr. will turn twenty-one, at which point he could petition for residency for his parents.
Claudia tells me that after Yamil Jr.’s experiences living in Mexico and everything he has been through — returning to the US when he was thirteen and living with his grandmother for a few weeks while his mother was held in detention, and then waiting two years for his father to finally be released — her son does not like to discuss the subject. She draws some comfort from the fact that if she and her husband are obligated to return to Mexico, at least Yamil Jr. will be old enough to decide where he wants to live. That is a tremendous relief. In the years they lived in Mexico, Claudia often felt guilty for having taken her son to live in a hostile environment, even though as a US citizen he had the right to remain in his country.
The family has rebuilt their life in Wichita. Claudia works as a family liaison at a school, helping parents get more involved, and started a translation and interpreting business with her sisters. Yamil started his own housepainting company in mid-2016. And not only is he not “stealing jobs,” as anti-immigrant rhetoric about Mexicans would have us believe, he is generating jobs: he has hired three people to work for him. Yamil Jr., now seventeen, is doing well in school and would like to become an engineer one day.
“I will support him in whatever he decides to do,” Claudia tells me. “Right now he loves school, he has his friends, he plays soccer, and he’s very excited about going to college. He has a girlfriend he adores, and he doesn’t want to leave Wichita. My son suffered so much there [in Mexico]. He was at five different schools; it was really bad. I feel good about giving him the happiness now that he didn’t have in those years.”
Complementing her work in school, and as an outgrowth of everything she has learned in recent years, is Claudia’s work as an organizer for the undocumented community in Wichita, including sharing her personal experience with people who feel threatened by stricter immigration enforcement under the Trump administration. She also tries to talk with far-right conservatives who hold strong beliefs with little or no knowledge of immigrant rights. She offers an example: in Kansas, many people are very pro-life and strongly oppose abortion rights. Claudia tries to explain to them that if they are truly pro-life, they should know that every person is born with the right to migrate. Claudia says that many Latinos vote along the same party lines as Republicans in the state because of religious or personal beliefs, even though conservative politics sometimes give no consideration to defending ethnic minorities.
“I tell them the same people who are against immigration are against education, decent jobs, helping the poorest Americans; they want to own the entire country. I challenge them to find out how their representatives vote on education, immigration, and what their relationships are to the big corporations who lobby and make big campaign contributions, and in exchange [how] legislators act in the interest of those companies. In Kansas, a bill was presented to reduce corporate taxes, while initiatives that would have helped the poor get access to education were defeated. They don’t want us educated, because they need us to just be cheap labor.”
Claudia acknowledges that even in Kansas, where organizing is harder and there is more resistance than in other states, activism undertaken by pro-immigrant organizations in recent years has had some positive results. People are better informed. She tells me that some media outlets have stopped using language that criminalizes immigrants, no longer using the word “illegal” to describe an undocumented person. Although there is still intolerance, many Americans are supportive. Claudia mentions a man who closed his business one day because his workers had not shown up. He went to their homes, concerned. They explained that they were taking part in a one-day action to demonstrate the effects on the workforce of the absence of immigrants. Hearing this, their employer gave them his wholehearted support and posed for a photo next to a poster with the slogan “A Day Without Immigrants.”
“I love this country because of people like that,” Claudia says emphatically.
When Claudia thinks about the future, she pictures herself still working at the school and being involved as an activist. She currently hosts a radio show, Planeta Venus, where she discusses general interest topics from a woman’s perspective. She also works with Movimiento Cosecha, a group that promotes immigrant rights, and runs a Conoce tus derechos (Know your rights) workshop in which she draws on her personal experience helping families come up with a plan in the event that they are stopped by police: they must have a plan in place for their legal defense, to alert their support networks and even local and national media if necessary.
Claudia assures me that to her, the Trump administration is no different from previous administrations when it comes to deportations.
“The separation of families is the same, the pain is the same,” she says. “I would like to think that now people see the enemy more clearly and will try to prepare themselves more, psychologically, for how to respond about their immigration status. But as far as the act of deportation itself, I don’t see any difference, because it’s the same suffering for somebody deported ten years ago or somebody deported yesterday, or a month from now. Trump talks about legality, but sometimes what is legal is not necessarily what is right. . . . [S]lavery was [once] legal, but that doesn’t mean it was right. I would like to say to him, ‘I hope you never have to leave your country. If you did, you would know what it’s like to live under a microscope, listening to other people’s opinions when they have no idea of what you’ve had to go through.’”
Claudia is trying to overcome what she’s been through, but she does not forget. To avoid separating her family, she says she lost valuable years, time she could have devoted to her personal development.
“I learned a lot, but I felt lost in my personal life. In Mexico I felt like I was trapped in a bottle. Here, I feel free. I know this country isn’t perfect, but this is where I belong, this is my home. I am proud to be Mexican, but here at home I have the freedom to do what I do, and I know I would not have that in Mexico. I couldn’t do what I’m doing here: talking to people and organizing them, saying whatever I want.”
Before we wrapped up our conversation, Claudia told me that once while she was talking to an American woman, she asked her, “Why doesn’t the US want us?” The woman replied, “Fortunately, the government’s policies don’t reflect the whole country.”
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Excerpted from How Does It Feel to be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience From Mexicans Living in the United States by Eileen Truax. Copyright 2018. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
Eileen Truax is a Mexican journalist specializing in migration and politics. She contributes regularly to Al Día News and the Spanish-language versions of the New York Times, Newsweek, and Vice. Her current project explores the lives of immigrant youth in Spain. Truax is the author of Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for Their American Dream and author of the forthcoming We Built the Wall, about how the US shuts down asylum seekers (2018). She lives in Los Angeles.
Editor: Dana Snitzky