If immigration officials catch him some day and he is deported, Angel Estrada, 48, already knows whom he will call, and at what hotel in Mexico he will meet his family before attempting to rebuild his life in his hometown of Cuernavaca.
Estrada’s daughter, Karla, 24, who like her father is in the country illegally, has no plans to leave so easily — or quietly.
“If they are going to deport me, they are going to have a very bad taste in their mouth,” said Karla, who has lived in the United States since she was 5. “I’m going to call this person, this organization, this lawyer. I’ll get on Facebook … Twitter. I’m going to do a media circus. I’m going to stay in this country.”
The debate in the Estrada home showcases a generational divide in many Latino homes in California and elsewhere — driven by a national debate over immigration and a steady move in California toward easing restrictions on people in the country illegally.
Angel Estrada and his wife, Gloria, came to “Pete Wilson’s California,” as he calls it, during a period when hostility toward illegal immigration in the 1990s prompted voters to approve Proposition 187. They were young and in the country illegally at a time when they could be easily rounded up with little protest, and so they learned to keep their heads down, to trudge along without drawing attention to themselves.
Their daughter, a recent UCLA graduate, grew up in the digital age, with immigration activists ready to wage battle on social media and via street demonstrations for people just like her. To Karla, her immigration status is not something to hide.
Sitting next to her father in the living room of their Chino home, she disagrees when her mother says in Spanish: “It scares us when she talks about it. We tell her, ‘Karla, don’t talk about that. Don’t be so open about it, there on Facebook.’”
“My parents always say it’s better to keep quiet, not say anything and just try to blend in,” Karla said. “For me it’s no longer about blending in. It’s more like ‘Yes. I’m undocumented and so what?’”
Karla is about the age her father was when he came to a much more hostile California. She’s living through another period of strong rhetoric against illegal immigration, with Republican presidential candidates, led by billionaire businessman Donald Trump, talking about mass deportations, criminal immigrants and building giant walls along the Mexican border.
But she’s also living in a state where last month Gov. Jerry Brown signed immigration-related measures that included one that removed the word “alien” from California’s labor code. He also signed legislation allowing noncitizens in high school to serve as election poll workers and protecting the rights of immigrant minors in civil suits. The state also allows people in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses.
Since the last mass legalization in 1986, there are at least two main generations of people who are in the country without legal status, said Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard sociologist.
“Compared to their parents, undocumented youth are more connected to the people and places that surround them,” he said. “Relationships with native-born peers and teachers instruct them that they can achieve the American dream — to believe that, if they work hard and play by the rules, they will have opportunities to become whatever they choose.”
Karla is a participant in President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives a work permit and a deportation reprieve to people who were brought to the U.S. as children and stayed illegally. Even before she got her reprieve, she said, she felt that there was a large, digitally and politically savvy network of activists ready to stand with someone like her.
“I don’t know why they won’t fight,” she said of her parents. “I would. And if they let me, I will call everyone in order to help my parents out to come back to the country.”
When Angel Estrada came to California, he didn’t even like to wave the Mexican flag, let alone talk about his legal status.
“The young ones these days aren’t even scared to say they are undocumented,” he said. “They see it as something normal.”
This year, as people without legal status rushed to apply for driver’s licenses, he hesitated. He wondered if the driver’s license he got in the early 1990s with a fake Social Security number would get him in trouble.
At his daughter’s urging, he applied, explaining his situation to a DMV clerk, who told him his new driver’s license would probably arrive in the mail if he hadn’t committed any infractions or felonies with his last license.
“I feel a sense of security because I know how to speak English perfectly. I have American habits,” Karla said. “I have the culture. I listen to their music. I have their mentality of the … American dream.”
The passage of Proposition 187, a ballot measure intended to deny taxpayer-funded services to those in the country illegally, including children, galvanized Latinos in California to vote more, and created a generation of better-organized and politically connected activists.
In the early 2000s, the rise in human smuggling of immigrants helped build a cottage industry of lawyers who represented them after they were captured in police raids. This made it easier for some immigrants to avoid deportation, at least for a while.
Though he had come to the country illegally first in 1988, Angel Estrada left Cuernavaca for the U.S. with his family for good after their middle-class life there crumbled following the devaluation of the Mexican peso in the mid-1990s. Back then, he said, it was relatively easy to hop the border.
His plan was simple. Work, and work hard to support his family the best way he could. When his daughter started getting involved in activism, and let her studies lag, her parents urged her to stop, telling her: “You have to study because we came here to this country and we suffered during the crossing and we don’t want for you to stay behind. You have to go forward.”
Karla listened and began to balance her activism and her studies better, he said.
But she had no plans to stop speaking out.
Karla helped organize protests in Costa Mesa and acts of civil disobedience in Washington. By 2010, she started to identify herself as “undocumented and unafraid.”
By then, her parents wanted to see what all the hype was about, so they accompanied her to a meeting where young activists gave “testimony” about life in the U.S.
Her parents shook their heads, recalling the situation.
“It was just one sad story after another,” her father said. “There was just a lot of lamenting of their situations.”
His daughter interrupted: “But Papa … they were healing circles.”
Karla and her parents still disagree on some matters, particularly on the handling of the immigrant rights movement. Her father and mother cringe every time they see a Mexican flag at rallies, saying that “it’s in poor taste” and a “disrespectful” act that only serves to anger politicians and Americans.
“These are extremists that don’t represent me. I think they have to realize that they are in someone else’s country and have to adapt themselves to this country,” Angel Estrada said. “We have to behave well because the country is watching us.”
Sometimes it’s difficult for Karla’s parents to accept some of her beliefs and actions. Sometimes, with a laugh, they hint that they are as inspired by them.
“She doesn’t have any fear. That makes me feel so proud,” her father said. “We created this generation. We just didn’t know just how far this generation would take us.”