In its current form, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill will not help Rodrigo Guzman return to his home in Berkeley, where his fourth grade class has become “The Dream Team” lobbying for his homecoming.
Driving her minivan down the narrow streets of downtown Cuernavaca, Reyna Mayida is in her element. She shouts to a friend walking by. She rolls down the window to buy watermelon from a street vendor. She points out how there used to be more tourists walking the streets here, before drug-war related violence turned this weekend destination into one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.
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In the passenger seat, her son, 10 year-old son Rodrigo Guzman sits silent. He has no stories about this city where he now lives, besides Christmas vacations with too many mosquitoes. Later, he tells me he’s afraid someone will climb over the fence and come inside his grandma’s house.
Rodrigo is clean cut and neatly dressed – he looks pretty much like he did over Skype, which is how many people, including me, have gotten to know him. I first saw Rodrigo when he was Skyping into a Berkeley City Council meeting. A few weeks later, he was having a Skype conversation with US Rep. Barbara Lee. A flyer for a fundraiser in Berkeley, California, announces “Rodrigo Guzman ‘Live from Mexico!’ ” At events all over the San Francisco bay area, Rodrigo shows up on a screen for a few minutes, says some words of thanks to all those helping him, and then he’s gone. Skype by Skype, he’s becoming one of the faces of immigration reform.
I ask if he ever followed politics before his future became tied to names like Durbin, Rubio and Boehner.
No response. Rodrigo’s looking down at his feet, which don’t yet reach the mini-van floor.
“He is very worried that Obama and all the senators are going to approve the reform,” his mother answers for him.
Mom does want to talk politics, specifically about President Obama’s recent press conference. Less than 48 hours ago, Obama shared the stage with Mexican President Enrique Pena-Nieto at Mexico City’s famous anthropology museum, about 2 hours drive from here. Mayida was watching TV intently, for some glimpse of her family’s future.
“Obama’s words painted a very beautiful picture,” she reported, “But the reality is different.”
Coming two weeks after the “gang of 8” introduced their comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill, Obama could have used his diplomatic trip to Mexico to rally the troops. The lack of clarity in US immigration policy, the criminalization, and the slow pace of reform has hit the US’ southern neighbor hard. Since Obama took office, at least 2 million Mexicans have been deported “with no opportunity for social, economic, or cultural reinsertion into the country,” according to Marco Castillo, President of the Migrant Families Popular Assembly.
Obama’s few mentions of immigration framed the issue as about dollars, not families.
“Part of what (Pena-Nieto & I) discussed is the importance of getting (CIR) done precisely because we do so much business between our two countries,” Obama told reporters, adding he didn’t want to “constantly bog down on these border issues and debates instead of moving forward.”
“I didn’t like it,” Mayida reports back. “They didn’t talk about immigration…it was focused more on the economy.”
Mayida says she attended a few rallies for immigration reform several years ago in California, as the Latino-led movement was taking shape. But she never thought the demonstrations would include photos of her own son on T-shirts and banners.
“I did get to see various experiences of people close to me when they were deported . . . but you never think it’s going to happen to you,” she laments.
The minivan cruises down a long strip of auto part stores, turns down a graffiti-spotted lane, and pulls to a halt at a dead end with a glass-enclosed shrine of the Virgin Mary. It’s Mayida’s mother’s house and Rodrigo’s home . . . at least for now. And it’s a long way from Berkeley.
“That’s why I don’t eat those soups anymore.”
Theirs is not quite the typical DREAMer story. Rodrigo’s family wasn’t profiled, raided or dropped at the border in the dead of night. In fact, they were deported, in part, because they did almost everything by the book. Ever since Rodrigo was 20 months old, when his parents came to California on tourist visas, they would cross back into Tijuana every six months, and re-enter the US legally. But heavy questioning at the border in 2011 about Rodrigo’s exceptional English language abilities frightened the family, who then stopped returning to Mexico to re-up. In late 2012, with their Mexican passports set to expire, Rodrigo’s dad suggested they renew them in Mexico City, instead of raising suspicion by doing so in San Francisco.
New passports in hand, the family arrived back in the United States in January. While changing planes in Houston, Rodrigo’s father was taken aside for questioning, because of suspicion he had been working in the United States. After several hours, Rodrigo got so hungry he asked the guards if he could get some soup. They offered him a deal.
“They wanted to see my passport, and that’s when they cancelled it,” Rodrigo frowns. “That’s why I don’t eat those soups anymore.”
Although US Customs and Border Protection won’t provide information on specific cases, “That actually doesn’t sound completely unreasonable.” says Anoop Prasad, attorney with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. Prasad’s had clients with similar experiences, where Customs and Border Patrol agents misrepresented the options to immigrants and lied to them about what they were signing. In June, the ACLU of San Diego filed a class action lawsuit against Homeland Security, CPB and ICE officials, alleging immigration enforcement agencies “regularly pressure, deceive, and threaten Mexican nationals . . . into signing their own expulsion orders.”
Mayida also backs up her son’s version of events, which has led Rodrigo to feel like it’s all his fault for asking for something to eat. With their visas cancelled, the whole family is ineligible to reenter the United States for at least five years.
Is the “DREAM TEAM” Rodrigo’s Best Hope?
Inside Grandma’s house on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, Rodrigo finally comes to life when he sits down in front of a laptop. The game is Minecraft, and he’s building a world out of three-dimensional cubes. In a little box in the upper righthand corner of the screen are his friends, twin brothers Kyle and Scott Kuwahara, who are in Berkeley, playing the same game. This is how they stay in touch since Rodrigo was deported in January. Minecraft marathon fundraisers are also one of the ways they’ve campaigned to bring Rodrigo back to California.
The “Bring Rodrigo Home – Kids for Kids” campaign began taking shape the day Rodrigo’s Fourth-grade class at Jefferson elementary school came back from Christmas vacation, and found an empty chair in their classroom. After a few weeks staring at the unfilled seat, their teacher explained that Rodrigo might not be returning.
It started off like, “Our friend can’t come back?” explains Jamaica Moon, whose daughter Kaya Daniels, has been speaking publicly in support of Rodrigo.
“She couldn’t really figure out the fact that – why isn’t it easy to renew their visa? Why can’t they just renew it? . . . Why he can’t be back in her class?”
When the Kuwahara twins brought home those same questions, their mother, Mable Yee, decided to turn the situation into a lesson and eventually, a campaign. Kyle wrote a letter to President Obama; his reading that letter aloud is the cornerstone of a presentation Rodrigo’s friends have made dozens of times at rallies, fundraisers,and in front of state legislators.
“In school, we are learning about all these important people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks who fought for people’s rights. So what about Rodrigo’s freedom? Who is fighting for his freedom?” the letter asks Obama. “Today, I am writing to you on Rosa Parks’ hundredth birthday to do the right thing to allow Rodrigo and his family to return to their home, school and friends in Berkeley.”
These and other earnest words from the gang of well-behaved fourth-graders have brought endorsements from the Berkeley school board and city council, along with statements in support of national immigration reform. Senator Dianne Feinstein and US Rep. Barbara Lee have pledged to try and help Rodrigo and his parents – perhaps by obtaining humanitarian parole from US Customs and Immigration Services, which would allow them into the US for a limited period of time.
“When children show up, when children are articulate and they know what the problems are and can talk about cases and people who are caught up in an unjust system . . . elected officials listen,” says Rep. Lee.
Rodrigo’s former classmates have been nicknamed “The Dream Team.” Although none of them are DREAMers themselves, it’s a reference to their friend, and thousands like him. In fact, only one member of the Dream Team is Latino.
Yee is angling to have the Dream Team testify before Congress, and has hopes they can meet either the president or first lady, as the White House looks for compelling stories that could garner both public support and congressional votes for an eventual bill.
“We’re focused on Rodrigo first,” says Yee, former tech executive who became politically active after the birth of her two sons. “What we’re doing is what makes sense for Rodrigo number one, what will have maximum impact to bring him home.”
“Number two, we recognize the possibilities: that Rodrigo represents millions of people who are caught in this immigration situation. And so it is much bigger than Rodrigo. And we understand that our responsibility is to bring together a lot of different constituents who are fighting for immigration reform.”
To that end, the Bring Rodrigo Home campaign has received endorsements and support from groups ranging from the Alameda Labor Council and Berkeley Federation of Teachers to the National Latino Children’s Institute.
“We hadn’t really focused on any one child or any one story until this one,” said NCLI executive director Josephine Garza. “There’s many other horror stories that we’ve heard, but I think the difference with this one is that the children are heading up the campaign and for them this is their front.”
The Dream Team is doing everything they can to spread Rodrigo’s face and name across the blogosphere and Capitol Hill. But thus far, there’s not much hope for Rodrigo in the immigration legislation winding its way through congress. Exceptions in the Senate bill for those already deported only apply to parents, children, and spouses of US citizens; although Rodrigo’s grandparents are US citizens, that relationship wouldn’t help him, and Mayida is too old to qualify.
And the clock is ticking. Getting the family back on US soil as soon as soon as possible could be crucial, as congress sputters toward passing immigration legislation. “If immigration reform happens and there is a pathway to citizenship, it only applies to people in the United States,” explains Yee. “So, because they’re outside of the United States, they would not be eligible, even though they lived here for seven plus years.”
But the emergence of the “DREAM 9” in July could inject some hope into Rodrigo’s case. When nine Mexican-born but US-raised activists crossed back into Mexico, only to turn right around and try to gain entry to the US, it put a spotlight on those stuck in geographic limbo – like Rodrigo – recently deported, so no longer qualifying as a “DREAMer” on paper.
“There’s thousands of people that are in the same situation that are living like this, in the same situation,” says Mayida. “We’re not the only ones, nor the first ones,” to be unable to return to homes in the US.
A Boy Who Can’t go Home
Back in Cuernavaca, Rodrigo’s father has found a job, but it only pays $350 a month. Their electric bill, Mayida says, eats up most of that. “I barely have enough to eat and try to maintain the costs so I can remain in contact with Mable (Yee).”
“The only good thing about us was that we were all together, that it happened to the whole family together,” says Mayida.
But her son has a harder time seeing the bright side of things. Rodrigo says he loves to run, but has no wide open spaces where he can do so in Mexico. His school used to have slides and swings back in Berkeley. His new school playground he glumly describes as “a flat surface.”
“I feel that my country is the United States because I’ve been there pretty much all my life,” Rodrigo explains. “It’s a place where I have friends that I can trust and a safe place to live and have a good education.”
“[Children] don’t know laws; they don’t know borders; they don’t know social statuses. They only live the stage that they’re living.” says Rodrigo’s aunt, Carlota Diaz Mayida, adding that she can see how her nephew resents his situation. “He’s turned into a boy that’s a little indifferent, even rebellious, shy.”
That’s not unusual. There’s lots of glum, disconnected, Rodrigos trying to find themselves in Mexico.
“There has not been put forth special programs to help these kids adjust,” says Martha Sanchez Soles. executive coordinator of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano. “They’re having a hard time in the schools, and they’re being subject to bullying.”
Soles helped organize a protest outside the US embassy on the day Obama arrived in Mexico City. It featured dozens of families who’ve been deported from the United States to Mexico. “The separation of families is a tragedy that we will not be able to evaluate until these kids start growing up . . . (it’s) a tragedy that will impact a generation.”
If he makes it back to Berkeley, Rodrigo says the first thing he’ll do is “Give everybody a hug.”
“But,” he hedges, “a lot of people are helping me. So I don’t think I have enough hugs for everybody.”