UTD siblings reflect on living as undocumented immigrants in United States
It was Election Day in 2008 and Abigail Cortes and her mom were watching the election results. Both were upset that Cortes’ brother, Elio Zapote, had wanted to visit a friend at UTD that night instead of watching the results with them.
Sometime that Tuesday evening the phone rang, and Cortes picked up. Zapote’s friend was frantic on the other end.
“They’ve got him. They’ve got him,” the friend yelled.
All of a sudden, their lives came to a standstill.
UTD Police had stopped Zapote because a light on his license plate was out.
When he couldn’t show a driver’s license, the officers arrested and detained him in the Richardson jail. Two days later, he was being fingerprinted at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.
Sitting in the ICE detention center, as officials fingerprinted him and asked him how and when he had crossed over the border, all Zapote could think of was how he didn’t want to be torn away from his family. He thought about what he would do if he found himself in Mexico without any idea of what to do there.
“That’s when they said I was going to get deported,” Zapote said.
He said that experience was perhaps the most traumatic experience in his life.
“For something as stupid as a light, my freedom was taken away literally,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything about it, and it’s frustrating that so many people have to go through this.”
Zapote, now an accounting senior at UTD, and Cortes, program coordinator in the Office of Diversity, illegally crossed over the Mexico border in 1997 with their mother.
Zapote, who was 11 years old at the time, remembers when his mother decided to move.
Their father had a family of his own, and there was nothing left for his mother and them in their little town. It was better for all of them to move north where there were more opportunities.
“My mom didn’t know what she was getting into,” Cortes said.
Cortes doesn’t remember much, except that they’d had to stay in Mexico City with an aunt for three days. Six-year-old Cortes had wondered if north meant Mexico City.
On the third night, they traveled to the border. Cortes was upset that she had to chop off her long hair that ran down to her waist, because she was to pass off as a boy, she said.
They were crossing over as a family, but the two children crossed over before their mother, Zapote said.
They lost touch with their mother for a whole day at the border before they finally found her and traveled to San Antonio and then to Dallas.
The first six months were really hard on the family, Zapote said, and he had resented the move back then.
Their mother was working two jobs, they didn’t know anybody and he had to care for his sister. They would go to school and struggle because there were only two other Hispanic children.
“The whole language barrier was a major factor in us trying to make a living,” Zapote said. “Little by little we learned the language, and we pulled through.”
Now, he can’t imagine being deported to Mexico, a country he hasn’t been back to in 18 years.
When Zapote got arrested, Cortes and her mother realized just how powerless they were against the law. At the time, Cortes was interning for an immigration lawyer. She tried reaching out to her for help, but the lawyer was traveling and couldn’t be reached.
Several other lawyers refused to take the case, Cortes said.
“Nobody could do anything except wait it out,” Zapote said.
Three days later, the immigration lawyer Cortes interned for got back to them. She said she could get Zapote out if Cortes could pay $5,000 in bail. Thankfully, their mother had managed to save up that much, and Zapote was finally out of jail on bail.
“It was really scary,” Zapote said. “I didn’t want to go out after that. I just wanted to stay at home.”
After this incident, Cortes and her mother realized with the help of the lawyer that they qualified for permanent residency. Their mother had married in 2001 when they had filed papers, and after she divorced in 2003, the family had let the matter of residency slide.
When Zapote got out of jail, the lawyer found their paperwork from 2001, and in 2011 Cortes and her mother became residents of the United States. Zapote qualified as a beneficiary under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and could finally obtain a social security number and a driver’s license.
For a long time, Zapote was unable to get a college degree because he didn’t qualify for financial aid if he didn’t have documents. He had to take one course at a time at Richland College for his associate’s degree in teaching because he couldn’t afford to be enrolled full time, he said. After 2009, when he qualified for DACA, he was able to continue his education and receive financial aid.
“You could finally go to school without being scared of what’s going to happen to you and if you’re going to get arrested or not,” Zapote said. “The fear of being deported and (having to) go back to Mexico — I don’t think I was going to be able to start over again.”
Cortes was able to pay in-state tuition at UTD due to the Texas Nordic Act in 2001 that allowed undocumented children who had lived in Texas for five years to qualify for in-state tuition.
However, the life of undocumented immigrants is far from easy, she said.
Venturing outside their apartment was never risk-free, Cortes said, and when her brother started driving at age 16, she would get into the truck and be on the look out for cops.
“When you see a cop your heart sinks in your stomach,” she said.
When he was 14 years old, Zapote started working at a pizza shop. With her mother working two jobs, Cortes would stay alone at home after school until 5 a.m. in the morning. There were times when they would see their mother only once a week.
“It was hard not knowing if she was going to come home at five in the morning or if he was going to come back … if they’re five minutes late you worry,” Cortes said.
The immigration reforms announced on Nov. 20 were a step in the right direction, but by no means sufficient, Cortes said. The community had been expecting more from the President, and after years of lobbying for rights for parents of DREAMers, it was disappointing to not have them included, she said.
While immigration reforms are one way to look at the problem, the other is to understand why immigrants choose to make this move at all, Cortes said.
“At its core, all the violence and corruption in Mexico is one of the reasons why. It’s cultural as well,” she said.
The cost of legal immigration is higher than most Mexicans can afford and poverty is high in the country, so most families think they have a better shot if they cross the border, make some money and send it back home.
If there was any way workers from Mexico could be provided seasonal visas or Mexico could be deemed a dangerous state thus granting asylum to refugees from there, then the number of undocumented immigrants would likely decrease, she said.
“We’re not trying to harm anybody; we’re not trying to take other people’s jobs,” Zapote said. “We’re just trying to have a better life.”