News » Social Justice

Young and undocumented: a struggle at America's crossroads



Even as an American-born 11-year-old, Jasmine Rosales' first impression of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was anything but pleasant.

Jasmine (like most names in this story, a pseudonym) awoke one June morning in 2009 to yelling inside her family's home on the west side of Indianapolis. When she rushed into her living room to investigate, she found agents dressed in dark blue, holding her half-dressed father, Eduardo, in handcuffs. Her mother, Andrea, battled tears as she gathered the documents demanded by the agents.

As Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents proceeded to force Jasmine's father into an unmarked van and drive away, her family wondered if they would ever see their husband and father again.

"I was really scared," Jasmine said. "I thought they were kidnapping my father."

Her anxiety was understandable. During a brutal civil war, Eduardo and Andrea's native El Salvador – one of several Latin American Cold War conflicts funded in part by the Reagan Administration in the 1980s – thousands of Salvadorians were kidnapped or murdered. Some two million people, roughly one third of the total population of this tiny Central American nation, fled the decade-long violence that claimed approximately 75,000 lives.

The Rosales were among many families that fled to the United States. Some were fortunate and were granted legal asylum. Many other Salvadorians within U.S. borders live in legal limbo. They run the risk of being intercepted by immigration authorities and deported back to San Salvador, the country's capitol, where the violence never really ended, it simply evolved. According to the U.S. State Department, El Salvador today has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Eduardo and Andrea managed to escape the bloodshed in El Salvador for several years by coming to the United States, where Jasmine was later born. But things changed in the chaotic aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the George W. Bush Administration set into motion the largest restructuring of the federal of the government in the nation's history. The new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) brought the former Immigration and Naturalization Services under its umbrella, creating the ICE – the single largest investigative arm of the federal government.

This new focus on enforcement – as ICE's name implies – marked a distinct change in American immigration policy. In a recent investigative piece for UTNE Reader, journalist and policy analyst Tom Barry argued that, "since early 2003 criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems have merged," breaking the "long-standing tradition of treating immigration violations as administrative offenses" and creating "hundreds of thousands of new criminal aliens."

Eduardo was among those criminalized: ICE arrested him when he failed to appear before an immigration judge. Under ICE's guard, he was moved around to different detention facilities. "Locating my husband was next to impossible," Andrea said.

The family could not afford legal defense and Eduardo was deported. Saddened by the loss of their father and husband – and unable to support themselves solely on Andrea's wages – mother and daughter left their home in Indianapolis to join him back in El Salvador.

In a recent email from San Salvador, the Salvadorian capitol, young Jasmine confessed she was struggling to come to terms with life in a place she had only known through stories and photographs.

"I miss everybody," she said.

A widespread issue

Somewhere in the national immigration debate, the true, human faces of what's at stake – and the universal needs that drive the issue – seem to have gotten lost. Yet these reasons are often downplayed or altogether omitted once the cameras are running.

On the surface, the equation for most immigrants to America is the same as it's always been: Dire economic conditions and lack of opportunity have forced many families to look beyond their own borders in hopes of a better life – better jobs, better homes, better schools. In short, the American Dream.

In countries like Mexico, worsening conditions are directly attributable to major policy decisions shared by the United States, particularly passage of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). University of Kansas professor Tanya Golash-Boza found in her research that NAFTA "had a devastating effect onthe profitability of agriculture in Mexico. The entry of heavily subsidized UScorn and other products into the Mexican market has made it unprofitableto grow corn in Mexico, and around two million Mexicans have beenforced out of agriculture."

Meanwhile, for many undocumented migrants, the costs of filing the necessary paperwork is cost prohibitive. For others, wait times for resident and work visa applications submitted to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can take an upwards of a decade to be processed and finalized.

States like Arizona, Texas and California get a lot of attention in the national immigration debate. But NAFTA's repercussions are widespread. Indiana's Hispanic population has skyrocketed since the early 1990s, and is currently home to some 249,623 people statewide who speak Spanish in their home, according to 2009 census estimates.

In towns and cities across the state, from Indianapolis to Columbus to Goshen, Hoosiers have extended their hospitality in myriad ways, welcoming the newcomers into their neighborhoods, schools, congregations, workplaces and places of play, while also indulging in the culinary, musical and other cultural delights these immigrants bring with them.

But the rate at which the demographics are changing can also be threatening for more established residents.

John Clark, executive director of the Cold Springs Institute, a think tank, and founder of, an online hub for social justice news in Central Indiana, noted that cultural and linguistic differences sometimes lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. Whereas some Hoosiers merely fear that an abundance of Spanish-speakers will turn the United States into a bilingual country, others see the issue in terms of jobs, especially in a bad economy.

"We have become a sort of zero-sum society in which people think that any win for one group means a loss for others," Clark said. To these people, "an immigrant getting a job means a native-born American lost the job."

Across the Threshold

While the number of border-crossings has dropped in recent years, according to the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center, the consequences for those who attempt the passage can be severe. These migrants often fall victim to dehydration and exposure in border counties as they try to avoid detection.

More than a decade ago, Ivan Salcedo took his family across this same treacherous passage. For several years, the Salcedo family had been separated on opposite sides of the border, while Ivan worked multiple jobs in Indiana and sent a portion of his earnings to his family back in Veracruz, Mexico.

When his boss encouraged Ivan to bring his family so he "could be happier and more productive," Ivan obliged, returning to Cordoba to collect his wife, son, and his daughter, Adelita.

It took them four attempts and more than 20 days to get across the border. Adelita recalled being assaulted by gang members during one of the attempts.

"I was afraid because (gang members) were threatening my brother with a big knife," she said.

After the fourth and successful attempt, Adelita and her brother traveled in the trunk of a small Honda during the several days it took to drive from Phoenix to Indiana. The physically and emotionally exhausted Salcedos finally arrived in the Circle City on August 14, 1999 – Adelita's eighth birthday.

Adelita has no gang affiliations and no criminal record. Yet, in a country that has increasingly come to equate America's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants with criminals (on Sept. 4, 2007, Glenn Beck said "every undocumented worker is an illegal immigrant, a criminal and a drain on our dwindling resources"), the implications of her parents' decision to bring her across the border illegally as a child have followed her for more than a decade.

Language was her first barrier, but her strong desire to socialize and succeed academically sped up fluency. As early as middle school, however, her status as an undocumented person began to have repercussions.

"I was in the 21st Century Scholars program, but when they found out I didn't have a Social Security number, I was taken out of the program," she said.

By high school, Adelita found that, despite having attended school almost entirely in the States, she couldn't do a lot of the things her classmates were doing.

"In ninth grade all my friends were excited about drivers' education classes and how cool it was to get your license, but I couldn't," she said.

As time wore on, the stress and disappointment got too heavy for some of her classmates. "By junior year I watched a lot of my friends drop out, because they didn't see a point to continue in school," she said.

Despite such discouragement, Adelita graduated high school and just recently enrolled in Ivy Tech community college. She has high hopes Washington will pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act – known as the DREAM Act – which would allow Adelita and thousands of young people like her to contribute to society as official residents after completing two years of higher education or military service.

Against the odds

While studies beyond high school are difficult for many undocumented students, it is still a possibility. Javier B. (his real name) is among those who have gotten a college degree despite the odds – though his success is still imperiled by a constant fear of deportation.

"Imagine living with a constant awareness that one run-in with the police could change it all," he said. "The threat is always looming."

Javier first arrived in Indiana as a young adolescent with a desire to work hard for a couple years, save some money and return to the expansive valleys and snow-capped volcanoes of Central Mexico where his parents still reside. More than a decade later he is still in Indianapolis.

After two years of labor-intensive jobs, Javier decided to enroll in high school. "I would go to classes in the morning then head to my cleaning job from four PM until midnight." On the weekends he washed cars.

With a respectable high school transcript and praise from teachers, mentors and coaches, everything seemed to be on track. However, when it came time to look into colleges, his top choice rejected him because of his undocumented status. It also made him ineligible for most financial aid.

"I was at a cross roads," he said. "I could return to rejoin my family in Mexico or find a way to continue studying."

Having hustled for money doing various jobs and, with a little help from a few private donors, Javier was able to attend Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. By the time he graduated in 2009, he was among the top in his class. He has since started his own graphic design company, but he takes pride in dedicating most of his time working with local, disadvantaged youth.

Javier talked about the challenges he faces living as an "undocumented" person. There was the separation from his loved ones back in Mexico; watching his parents grow older on computer screens during periodic Skype conversations; the grieving from afar after the deaths of his grandmother and his closest childhood friend. Tears gathered and spilled over as he spoke.

It was all a part of what he called an "undocumented state of mind."

"The worst part is that many undocumented persons have internalized the fear and discrimination they face daily to such a point, that they limit their own dreams and goals," he said.

Expanding the dragnet

On June 28, 2008 as part of his bid for the presidency, Barack Obama addressed the dire need for an overhaul of the immigration system.

"We need immigration reform... that finally brings the 12 million people who are here illegally out of the shadows," he said. "We must assert our values and reconcile our principles as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws."

Despite these lofty promises, the Obama administration has deported more people than that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Within the ranks of deportees there are criminals, to be sure – law-breakers who commit fraud, theft and homicide, thus posing a threat to public order. To its credit, ICE has a series of priorities and protocols, designed to apprehend and repatriate those individuals.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced on Oct. 6 that ICE had deported more than 392,000 "illegal aliens" in fiscal year 2010, setting a record for overall removals. Of those, more than 195,000 were "convicted criminals."

However, critics like Luiz Fernandez, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northern Arizona University, say those numbers are misleading. After filing a Freedom of Information Act request to find out more about ICE's practices, the data he received told a different story.

"Some 70 percent of those deported were removed for minor traffic violations and for overstaying their visas," he said. A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed similar findings.

Today, local and state law enforcement agencies are collaborating with ICE in a variety of ways to detect and detain more undocumented workers. Arizona's controversial SB 1070 is only one among many, and is among the most recent.

Fernandez argued that Arizona's SB 1070 law literally requires police to perform racial profiling, which could, in turn, make undocumetned people less likely to report crimes.

"Law enforcement officers must question someone they suspect to be undocumented," he said. "If you are a brown person living in Arizona, you can expect to be stopped."

A life-changing traffic stop

The sick feeling in Sarah Ovaldo's stomach grew as minutes turned to days. Her teenage son, Pablo, had gone missing. Distressed, the Ovaldos began a desperate search to locate their only son.

While many parents might have started by contacting the police, Isidro, Pablo's father, said the family's legal status made it too risky. They were forced to turn, instead, to their local congregation for help – a Pentecostal church on Indianapolis' Northwest side.

"We were afraid to call the police because they might have arrested us and turned us into immigration," Isidro said.

Meanwhile, an equally anxious Pablo pleaded for days with officials at the Johnson County jail to allow him a phone call to inform his loved ones of his whereabouts. After several days, he was finally able reach a friend, who relayed the message back to the rag-tag search committee. A mix of relief and excitement bolstered the Ovaldos' spirits as their representatives hurried to the jail with bond money for their son's temporary release.

But, rather than reunification, the Olvaldos said they were subjected to rude treatment, denied information about the charges against their son and were turned away empty-handed. For more than two weeks, the piano in Pablo's room went silent, while its musically gifted owner sat in a small cell.

"Those two weeks inched by," recalled Pablo, "it was like my life was put on hold."

Since emigrating from Mexico at age 12, Pablo had been a mentor to his peers at his school, where he earned good grades. He was an integral member of the music worship team at his church, a congregation that stressed service to the community.

On the night of his arrest, Pablo was returning late from a school function. He said he understood the risks of driving without a license, but had no other way of getting home. He tried to be extra cautious, careful to obey the speed limit and wear his seatbelt.

The sheriff's officer told Pablo they had stopped him because of a loud car muffler they said was "disturbing the peace." Pablo saw the officer's motivation differently.

"I was pulled over simply because the officer saw that I was Hispanic," he said.

Regardless, the officer had what he needed to ask for Pablo's license, which Pablo couldn't produce. The hitch for Pablo and millions like him is that, since the passage of the REAL ID Act of 2005, most states require that applicants prove legal status or posses a valid Social Security number, before they can receive a license. The officer arrested Pablo for driving without a license, a class C misdemeanor.

While officers were booking Pablo into jail, they contacted the local ICE office and requested that they look into his immigration status. The federal agency issued a "detainer," or hold, on him, which requires jails to hold those suspected of being undocumented for 48 hours after their sentence is served, or after charges are dropped. It gives ICE time to collect the inmate in question and make a custody decision.

Back at Pike High School, on the city's northwest side, Pablo's classmates and teachers wanted to know if their friend and pupil would be able walk across the stage, shake the principal's hand and collect his hard-earned diploma.

"We made many sacrifices to come here because we wanted to give Pablo all the opportunities we could never enjoy ourselves," said Pablo's father, Isidro. "And the thought of him not finishing high school was especially troubling." Neither he, nor his wife Sarah, had earned the equivalent of an elementary education.

Nearly two and a half weeks later, the Olvados were finally reunited with their son. ICE had decided to temporarily release Pablo, with a pending court date before a federal immigration judge in Chicago. Multiple requests for an interview with the Johnson County Sheriff's Office were unanswered.

Pablo is still awaits his fate, though he now graduated high school and has begun taking classes at Ivy Tech. Despite their hardships, the Osvaldos have resolved to keep struggling.

"We have made our life here, and we are praying that justice will be served," Isidro said.

More of the same?

As the end of the growing season draws to a close in the immense agricultural expanse of the Hoosier Heartland, the mid-term elections are nigh. Immigration is again a hot button issue.

If re-elected, Hoosier lawmakers, such as Congressman Mike Pence will likely continue to push back against the kinds of amnesty offered by proposals like the DREAM Act.

Locally, State Senator Mike Delph will probably continue to advocate for bills like Indiana Senate Bill 213 – which calls for more ways to identify, detain and remove undocumented persons and increase punishments for those who knowingly help, harbor or hire undocumented workers.

Meanwhile, the waiting game continues for undocumented youth across the city and across America. Adelita Salcedo, Pablo Osvaldo and Javier B. hold fast to the hope that meaningful strides will be made. And while a complete overhaul may be too much to expect in the near future, all three youths continue to organize and educate people about legislation like the DREAM Act, which was first introduced by Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in 2001.

In September, the Dream Act, came up once again up for consideration on Capitol Hill as part of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. The act included a repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," a rule that requires gay servicemen and women to hide their sexuality. A Republican filibuster in the Senate kept the bill from reaching the floor. Supporters of the bill fell four votes short of the 60 required to end the filibuster.

"I was really depressed that day," said Adelita, the student at Ivy Tech. "I was almost ready to leave my whole life here and go to Mexico."

Unable to cast votes, millions of undocumented persons who have legitimate concerns about the current and future immigration policies will watch the results closely.

"I hope the elected officials go out into the community, hear about our struggles and base future laws on what the community says," Adelita said. "We can't keep letting families get torn apart – the same families that want to contribute to the future of this country."

The author of this article is an unpaid member of the Latino/a Youth Collective, an Indianapolis-based group dedicated to helping local young people, particularly in the immigrant community.

Except where otherwise noted, the names of individuals interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

Emma Hernandez contributed reporting for this article.


This Week's Flyers

Around the Web