Between the Fence

Luis Luna, 19, grew up in Los Angeles and was deported in early 2011 after a minor traffic violation.

NOGALES, SONORA: “I’m just trying to go back before Christmas, it’s my birthday and I want to see my family,” said 19-year-old Luis Luna through the jagged border fence in Nogales, Sonora. Luna has been trying to re-enter the United States after he was caught driving with a busted tail light and deported to Mexico in February.

In desperate attempts to return to his family, he has tried to illegally cross the border fence twice in the past year. Born in Juarez, Mexico he was brought to the United Stated by his mother, who is also undocumented, at age three. They migrated to Los Angeles, where they lived until he was fifteen. The family moved to Washington state three years ago, bringing Luna’s total stay in the United States to 16 years.

“L.A. is my home,” said Luna in a discernibly L.A. accent. “I have no family here. This is not my environment, I wasn’t raised here.”

Almost two-thirds of the undocumented citizens in the U.S. have been living in the country for more than 10 years, according to new research released Dec. 1 by the Pew Hispanic Center, part of the Pew Research Center. Nearly 35 percent have lived in the U.S. for over 15 years.

“People don’t cross and continue to attempt to cross if they don’t have a good reason for it,” said Jacob Fahrer, a volunteer in Nogales for the humanitarian organization No More Deaths.

Fahrer volunteers at the migrant shelter, Transportes, in Nogales, Sonora where many recently deported people find sanctuary.

“One of the first things I ask people is, ‘How long were you in the United States?’,” Farher said, “and there’s people who have told me they were in the United States for 10, 20, 30 years before they were deported. Since they were a child, and now this person is 36 and they have no knowledge of Mexico.”

Increasingly, this seems to be the story of deportees.

Neira Lara's husband was deported last year from Reno, Nevada. She and her children, who are all U.S. citizens, moved with him to Nogales, Sonora so their family would not be separated.

The Obama administration has deported over 1.1 million people from the U.S. since 2008, more than any president in that amount of time. But to some human right’s organizations the president’s actions and words on immigration seem to be conflicting.

“If the majority of Americans are skeptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also skeptical that it is possible to round up and deport 11 million people,” Obama said in a 2010 speech on immigration. “Even if it was possible, a program of mass deportations would disrupt our economy and communities in ways that most Americans would find intolerable.”

 In June 2011, his administration announced a policy change in a new directive that stresses “prosecutorial discretion” and focuses on deporting violent criminals instead of people with clean records and families.

The directive, announced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, defines prosecutorial discretion as “the authority of an agency charged with enforcing a law to decide to what degree to enforce the law against a particular individual.”

Click image to link to ICE directive.

GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has thrown his support behind a more “humane” immigration policy.

“If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids,” Gingrich said in a recent speech on the campaign trail, “you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

Neira Lara, an American citizen whose husband was deported in early 2010, says she can’t trust Obama or any other politician after her experiences.

“I’m not going to vote for him anymore,” said Lara. “They all lie. They want our votes and they don’t do anything to help their people.”

A determined crosser.

In 2010, 56 percent of the apprehensions at the Mexican border involved people who had previously been caught, according to the New York Times article “Crossing Over, and Over”.

Before Luna was deported, he spent almost two months in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Tacoma, Washington. He was released on bond and deported several months later.

Because he married a U.S. citizen he was under the impression that he would be able to file an I-130 marriage petition and after a couple of months he would be granted legal status and re-entry into the United States. He decided to sign a Voluntary Departure, or more commonly known as a Voluntary Return (VR), and wait in Mexico for his paperwork to be processed.

Except that never happened.

What he didn’t know was that because he had resided unlawfully in the U.S. for more than a year and then signed a VR, he was subject to a ten-year bar from the U.S., according to Luna’s Tucson based immigration lawyer Mo Goldman.

“The problem is when individuals are not represented by legal counsel,” said Goldman, “they are not advised of their rights and there is some question of whether or not the court or government has any obligations to warn him about this 10-year bar.”

Goldman said Luna’s situation shows injustice and that he “took the risk by leaving the U.S. and found himself stuck in a country that he doesn’t really know.”

After waiting a couple of months in Juarez, the kid from L.A. with dreams of playing basketball in college and attending law school, realized he was not going to be let back into the U.S. anytime soon.

He was sleeping on the streets of Juarez at that point.

“There is so much violence,” Luna said. “I saw dead people and gunshots. My life was in danger.”

After hearing his wife was ill, Luna tried to cross into El Paso, Texas from Juárez. He was caught by border patrol and put in jail for three weeks in Sierra Blanca, Texas.

He was then charged with another five year ban from the United States.

Border apprehensions have declined 61 percent from 1,189,000 in 2005 to 463,000 in 2010, due in part because of the state of the U.S. economy and more enforcement of the border, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Some argue that many of those still trying to cross are people like Luna, who have spent a significant portion of their lives in the United States and are desperate to reunite with their families.

He was released from jail in Sierra Blanca and deported back to Juárez. Luna heard on the streets that it was easier to cross the U.S. border by passing through Nogales. He hitchhiked on the back of a rickety trailer 380 miles and arrived at the dusty border town that neighbors Nogales, Arizona.

In October he tried to cross again.

This time he tried  by holding onto the bottom of a train passing through Nogales, Sonora into the United States. Balancing for his life, he made it through the X-rays and the first checkpoint.

“I had the idea I was going to make it,” Luna said. “I was going to go back and see my mom.”

At a checkpoint in Rio Rico, Arizona, a little over 15 miles north of the border, he was sniffed out and bitten by a border patrol canine.

“When the dog got me I was really disappointed,” said Luna. “I was bleeding but I didn’t really feel it because I was more disappointed that I didn’t make it.”

Luna's scar after he was discovered and bitten by a border patrol canine when attempting to cross over the border under a train.

“Stuck in purgatory.”

Ariel Gonzalez, 19, was deported last month after spending three months in Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona. He was raised in San Diego, California and said he dreams of joining the U.S. Navy one day.

After another failed attempt at crossing, Luna found himself alone and homeless on the streets of Nogales. He found a place to stay at the migrant shelter Transportes.

Currently, he works as a volunteer for No More Deaths, helping recently deported people at Transportes do a variety of things necessary after being deported; such as make phone calls to family members and set up money transfers.

Many recent deportees use Transportes as a waiting ground for finding alternate ways in into the United States. Some wait for paperwork to go through; some wait and try to cross illegally over the fence; some are there because they have no where else to go. Fahrer says that many refer to the border town of Nogales as being “stuck in purgatory.”

Trasnportes, a migrant shelter where the recently deported find food and shelter.

Ariel Gonzalez had only been deported three days before we spoke with him at Transportes. His story was similar to Luna’s: a 19-year-old kid who had lived his entire life in San Diego was driving back to California from Arizona with his mother after visiting his Aunt in Phoenix. They were pulled over and arrested.

Gonzalez spent three months in Eloy Detention Center in Arizona and he thinks his mother is still in jail in Phoenix.

“To be honest, it’s [Eloy Detention Center] better than being here,” he said. “Because at least you have more security over there.”

The recently deported are sometimes approached by members of drug cartels at Transportes, according to Fahrer.

“Deportation has exacerbated cartel violence,” Fahrer said, “because it has created such a huge number of vulnerable exploitable people, who can be seized upon by anyone who is unethical or violent enough to make use of that vulnerability.”

Gonzalez does not know what will happen next. Right now he’s just trying to survive in a country that is not his home. He said he hopes his mother will be let of jail soon and be able to petition to stay in the U.S. He also said he hopes a judge will take leniency on her because his 13-year-old sister is a legal U.S. citizen and resides in the U.S..

“Nobody can petition for me,” Gonzalez said. “The only person who could petition for me is my sister, but she’s under age.”

Luna’s story is also open ended. He continues to volunteer for No More Deaths and has the advantage over many deportees of having an immigration attorney to build his case.

Luna’s best chance of legal re-entry into the U.S. is to be granted a parole based on the humanitarian appeal of his case, according to his immigration lawyer, Mo Goldman.

“I’m also trying to reach out to some congressional folks to see if they might be able to help out,” Goldman said.

He said he waits for the day he can see his family again.

“Right now, I’m just trying to get back in legally with a lawyer,” Luna said. “You know…do things the right way this time.”