Teen Is Snared in Post-9/11 Security Net
Alfredo Salas was barely 3 years old when his mother left his abusive father in a gritty Mexico City neighborhood and took her small son north to the comforting embrace of relatives here.
Alfredo grew up like an average American kid, watching football and hanging out with friends along the boardwalk of this sparkling Northern California coastal town. His aunts, uncles and cousins gathered often -- pooling their meager resources to celebrate birthdays and holidays. But as he reached his teens, Alfredo craved the father he never knew.
He sought his roots, but it did not go well. Today, the 16-year-old faces a deportation order that could land him back in a country he never called his own, with no family save the estranged father he no longer wishes to see.
Alfredo is one of many undocumented immigrants caught in the tightening noose of post-Sept. 11 immigration enforcement. After an unsuccessful visit with his father, he was detained by Border Patrol officers in November 2001 as he huddled behind a rock north of Calexico.
The details of his case, immigration lawyers and advocates say, offer a compelling glimpse at a system rife with ironies and short on flexibility: Minors who arrive in this country unaccompanied and can claim abuse or abandonment have a good chance of becoming legalized residents. But for others -- brought here by a loving though undocumented parent -- there are few remedies once the case enters the system.
“We’re able to be completely helpful to children with tragic situations and no family,” said Alfredo’s attorney, Abigail Trillin of Legal Services for Children in San Francisco. “But here we have this kid with a wonderful family structure, and we’re in the position of seeing him get ripped away from that.”
Rick Oltman, western field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said that despite Alfredo’s long history here, he has violated U.S. law. It’s only because the federal government has been lax at enforcing immigration laws internally that the teen planted deep roots here, Oltman said.
“This young man has been caught in the lurch between virtual lack of interior enforcement all during the 1990s and enhanced enforcement at the ports of entry,” after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said. “While that’s unfortunate, we’re going to have these kinds of cases. The government should have enforced the law all along, and then we would have had a different outcome.”
While their parents may straddle two countries and cultures, many undocumented children know no other country. As Congress considers bills that would allow certain illegal immigrant students to earn permanent legal status, tens of thousands are currently undocumented. Few are threatened with deportation.
Alfredo’s grandmother was the first to arrive in Santa Cruz County, working the raspberry fields and apple orchards of Watsonville. His mother, Teresa Salas, followed in 1991, as did a raft of other relatives. Alfredo’s grandmother, who had obtained legal residency, sponsored her daughter’s legalization petition but died before it could be approved. Teresa Salas, who has two U.S.-born children, 7 and 9, said she is trying to revive her petition. Despite the risks, she said she felt she could not forbid him from seeing his father.
When Alfredo stepped off the plane in Mexico City in the spring of 2001, his dream began to unravel. The neighborhood of Tenayuca was poor and depressing. Alfredo said he was jumped and beaten by three men who demanded money. Relatives stole cash from his bags, Alfredo said. And after his father blackened his wife’s eye for talking to Alfredo, the teen said he was threatened too.
Coming home would prove difficult. Teresa Salas -- who works a minimum-wage factory job -- saved for months for the plane fare from Mexico City to Mexicali, plus $1,500 for a coyote to shepherd Alfredo across the border on foot. But his group was apprehended and Alfredo was later released to an uncle, a legal U.S. resident.
To send Alfredo and his uncle to San Diego for a February 2002 court hearing, Alfredo’s aunts -- 20-year-old twins -- dipped into scant savings from their minimum-wage jobs. They asked that the case be moved to San Francisco to ease the family’s financial strain.
Meanwhile, Alfredo joined his mother in Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento, where she had moved. He fared poorly in school and in the fall of 2002 was referred to the military-style Mather Youth Academy. There, he flourished. A photograph of him in his military uniform shows him beaming. He dreamed of becoming a Navy SEAL.
Citing “superior skills and responsibility,” Major Dennis Davis, the school principal, promoted him to private first class and then to cadet corporal.
The family moved back to Santa Cruz, where last fall Alfredo enrolled at Santa Cruz High School and joined the junior varsity football team. At just over 5 feet tall and weighing 140 pounds, Alfredo was the team’s smallest player, but he was “not a bad little athlete,” said coach Basil Faltas.
Then, in November, two days before the final game of the season, Alfredo and his uncle received a call telling them to appear before immigration authorities in San Francisco. They believed his deportation hearing had finally been scheduled. Instead, Alfredo was taken into custody. He had missed his hearing -- he says unknowingly -- 18 months earlier, when a deportation order was issued.
Believing deportation was imminent, an uncle scrambled to place $50 in a bank account that Alfredo could access from Tijuana. Trillin, the attorney, got involved.
He was released from custody to an aunt, a legal U.S. resident. His grades tanked because of his absence, but teachers have nevertheless offered their support, drafting letters for the teen they say has a good heart and strong desire to improve.
“If the system can help any young man, they need to reach out and help this kid,” said coach Faltas. “He’s worthy.... He’s worth getting educated. He wants to go to college.”
Meanwhile, Alfredo and his family struggle with the anxiety of what is to come. A motion filed by Trillin to reopen Alfredo’s case was denied in January by U.S. Immigration Judge Kenneth Bagley, who wrote that Alfredo and his uncle were told -- verbally and in a hand-delivered notice -- about the deportation hearing when they appeared before him in February 2002.
But the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement joined Trillin in refiling a similar motion last week. If they prevail, Trillin would be free to make a case for Alfredo before a judge.
The government’s attorney has not yet decided if he supports suspending the teenager’s deportation, but he believes the case should be reopened, “to ensure this juvenile gets his due process,” said Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Lauren Mack.
The government generally ensures that there is a stable home available before juveniles are deported, she said.
Alfredo’s options remain limited.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (both D-Calif.) have authored private bills on behalf of other illegal immigrant constituents to legalize their status. But because Alfredo is not a stellar student, that is unlikely to occur in this case, Trillin said.
Boxer’s office has agreed to write a letter in support of Alfredo, and Rep. Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz) did so last week. Feinstein’s office has not yet weighed in, Trillin said.
If Alfredo’s case is not reopened, Trillin can apply to immigration authorities to defer the deportation.
“It’s a pretty hard situation for me,” Alfredo, a shy boy with thick eyelashes and a military-style haircut, said recently as he sat in front of his high school’s looming stone pillars. “I was raised in this country. I’m part of this country. I would fight for this country in the military. With the opportunities it gave me, I’m willing to do anything for this country.”