When Susana Martinez was elected governor of New Mexico in 2010 and began to call for an end to driver’s licenses for undocumented residents, José Guadalupe Rodriguez Ortiz and his wife, Nancy Solis-Rodriguez, began to think seriously about his immigration status.
Solis-Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen. Like many Mexican Americans in Santa Fe, she was born in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. But her father, who crossed the border illegally, was granted amnesty by legislation signed into law by President Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s. Rodriguez, however, was brought across the border at age 10 by his parents, without the benefit of proper documentation and too late for that grant of amnesty. Now, 29 years old, married and with two children, he wants to become legal.
That is why on Labor Day weekend, he and his wife drove south to El Paso, and then slipped back across the border into Juárez. Rodriguez had an appointment at the U.S. Consulate there, the first step in the long process of applying for a proper visa that would allow him to live legally in the United States, to obtain a green card and ultimately to become a U.S. citizen.
Rodriguez had a choice. He could have stayed in Santa Fe and applied for a permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was initiated by President Barack Obama earlier this year. It prevents deportation for two years for young undocumented residents who meet certain criteria. Some lawyers advise their clients to apply for deferred action and hope that Congress will reform immigration law in the meantime.
“Maybe the law will change, and at least you are here with your family,” said Santa Fe immigration lawyer Victoria Ferrara.
Many of her clients waited to make a decision until the vote was counted in the presidential election, fearing that if Republican Mitt Romney defeated Democrat Barack Obama, the program would end and they might be rounded up and deported. The election is over, Obama won and now Ferrara expects to file many applications for deferred action.
But Rodriguez wants to become a U.S. citizen. Deferred action doesn’t provide that path. “If we are going to do this, I want to get it over with,” he said. In an email after the election, he wrote to say he was encouraged by the re-election of the president. “I hope he will make it easier for us.”
Rodriguez had the experience of an older brother to consider before making his decision. Six years ago, his brother Esteban left Santa Fe to return to Aguascalientes to apply for permission to re-enter the United States. He waited 15 months.
“It was heartbreaking,” Esteban Rodriguez said. “My wife and little girl were in Santa Fe. I hope Lupe doesn’t have to stay more than four or five months.”
But Esteban’s long stay had given the couple pause. “That’s why it took me and Nancy a long time to take this crazy and nerve-wracking step,” Rodriguez explained.
Rodriguez was born in Las Jaulas, a pueblecito of slightly more than 600 people a few miles west of Aguascalientes, the capital of the Mexican state of Aguascalientes. It is in the heart of the old gold and silver mining region in the North Central highlands, which also was the heart of the Mexican independence movement. The centers of cities here bear the mark of Spanish colonial architecture. Eighteenth-century churches dominate the downtown plazas. There are narrow cobblestone streets along which cafés and shops are busy into the night.
Rodriguez’s father, also named Guadalupe, built the two-story brick house where the younger Rodriguez was born. It has a courtyard that contains a garden, several turkeys and a white horse named El Gato (the cat). Inside, the tile floors are spotless, although Rodriguez’s mother, Estefana, complains that she can never keep them clean.
Rodriguez is surrounded by family in Las Jaulas: his father and mother; his 86-year-old maternal grandmother, Maria; aunts Queta and Maria; and many cousins. But his eight brothers and his sister live north of the border. They remain a presence here in photos on the living room walls.
Rodriguez’s recollection of his move to the United States is vague. He remembers that his family stayed briefly in a run-down hotel on the border in the industrial city of Juárez. He remembers it was named Hotel Santa Fe. Crossing from Juárez to El Paso was not a difficult proposition in those days, and his mother and brothers were able to follow the path of his father and some older brothers to Santa Fe.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when he was a teenager, that it became clear to Rodriguez that he was undocumented. The realization came on a day that his parents took the children to the Pecos River for a picnic rather than send them to school. They did this because word had gotten around that federal immigration officials were rounding up illegal immigrants.
The rumor turned out to be false, but it led Rodriguez to another truth — that he was in the United States illegally.
Rodriguez graduated from Capital High School. He worked at a local restaurant with several of his brothers. Four years ago, he married Solis-Rodriguez. She has a son, Youanie, who is now 11 years old. Rodriguez and Solis-Rodriguez have a daughter, Yanelie, who is now 3. They attend San Isidro Catholic Church. Rodriguez had begun to take classes at the Santa Fe Community College that he hoped would lead him into the field of radiology.
Not long into their marriage, Rodriguez and Solis-Rodriguez realized they had gotten as close as they were going to get to the American Dream without further action.
“We want the all-American dream,” said Solis-Rodriguez during her first visit to see her husband since he left Santa Fe. “If you don’t have a Social Security card, you can’t get a loan for a house. Susana Martinez said she wanted to take driver’s licenses away from illegals. Without a license, you can’t get insurance.” But most of all, she said, “We don’t want to be afraid.”
“We just wanted to do the right thing,” Rodriguez added.
It took them a year to make the decision to act. Then it took them a year to get their finances in order so that Solis-Rodriguez and the children could afford to live on her income alone.
“I saw other people try this without getting financially prepared,” Solis-Rodriguez said. “They ended up working two jobs to pay the bills and had no money left over for food.”
They also began to find all the documents and other articles that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requires. Among the requested items are photographs of Solis-Rodriguez and Rodriguez taken while they were dating. This is to show that their marriage is not a sham intended to fool immigration officers.
Visas are available for the spouse of a U.S. citizen, but if that spouse has lived illegally in the United States, he or she is not allowed to re-enter the United States for 10 years. What Rodriguez is seeking is a waiver of that 10-year ban. Getting that waiver generally takes from three weeks to 18 months, said attorney Ferrara. But there are stories about people who have waited longer, or who have been turned down altogether.
To get that waiver, Solis-Rodriguez must show that being separated from Rodriguez is a financial, educational or medical hardship for her. But the biggest hardship is on the children. Youanie fears that his father has been taken away from him, Rodriguez said. His grades have suffered since Rodriguez has been away. Rodriguez and Solis-Rodriguez are hoping that the school psychologist will write a letter to the consulate, describing the boy’s state of mind. Solis-Rodriguez did not bring him with her on her visit to Aguascalientes, because she knew he couldn’t afford a week away from school.
Yanelie doesn’t fully comprehend the situation. Her last words to Rodriguez at the airport in Guadalajara before she and her mother returned to Santa Fe were, “Why aren’t you coming with us?”
The northern migration in which the Rodriguez family had taken part has slowed to a trickle. In fact, a report this spring by the Pew Hispanic Center said the net migration last year was close to zero. More recent numbers from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a research agency affiliated with the Mexican federal government, said the number began to increase during the first six months of this year, probably in connection with an improving economy in the United States.
The greatest wave of immigration may be over, according to University of New Mexico journalism professor Richard Schaefer, who has documented the lives of Latin American immigrants. Mexico’s improved economy and a decreasing birthrate there are two factors in that change. In fact, Mexico is now feeling the effects of immigration from poorer Central America.
But the draw of the United States and other wealthy nations will continue to lure highly motivated people. “Migration will never cease,” Schaefer said.
The southbound traffic certainly continues. Aldo Fernández Guerra, the coordinator of La Oficina de Atención a Migrantes Aguascalentenses y Familiares, which assists immigrants to Mexico, said his state receives an average of 200 deportees a month from the United States. Fernandez doesn’t keep records on those who return willingly, but guesses that he’s seen 30 to 40 cases like Rodriguez’s over the last year.
Mexicans are fond of their expatriates. This is in part because of the money they send to their families back home. The Rodriguez siblings wire about $300 every Friday to their parents in Aguascalientes. That is most of what the father and mother have to live on. Fernández Guerra said that, in all, expatriates send about $1 million a day to relatives in the state of Aguascalientes. These remittances from the United States account for 4 percent of the local economy, he said.
When those wage earners return to Mexico from the United States, they are often dissatisfied. “People who have lived in the United States aren’t happy here because of the salary and lifestyle they have gotten used to,” he said.
Beginning next year, the state government will offer free English lessons and other training for workers deported from the United States. The plan is to make them eligible to work in Canada, where they are welcome, Fernández Guerra said.
One day, Rodriguez, Solis-Rodriguez, Yanelie and Rodriguez’s parents got into a minivan and drove 125 miles southeast to Guanajuato. The birthplace of Diego Rivera, it is famous for its 18th-century Baroque-style churches, silver mines, haunted houses and mummies. They descended 200 feet down 400-year-old stairs carved into the rock into the San Ramón mine. At the bottom, they found a statue of San Cayetano, patron saint of, among other things, gamblers. They visited the Templo la Valenciana, which has an altar of gold, and toured the Case de Tía Aura haunted house, where unseen voices cried out in pain, lights flickered and ghosts swirled above their heads.
The frights at Casa de Tía Aura were entertaining, but beneath the surface of Guanajuato is a story of torture. The city was a regional center of the Inquisition. The elements of torture are on display in every corner. A popular museum, Purgatorio, has in its catalog helmets of death, chastity belts and a vertical casket with inward-pointing spikes in its lid. The priests who oversaw the ultimate expression of their brutal fundamentalism flagellated themselves after each killing.
On the drive back to Aguascalientes, Rodriguez’s parents prayed the Rosary aloud, chanting and singing the veneration of Mary. Two days later, Solis-Rodriguez and Yanelie returned to Santa Fe, and Rodriguez went back to waiting.
He longs the most for his family but also misses his brothers, the customers at the restaurant and even, he said, Cerrillos Road.
In the morning, he helps his father feed the chickens and takes water to the horses. Then he runs errands for his family.
“It’s hard to concentrate,” he said. “Sometimes I’m not really here. I always wake up thinking of the same thing.”
Timothy Roberts, a writer and photographer in Santa Fe, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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