They Came To America For Freedom And Opportunity, But Ended Up Trapped In Their Own Home


By Esther Yu Hsi Lee

EDINBURG, TEXAS — The recent detention of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-advocate, Jose Antonio Vargas, in the border town of McAllen, Texas, made clear that border patrol agents remain indiscriminate in arresting undocumented immigrants. Vargas had flown into McAllen to visit a group shelter that’s currently housing migrants who fled violence in Latin America, but had not known that he would have to prove his legal status to immigration enforcement officials when he left town. His detention made it evident that undocumented immigrants can enter the Rio Grande Valley, but are unlikely to leave past the dozens of border checkpoints without risking arrest, or worse, deportation. These border checkpoints affect not just recent border crossers, but also those who have lived for decades in the Valley.

Luis Maldonado, Tania Chavez, and Roxana M. define their livelihoods by the distance they can travel. A half hour’s drive to the south. An hour and a half to the east. 45 minutes to the north. Two hours to the west. That’s the only United States that Luis had seen up until last year for the past 10 years. Tania has seen even less of the country and has never left the Rio Grande Valley. Roxana travels infrequently, but when she does it, she wishes that her parents were with her. Both Luis and Tania are undocumented, while U.S.-born Roxana lives with undocumented parents — their limitations leave each young adult to make life decisions within a four-hour radius of Edinburg.

How they came to be “trapped” in the Rio Grande Valley is in part because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operates border checkpoints to crack down on drug smuggling, but also allows agents to check citizenship status in the interest of national security.


At least 1.7 million undocumented immigrants live in Texas, mostly concentrated in the Rio Grande Valley. Over the past decade, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, a DHS agency, doubled the number of agents to about 3,000 and set up at least 71 permanent and tactical border checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley. Tactical checkpoints are not set up within permanent structures, but they allow agents to monitor and inspect traffic on less-traveled roads that the Border Patrol believes may be used by undocumented immigrants or drug traffickers.

Because two-thirds of the United States population live within a 100-mile wide strip that wraps around the “external boundary” — the national border — of the United States, many people have been ensnared in these stops. The Fourth Amendment normally does not allow for citizens to be subjected to random search and seizures, however the government has exempted this so-called “Constitution-free zone,” explaining that it was in the interest of national security to make Americans endure inspections. But undocumented immigrants could be subject to deportation if they cannot provide proper identification cards, like a U.S. passport, driver’s license, or valid documentation.

American, but still trapped

East of Edinburg lies an unincorporated part of town where most people wouldn’t think twice to stop. Even residents don’t get out of their cars for basic needs. Gas stations are few and far between, grocery drive-thrus are commonplace, and giant posters entice people to stop for ten pounds of ice for $1. Turning off the main stretch of Highway 107 East, shoddy mobile homes are tenuously pitched on bricks. Some mobile homes do not have doors, others do not have windows. Many have aluminum siding for roofs. This side of Edinburg, a bit in disarray, is known as a colonia, which is cheap, “agriculturally worthless land” that many low-income families buy to build affordable housing.

Roxana, a 21 year old rising college junior, will soon go back to school at the nearby University of Texas at Pan American (UTPA). American citizen by birth, but tethered to the undocumented community by blood, Roxy has rarely traveled outside the Valley. For now, she’s organizing with the Minority Affairs Council (MAC) to pressure President Obama to grant administrative relief to undocumented parents like hers. “It’s very difficult knowing that I can travel and do whatever I want, but my family who fought so hard to bring me here is still struggling to even make it,” Roxana told ThinkProgress in her parents’ home.


She is one of nine million people in the United States who live in “mixed-status” families, which include at least one undocumented parent and one U.S.-born child. In search of a better life, her parents and her brother came across the Rio Grande River with coyotes in 1999. They paid $1,200 and the journey took 2.5 hours from their hometown of Reynosa, Tamaulipas in Mexico. Despite having lived in Edinburg for the past 15 years, Roxana’s parents finally put down the last payment for their mobile home two years ago, solidifying a lifelong dream of home ownership.

The border as defined by checkpoints extends “an hour north; an hour east; 30 minutes south; and about 2.5 hours to Laredo.” Her mother, a homemaker, is constantly concerned about “bump[ing] into the Border Patrol.” Her father, Jorge, is cautious of the Border Patrol, watching to see if they show up at his work in the morning. He works long hours as a construction worker and can never have a sick day. As the sole financial provider, he must make sure that he doesn’t get injured on the job since he does not have medical insurance.

Translating for her father, Roxana said, “There are usually raids at my dad’s job and there have been times that he sees Border Patrol and he turns the car around and comes back home.” On those days, he doesn’t get paid and “only the American citizens go into work.” Her father’s income hovers at $1,000 a month, which partially explains why they live in the colonia, where the annual income falls below the poverty line. Her father makes “enough to eat and live,” he said.

Roxana M. (right) and family CREDIT: Jack Jenkins
Roxana M. (right) and family CREDIT: Jack Jenkins

“Not being in Mexico and being here was worth it because of the freedom that America offers, but it’s limited,” Roxana said. If deported, her parents would be barred from coming back into the country for ten years. “Sending [my parents] to Mexico is not an option because we have a seven and 14 year old,” Roxana acknowledged, sighing as she considered becoming the “replacement parent” to her younger siblings. The fear of deportation is partially why Roxana, despite her ability to travel, has stayed in the Valley to study school. “What would happen to my little brother and little sister? It was a matter of me having to step up and stay in the Valley.”

She added, “not having my parents there for my graduation wouldn’t be fair for them or for me.”

The heartache of losing a loved one beyond the border seems like a reality that her family has to accept because they’re undocumented. The last time that Roxana’s father saw his brothers who live in the United States was ten years ago. “My dad’s family lives in Wisconsin — they’re undocumented — we don’t meet up.” One brother has already passed away.


When Hurricane Dolly hit southern Texas in July 2008, the family refused to leave their home to evacuate north to San Antonio. Translating for her father, Roxana said, “You have to take a risk and stay at home, but supposedly the government takes you as refugees so that we can go through the checkpoints, but my dad says that we aren’t willing to take those risks.”

Alone for the holidays

Until 14 years ago, Tania, 28, and her brother occasionally traveled back and forth legally between the U.S. and Mexico. She stayed in the United States for a high school education, but overstayed her visa and became undocumented in the process. She had been unable to qualify for a 2012 presidential initiative known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program because she had been legally out of the country during the program’s cut-off eligiblity date of June 2007. That program granted temporary legal presence to some undocumented immigrants and allowed them to work and live in the country. “I never felt so undocumented until after DACA,” Tania explained to ThinkProgress in her apartment in Edinburg, which overlooks other apartment complexes and fields of summer crops.

Tania Chavez CREDIT: Jack Jenkins
Tania Chavez CREDIT: Jack Jenkins

She wishes to obtain her PhD outside the Valley — Harvard, she hopes — but that would also mean never being able to come back to Edinburg, a place that she has called home for 14 years.

“It wasn’t until I got to college that I knew what my limitations were,” Tania said. “I knew [that] when I graduated high school in three years… when the opportunity to go to [University of Texas at] Austin and other universities came about, I had to make a tough decision whether I would stay in the Valley or go beyond the checkpoint, which meant I wouldn’t be able to see my parents anymore, so I just decided to stay here. I didn’t even apply to any schools other than University of Texas–Pan American (UTPA), which is the closest thing in the Valley. Having to push back or make life decisions based on your status is tough.”

Tania paused several times as she turned the subject to her brother, who had passed away a year after she started high school. He was the one who gave her the “resilience to just keep moving” through life and through her education. She now holds a bachelor’s degree and two masters’ degrees in business administration and communications.

While others chased dreams beyond these checkpoints, Tania dived headlong into her work as a consultant for advocacy groups within the Valley, paying taxes using her Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Most recently, Tania was the one who told Vargas that he might be detained at the McAllen, Texas airport for not having the proper paperwork. As soon as he was detained, Tania and other MAC members, riled up media pressure to bring awareness to the undocumented population who are restricted from going beyond the Valley. Vargas was released hours later. His case is pending a court hearing.

Tania longs for the clamor of family conversations at home. Unable to establish permanent residency in the country, her parents left to go back to Mexico so Tania does everything by herself like doctors’ visits and milestone celebrations. Church, too. “I avoid going to church on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and holidays because I can’t deal-“ her voice trailed off as she fought back tears. “I just ask God that whatever mission he has for me in life that he uses me, whatever that may be.”

Tania has two hopes if immigration reform ever passes — she would like to take her mom to Disneyland, a “cheesy” dream and she hopes to one day see her brother’s grave in Mexico.

‘I don’t know what it is to feel the love of grandparents.’

When President Obama authorized an executive order known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012 to grant some undocumented immigrants the ability to live and work in the country, the federal immigration agency processed a large load of Texas applicants. As of March 2014, about one of six applicants come from Texas. That’s because DACA quite literally opened the country up to the program’s recipients, many of whom are allowed to apply for valid state identification cards, a requirement to prove legal presence at border checkpoints. DACA opened the physical boundary lines to the absolute national border — the one propped up by border wall and fencing.

But while DACA can fulfill limited dreams like attaining a job or going beyond a checkpoint, DACA recipients are still held back by other undocumented family members who cannot leave the Valley. That was the case for 26 year old Luis Maldonado whose life changed in November 2013 when he received word that the government approved his DACA application. “God works in mysterious ways,” Luis told ThinkProgress in a late-night interview as he recalled going “from not having any jobs to having three jobs.” He had just ended a long shift taking inventory at a nearby hospital. 11:45 p.m. was the only time that he could schedule an interview.

Luis is grateful for DACA, but admits to feeling guilty that other people do not have the same freedom to travel beyond the Valley as he does. He is currently the “replacement father” for his nephew whose mother — Luis’ sister — was deported five years ago. Luis’ life is still put on hold. Because he has to take care of his nephew, he can’t leave the Valley. He still gets angry when he talks about how his nephew was still traumatized from witnessing the arrest. He also gets frustrated that he was unable to fight his mother’s deportation three years ago and his sister’s deportation five years ago.

“My grandpa passed away two, three Father’s Days ago,” Luis said, recalling how difficult it was to grieve without being present for last rites. “I don’t know what it is to feel the love of grandparents. I don’t know what it’s like to have cousins and aunts because I’ve never been around them. My cousin passed away a month after giving birth to her child. This was a month before I got DACA. My mother couldn’t go up to see my aunt. That was one of the times that was very frustrating to not be able to travel up north. San Antonio is three hours away.”

For someone who hadn’t left the Valley in 17 years, Luis’ first trip to Washington, D.C. was his way of fighting back against the deportation of the two most important women in his life. In the nation’s capitol, Luis attended a prayer vigil and mock Thanksgiving dinner outside House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) townhouse as a symbol of the meal that he and other organizers weren’t able to share with deported loved ones.

As Luis blinked away the tiredness from his eyes, he lamented, “It really sucks because they keep segregating us even more — there are 11 million undocumented individuals. Had the DREAM Act passed in 2010, it would have made eligible a big pool of applicants. But now with DACA, the pool keeps getting smaller. It seems that it’s the educated that keeping going into that pool. Well, it’s not just the educated that’s contributing to the country, it’s also the hotel cleaners and fruit pickers.”

Luis is putting in long hours at the hospital so that he can pay off his tuition loan. He hopes that as an immigrant organizer, he can continue to push the Obama administration for administrative relief so that he can see his mother and sister.