June 23, 2011

An uncertain future: Seeking a place to call home

Marty Kirkland

— The first time Mario Rodriguez was unable to provide a Social Security number, it kept him from joining his best friend’s family on a cruise. The last time he failed to produce those nine digits, it put his life in a tailspin that will likely lead to his deportation from the United States.

Rodriguez was a seventh-grader at Eastbrook Middle School when he first learned he was an illegal alien, finding out from his mother when he asked for his Social Security number so he could get a passport to go on a cruise to Mexico, which just happened to be his native country. But the full reality of what it means to be an illegal alien hit Rodriguez, now 18, in the form of the cold water he showered in and the hard floor he slept on at the Whitfield County Jail on April 20-21.

Arrested by a Whitfield County Sheriff’s deputy that afternoon for driving without a license — he was pulled over for doing 71 in a 55 mph zone on a borrowed motorcycle, and was also charged for a tag violation — he spent the night in jail on a hold for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of the federal 287(g) program. Weeks away from graduation at Southeast Whitfield High, he was about to have much more on his mind than what he would do with his final summer before entering the work force or college.

Asked at the jail for his Social Security number, Rodriguez could only provide the deputy a blank stare.

“And he was like, ‘You know what this means, right?’” Rodriguez recalled. “And in jail, he pretty much said, ‘You’re going back.’”

With Georgia’s new immigration law, House Bill 87, days away from its July 1 implementation, other illegal aliens in the area have become increasingly aware they could face a fate similar to Rodriguez’s. Proponents argue that House Bill 87 will simply finally provide enforcement of existing immigration laws the federal government has failed to apply.

But Rodriguez believes his presence in this country — and that of many other illegal aliens — is too complicated for the argument that those who are here illegally should have no expectation of staying.

A perilous journey

Rodriguez was born in Torreon, Mexico, some 375 miles from the U.S. border in Texas, and lived there for the first five years of his life until his mother, Martha Aleman, decided to flee to Dalton with Mario, his two brothers, a cousin and her mother.

She had been separated from her children’s father, Martin Rodriguez, for three years, having left him after what she called mental abuse. But her husband wanted custody of the boys, she said, and ultimately threatened to kill her if she didn’t relinquish custody.

“He would go to the boys’ school,” Aleman said, “and the director from the school called me one day and told me if I didn’t take them and run, my husband was going to take the boys away, because he would come there every day.”

Aleman then decided to take what she knew would be a risky journey even before she reached the U.S., paying “coyotes” — smugglers who help people cross the border illegally — $2,000 for each person on their way to Dalton. The family was robbed along the way (Rodriguez recalled he and his cousin hiding behind a disposed refrigerator in an attempt to get away during the incident) and ultimately separated less than an hour from the border.

Stopped by Mexican authorities, most of the family was caught hiding in the back of a truck. But Rodriguez and his cousin were able to continue the trip because they had been riding in the cab of the truck, which was driven by U.S. citizens who were able to continue the route toward Dalton. The two spent two weeks with family already living in Dalton, with Aleman and the rest eventually crossing the border on foot before making their way to Georgia.

Rodriguez was approaching his sixth birthday at the time. His older brother, Hector, was 8. His younger brother, Martin, was 3. And Aleman believed uprooting her young sons was the only option for her safety and theirs.

She first found work sewing, then later in a factory. She now makes a living cleaning homes and offices, and her sons have often helped her get the work done — that, in fact, was what Mario had been doing the day he was pulled over and taken to jail, skipping school so that he could give his recently hospitalized mother an extra hand.

“He is a very good son,” Aleman said. “He’s smart. He’s responsible. He keeps busy all the time in sports since he was a little boy. When he is younger, sometimes he makes not good decisions. But ... I understand. He is a very, very good son.”

A reality check

Two years after their arrival in Dalton, Rodriguez said he, his brothers and his mother broke ties with the relatives they’d been living with, feeling unsupported by them. Some of those relatives were here legally, and Rodriguez knows now that they made fun of the fact that he and his family weren’t, meanwhile offering no information on how they might obtain legal residency.

But it wasn’t until Rodriguez learned in seventh grade that he was an illegal alien that he began to deal firsthand with embarrassment about his status. But he was treated no differently by the friend who had invited him on the cruise, Jon Wilbanks, and in fact, Wilbanks’ family offered extensive support to Rodriguez over the years. Jon’s mother, Amy Quinn, allowed him to live with the family for some four years from ages 13-17, considering him as much one of her children as Jon or his two siblings.

Eventually, she formally started the process to adopt him in order to help him obtain citizenship. Aleman, though, turned that request down, still fearful of breaking up her own family.

“I didn’t want to lose him,” she said. “It’s my family and I’m a single mother.”

In many ways, Rodriguez was no different than many of his classmates growing up who were citizens or legal immigrants. He played sports, eventually settling on football and wrestling by his senior year at Southeast. He did OK in his literature classes, had trouble in math and became known for being friendly and talkative and open, even with strangers, although there was one topic he generally held back from discussing.

While he had no trouble telling Wilbanks about his illegal status, he said he avoided the topic with most friends and acquaintances. That was easy enough for a few years, but when others began getting their learner’s permits and driver’s licenses, he had to make excuses about why he wasn’t doing the same.

He started dating classmate Megan Hopkins when they both were sophomores. She was a manager for Southeast’s wrestling team, and she found Rodriguez fun to be around, with a personality that made others like him, too. Rodriguez quit the wrestling team halfway through his freshman and sophomore seasons, but with her encouragement he persisted as an upperclassman. She pushed him to do better in school, too, begging him to complete his homework and helping him do so.

“He’s had an influence on me, too,” Hopkins said. “He’s made me more considerate to people, just his personality with people. I guess we’ve kind of balanced each other out.”

The couple pride themselves on the fact that they’ve been open and honest with one another in their nearly three years together. But Rodriguez waited eight months before he confessed to her that he was here illegally.

“Honestly, it didn’t faze me at all,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why did it take you so long to tell me? What’s the big deal?’ I just didn’t think anything about it until all of this started happening.

“And then I realized it’s a big deal.”

His uncertain future

When Rodriguez was pulled over for speeding (he had been driving so he could help Wilbanks pick up another vehicle from a mechanic), it was his first brush with the law, but he didn’t immediately worry about what might be ahead.

Instead, that came with time at the jail, as his stay got longer and longer. He was processed into the inmate population — a scary experience, he said, particularly for an 18-year-old among older inmates — and went to sleep on the floor because he entered the four-person cell late, when bunks were already claimed by sleeping inmates or their stored materials.

He was out the next afternoon, but received a Notice to Appear, the first step “In removal proceedings under section 240 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” The paperwork also notified Rodriguez of the Department of Homeland Security’s charges that he was present illegally, and that he would be “subject to removal from the United States.”

Rodriguez made his first appearance at Immigration Court (overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review) in Atlanta on May 3, accompanied by Southeast guidance counselor Chris Anderson and Principal Brian Satterfield, who was also Rodriguez’s principal at Valley Point Elementary and Eastbrook Middle. The two came to offer moral support, but the straightforward hearing resulted in little more than a notice of his next court date, July 21, and a reminder that he could seek legal counsel.

After meeting with several attorneys, Rodriguez finally settled on Atlanta lawyer Peter Hill. While Hill declined to be interviewed for this story, a blog listing on his website details an immigration case in which he obtained citizenship for a foreign-born woman whose parents brought her to the United States before she was 2. Successes like that give Rodriguez and his family hope that he may not be deported, but Rodriguez is far less optimistic than his brothers or mother, who wants him to get a college education in the United States.

Rodriguez has spoken with wrestling coaches at Shorter College about studying and competing there, but doesn’t know if he’ll even be around in the fall.

“I mean, a miracle can happen,” he said. “But the reality is there’s nothing you can really do.”

And Rodriguez said he knows he has little on his side legally. He doesn’t deny that he is here illegally. He doesn’t deny any of the things that he was charged with on April 20 that led to his arrest and put him on ICE’s radar, or that driving was a bad decision. (He paid $196 in fines for speeding and operating a vehicle without a decal, but his charge for unlicensed driving was dismissed in Probate Court.)

But he said he has trouble understanding why after so many years here illegally, when he was welcomed by teachers and administrators and coaches — several of whom have written character letters of support for him — he has to deal with the feeling of being pushed out. He is frustrated that immigration enforcement, lax for so many years, has become a hot topic and a must-do for some public officials. And he also believes there are more illegal aliens than people expect, guessing that half of the Hispanic students at Southeast are not here legally.

Rodriguez believes the fact that he identifies himself as an American, and that he has grown up here, should make a difference. He knows the U.S. national anthem and the pledge to the American flag, not Mexico’s, he said. He found a place on the football field, but is horrible at soccer, he argues. His Spanish is weak and criticized by his mother. His accent leans toward Southern, if anything.

“I wish that was good enough,” he said.

Quinn, under whose roof Rodriguez spent so many years of his adolescence, feels frustrated because she tried several times over the years — long before the arrest — to find out what options Rodriguez might have. She met with a local immigration attorney, but was unable to make any progress. Now, she joins Rodriguez, his family and his friends in their collective frustration.

“At this point we feel very helpless, but we will stand with him in front of immigration and plea for a very young, innocent life,” Quinn said. “And this falls upon a young man who never asked to come here, but yet this is all he knows.”

Rodriguez is dealing with the confusion that many in any court system for the first time face, and he’s unclear about what exactly will happen at his next appearance in Atlanta.

He also doesn’t know what he’ll do if deported, but he knows he won’t go back to Torreon, where he has almost no family left and violent crime is a major concern, he said. His mother has the memory of a 14-year-old girl who was raped there, but police corruption meant nothing happened to the accused. And Torreon is among the many cities that have become stained by Mexico’s bloody drug wars, with a Christian Science Monitor story earlier this month detailing a gang attack on a drug rehab facility earlier that left 13 patients and workers dead.

Even if deported, Rodriguez hopes to find a way to come back and stay legally.

But he freely admits he’d rather just stay.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You just have to wait, hope and pray. That’s all you can do.”