Four years ago, a monotonous drive home from running errands turned into a nightmare for then-15-year-old Isaac Lugo and his father. By the end of the night, Isaac’s father would be in jail. And by the end of the year, Isaac would be a ward of the state and his father in Tijuana, Mexico.
Isaac might be in Tijuana now, too, if not for the intervention of Mike McAuliffe, his conditioning coach at the local boxing gym. McAuliffe had known early on about the Lugos’ undocumented status, but never thought much of it and surely never thought that he would ever become Isaac’s foster parent. But as soon as it became clear that Isaac’s father would leave the country, not only McAuliffe but the employees at Archway, a local facility for displaced youth wanted to help Isaac stay in the country. Without him, Isaac, an undocumented immigrant, would likely have had to leave for Mexico with his father.
Isaac recounted the night in 2010 when cops arrested his father. All it took was a cop who said that the Lugos car had “invisible” license plate tags and that the “windows were too tinted.” The cops ran his dad’s records and found an unpaid parking ticket. That led to other findings too — that his dad didn’t have a driver’s license and that he was undocumented.
Over the course of a year, cops transferred Isaac’s father over to immigration officials. They gave him two choices: deportation, which carries a permanent ban from coming back to the United States, or “voluntary removal,” which could mean a potential return to the United States one day. His dad chose the latter option and was given three months to handle his affairs. For two months, the teen was left living in their apartment, worrying over adult responsibilities like paying the bills and making rent. “There were moments that I didn’t eat,” Isaac said to StoryCorps, a National Public Radio story-sharing project.
Isaac went to school, but his grades suffered. The only constant in his life was his neighborhood boxing center, Foley’s Mixed Martial Arts, where he had been going to since he was 11 years old with his father. Isaac had collected a few boxing accolades along the way, including making it to the state-level, amateur boxing competition known as the Golden Gloves.
After the second or third time that Isaac’s father stopped showing up at the gym, McAuliffe found out that the father was in “immigration trouble.” McAuliffe was left with so many questions about a kid that he had grown to care for and admire. Who’s going to take care of Isaac? How will he get to school?
McAuliffe toldThinkProgress, “His dad is a very smart guy and prepared him to survive in case [the father] got deported. They have to live in the shadows and are constantly worried. [Isaac] already knew how to cook, clean, balance the check book, and how to make the rent payments. He was maintaining his own house for one month before I found out.”
McAuliffe weighed the option of seeing a talented aspiring boxer leave the country with finding a way to help Isaac stay in America. By this point, McAuliffe’s family and especially his grandmother had “embraced” Isaac. McAuliffe made the decision to become Isaac’s foster parent. On the day that Isaac’s father was set to board a Mexico-bound bus, the two men exchanged words and “at the very last minute,” Isaac’s dad released his parental custody. He got on the bus and the father and son have not seen each other in person for over three years.
“I wasn’t emotional,” Isaac, now 20, recalled. “My dad signing custody to Mike was really tough, but I was more worried about what was going to happen to him [in Mexico].”
McAuliffe explained that since becoming Isaac’s foster parent three years ago, the state of Utah has helped pay for everything, including Isaac’s paperwork to file for permanent residency because the state had custody of Isaac. Isaac did eventually become a permanent resident, thus giving him a chance to work and pay for his own way. McAuliffe found a tutor for Isaac and his grades started to improve. He did so well in high school that he eventually graduated with honors and was even awarded a scholarship to Weaver College. Along the way, other people also wanted to help him out. “He’s just such a nice kid,” McAuliffe explained. “The community of people involved, so many people rallied behind this kid.”
Ken Kashiwaeda, director of Archway, said to the Standard-Examiner, “We’ve had a lot of undocumented immigrants come in, but this was the first time that a collaboration of people worked toward their citizenship. That was unique.”
“He was completely self-sufficient,” McAuliffe said of Isaac. “At 15, Isaac has his shit together more than 70 or 80 percent of adults that I know.”
Isaac dropped out of college to become a full-time auto mechanic. He now works ten hours a day, saying that the more he works, the more he could get paid. He has also moved out of McAuliffe’s place. He loves the job, feeling blessed that McAuliffe had given him a chance to live in America. “[McAuliffe] just put so much effort into helping me. I didn’t want to disappoint him.”
McAuliffe fretted like a parent, “hopefully [Isaac] will go back to the university to finish school. He doesn’t understand the difference it makes.”
McAuliffe excitedly added, “He’s one of my family members. When we make plans to do something, we always include Isaac. When he has kids, I’ll be the guy bringing toys.”
There have been some obstacles standing in the way of Isaac’s boxing dream. He said he was unable to move on to the Golden Gloves on the national level because it requires boxers to be citizens, and has given up boxing for now. “That’s not fair, but it is what it is,” Isaac said. “I was mad, really pissed off, but there’s nothing I can do about it. … I will do my best to become a pro-fighter, but it’s not worth it to me yet.”
More than 5,100 U.S. citizen children end up in foster care because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials deported their parents. But when children are undocumented, like Isaac, they are generally deported back to their countries of origin when their parents are deported, unless they have a legal guardian in the United States or have someone ready to be a foster parent.
In 2013, the Obama administration released a memo advising ICE agents to exercise discretion when arresting and detaining parents of U.S. citizen children. And a provision in the Senate-approved immigration bill would have given parents the opportunity to figure out caretaker options for their children. But that bill is stalled in the House, along with any plans for more comprehensive reform.