SR: I’m Stefanie Ritoper
SW: And I’m Saba Waheed.
[Chanting Sounds]
Sw: We’re at the border crossing in Laredo TX – on the Mexico side. There’s a line of youth that have come together to cross into the United States. They wear caps and gowns of different colors – blue, green, black, red. Some have tassels hanging from their caps, others have backpacks slung over their shoulders. They are of diverse races, different heights, ages, but they all have one thing in common, they are all undocumented youth that call the US home.
SR: You may have heard this story. A couple groups of young undocumented immigrants, known as the Dream 9 and the Dream 30, crossed the border from the US into Mexico so that they can cross back and turn themselves into border patrol. Basically, they’re self deporting.
SR: This is a pretty bold move, and many people were up in arms about it. It’s one thing to come out about your status or to protest for immigration reform– but why would you do something that would so blatantly risk you ever being able to come into this country again?
SW: In this week’s episode of ReWork, we follow the story of one courageous young person whose journey brought him to the border.
[“Home” – Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes]
SW: Luis grew up in Marion, North Carolina, a tiny town at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a really small community– with no more than 10,000 people.
L: I don’t think I see anywhere else as my hometown like Marion. Everybody knows each other. You drive down the road and everybody waves at you. Growing up, what I loved the most was like in the wintertime, cause we lived at the foothills of the mountains, looking out you see the whole entire mountainview. Every morning I remember waking up and you see the sunrise and then as the sun would hit the mountains at the very peak it would be pink. And some people might say you’re like really? The mountains? You know? But it’s like something a lot of people, my friends also, we would like it and that’s what stood out the most for us and it was calm and peaceful.
SW: Luis’s dad worked in a job that made him travel. His job was to clear the path of power lines along the highways all across the South. During the winter, he would work with the same company to plant trees to reforest. Luis only saw his father when he would come home on the weekends. As a result, Luis’s mother was a huge influence on his life.
L: So the one who raised me was my mother and my mother was like the one that always told me, like, from a very very young age, she told me you’re undocumented in this country so you do not have the same rights as your other friends that were born here. You do not have the same privileges as them do. So for you to be have something this life this life and this country you’re going to have to work all over, you gonna have to have better grades than everybody because they don’t have, you don’t, you’re gonna have a lot more struggle than they will and so at a young age, she prepared me for this.
She, she always wanted me to have perfect grades. You know, she, she always implemented me being good in school, not getting in trouble and always being kind to everybody and always getting involved My mother was the one who taught me how to speak English, the one and, I learned, she learned with me. We had to buy a Spanish-English dictionary, she would like go out and word by word be like telling me what it meant. And so if my mom has the bravery and was able to be successful in a country that was not made for her, I am really astonished by that and like I wanna be able to make her proud.
SR: So Luis buckled down and worked hard to get good grades, and focus on his work. Toward the end of high school though, it began to dawn on him that his next step was uncertain.
L: knew when I graduated high school that could be the end of my educational career so I was trying to get the best out of it and trying to be the best at it so that after I graduated maybe I’d have an opportunity to go to college. And so 2011 I graduated high school, I applied to different colleges and they accepted me but whenever they would ask me for my social security number or my status, I’d be like I’m undocumented and that’s when the whole thing would change. And so I would tried and tried and I looked into different universities but they would accept but they would say like you would have to pay at least $32,000 a year and I was like that’s impossible. School was about to start in two weeks and I still hadn’t applied to any colleges and I was like, but my mom was like there’s always that possibility that you can go Mexico but I did not wanna go to Mexico. All my friends, going living in the dorm and going to the whole college experience is what I wanted. Eventually, I just sat down at a table and I was thinking, you really wanna go to college and then I was just one day I decided okay you’re going to Mexico.
SW: It was a glimmer of hope. The thought running through Luis’s head was that if he went back to Mexico, he could attend a university there, and then maybe, just maybe he could become so successful that he could attain a visa — a real visa that could bring him back to the US. Two weeks before the Fall semester started, Luis bought a one-way ticket to Mexico.
And then the day came for Luis to take his flight.
L: Oh, that, that day was horrible. I remember just standing at the airport and it was like I had to take it in my hand, I had my passport in my other hand and then I was just like hugging my mom and dad, my mom and little brothers telling them goodbye, that I loved them and I kept telling my little, the littlest one was my sister and she was the only girl. And she was like, when are you coming back? I was like I’ll be back soon and then when I hugged her, she started crying.
And that was like the hardest part. We were all like holding it in and she started crying, then everybody just started bawling at that point. It was really hard because there was a big line to cross the, like the security and just sitting there and looking back and watching my family stay behind and I was getting closer to security and I was like should I back out or should I go in? It was like one more step and there’s no turning back and just seeing my family there and knowing I’m probably not gonna see them for a long time was really hard. And then, you know, I finally put my desire to go to college, I guess overwhelmed and I took the step and passed through security and I hopped on the plane.
L: My family lives in Quintana Roo which is a Caribbean state in Mexico and I flew in a plane in Charlotte, North Carolina to Cancun, Mexico. And being on the plane, my luggage, I got stuck with a plane full of one wedding. And everybody was happy and excited and I was, remember being stuck in a corner and I was bawling my eyes out, you know? I was like all these folks are having a good time. I even shut the window. I didn’t wanna see anything.
SR: Mexico brought new sights and sounds that opened Luis’ eyes and helped him understand his roots. But even amidst these new experiences he found himself lonely and nostalgic.
L: I lived in Mexico when I was five. And so, when I get back I don’t know anybody. I didn’t even know who my grandmother was, like, you know? And so it was really hard, the family didn’t understand my ways of being. My [unintelligible] from the same family, [unintelligible] your family roots and your family traditions change. You know, there was not Thanksgiving, there was no 4th of July. Little things that I didn’t pay attention to here that when I got like to Mexico, I was like, oh, which really made me sad. You know, [unintelligible], and I was like oh yeah, we’re preparing the dinner and everything and my family in Mexico was like, it’s just a normal day.
SR: Another big culture shock was finding out that he couldn’t actually attend public university there either. Since all of his education was in the US, he was considered a foreigner which made it extremely difficult to insert into the public school system. Instead he scraped together funds to attend a low quality private university. The professors often cancelled class without warning and Luis didn’t feel challenged.
L: And it was many stuff like that just build on top, you know, the language barrier that I was hitting, you know, my Spanish was not good enough. I spoke Spanish, I knew how to read and write a little bit of it but, you know, I was like at a kindergarten level honestly because, you know, growing up here, and I never had the use for, my mom, you know, she tried to teach me but I did learn a little bit but it wasn’t like a college level. Those were my days in Mexico. Go to college, go back home, go to college. The first year I really didn’t go out anywhere. I didn’t wanna go out anywhere. All I did was go back home, get on the computer and see what my family was doing, you know? I would look at google maps and call my mom all the time and be like hey, what’s changing, what’s new? That’s how I kept myself, like I think that’s what kept me going, you know? That I had a good communication with my family but still, it was really depressing. That was just my first year and then after that, I started meeting friends. Some people started accepting me, and so that’s when I just started going out a little bit more and then right when I was starting to go out, right when I was starting to, be like okay maybe I can deal with this, that was when you know, the DACA passed.
SW: Then, just a year after Luis had been living in Mexico, president Obama took a bold first step in immigration reform.
[AUDIO from President Obama’s speech]
“Good afternoon, everybody. This morning, Secretary Napolitano announced new actions my administration will take to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient, and more just — specifically for certain young people sometimes called “Dreamers.” …Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.”
SW: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was a historic move. It stopped deportations of “dreamers” – immigrant youth who arrived to the country before they were fifteen – while providing them with work visas. DACA had the potential to impact 1.9 million immigrant youth. It provided them with legitimacy and stability. It meant, they could get jobs which could also lead to health insurance and could help them provide for their families.
SR: Immigrant youth activists in the US had pushed hard to make this happen. The news broadcast teary eyed hugs and reactions as they all celebrated.
Meanwhile, Luis, who would have been eligible, was now in Mexico.
L: That moment was horrible for me. I remember I had, I started like crying, how mad I was. I was happy that it had passed for my friends that were there but at the same time, in my case, my personal feelings. I was like, why didn’t you guys do this while I was there. Why am I being left out? That’s what I was feeling and like I was feeling so stressed out and depressed. I was feeling, I was getting desperate. I was like I need to back, I need to go back, I need to go back, like the US didn’t know I got out. So that’s what, you know, led me to another big decision in my life, which was crossing the border illegally on my own.
SR: Luis, then had a crazy idea. A desperate idea. If he could sneak back into the country under wraps, maybe no one would ever know that he left.
Remember, he came over before Kindergarten, so this is something he *barely* remembers. Now he has to do it on his own. It’s a complicated process to cross the border, and a dangerous one. Luis had to do his research to figure out how he could do it. Finally he connected with people who could help him cross.
L: So what I did was that I started exercising a lot. I started running a lot. I started, you know, I started getting back in shape because I was like, I was gonna go through this, I need to be in good shape, you know? Just in case I get like, I run into trouble I need to be able to have the stamina to run for a long distance and walk for long periods of times. And I finally, you know, hopped on the bus and went to the border. And I think that was the scariest most horrifying experience of my life because that was like the lowest point of my life where I had to sleep on like concrete floors in the dirt.
The first time I crossed the border I got caught immediately. Like we crossed the river and then like ten minutes walking in we got caught and at that moment I was like no, no, you’re not supposed to catch me, you’re not supposed to know I’m doing, I didn’t wanna do this but you know, you guys weren’t supposed to know and then, as soon as they caught me I knew, there goes everything. I knew it. I knew everything was over.
No more college in the US. No more DACA you know. I just ruined everything. And, they sent me back and after they sent me back to Mexico, I was, you know what, I’m not doing this for college anymore, I’m not doing this because I wanna apply for DACA, I’m doing this because I wanna see my family. I’m doing this because I wanna go back to the town I call home.
And so I did it again and again and again and again. I did it after that four times and I got caught four times. I didn’t care. And after the fourth time they told me, look you have a twenty year sentence. You cannot apply for a visa, you cannot apply for anything for 20 years. You are deported for 20 years and if we catch you again we’ll give you 180 days of jail time.
And that was, like, okay I can’t do this no more. I have like, I have used all my strikes. I struck out. They sent me back to Mexico. I went to my home town in Veracruz and, like, I was just, I was crashed at that moment, all the doors were closed for me.
[MUSIC: Ocote Soul Sounds & Adrian Quesa – El Pescador]
SW: Luis lost all hope. He could no longer see his family. And now he didn’t have school to return to either. So he moved back to look for a job. Because his family was from the coastal region, he found work in Cancun, at a resort.
L: Yeah, it was pretty crazy for me, you know? Never in a million years I thought I’d be working in a hotel or a resort, you know, for me that was not my kind of environment or the kind of place I would imagine myself working and especially in customer service.
Whenever I would get out of work and I would go to the beach because I would live like right two blocks from the beach, I would go there and then I was amazed of how foreign people would come into Mexico thinking that that is a playground in which I, and I would see them like ask for people to move, like hey could you move, we ordered this part of the beach I hated it. I hated working there, you know? I hated everything. I was going through so much hatred. And not towards anybody, just towards myself, you know? I hated myself for like the decisions I had taken.
SW: And then one day Luis came home and saw a new message on his Facebook.
L: And so, one day Santiago added me on Facebook and sends me a message and he’s like, hey, look I don’t know if you remember me, we lived in the same town went to same middle school and high school in Marion but we were not part of the same group of friends. So we knew each other just by name and face, but that’s it.
SR: – Santiago was part of a group called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), and they had a plan. The plan was basically that a group of young undocumented immigrants were going to cross the border– back to Mexico– and then turn themselves into border patrol.
It turned out that the group had been staging similar actions for several years. Their idea was to use the one thing that they feared the most as undocumented immigrants – the threat of getting deported – and make it a strength. It was a way to get inside detention centers and understand more about others inside facing deportation. It was a tool to organize, and help bring to light the cases of so many people facing deportation every day.
L: And immediately I said yes after he told me like you’re gonna come to the border, you’re gonna turn yourself into immigration, we’re gonna try to get you out and we’re gonna try to reunite with your family. And I was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah you know? I never asked or questioned him. It sparked something in me, you know? The little, the littlest opportunity that I had to be with my family again. And so I get to the border, you know, and I meet the rest of the Dream 9 and I meet some of the organizers and the NIYA came down to Mexico. I met the three that self-deported themselves a week before and then went to Mexico just to cross with us. and I knew this was real. This is real. These kids are like, they’re crazy but this is real. And I’m gonna be just as crazy as it needs to be.
SW: Luis arrived on a Friday, and the idea was to cross the border on Monday. That weekend, the first weekend they met, was the only chance they had to plan together and go through training on what they needed to do while they were inside.
L: They taught us, like how to prepare mentally just in case we were in there for a period of six months because it could take up to six months just to get us out. They told us this is the first time we’re doing this and we also don’t even know if it’s gonna work. And I was like, you know what? I have nothing to lose, it doesn’t matter, I’m in all the way.
SR: And so Monday morning came, and they prepared to cross. They dressed in cap and gowns and walked through the streets of Nogales linked arm in arm, prepared for anything.
L: And then I get to the border and there’s like all these cameramen and we actually get closer and we see on the other side, I see this like gigantic group of people with banners and, and you know posters and megaphones and they’re screaming out our names, bring them home, bring them home, and I was like, tears were almost running out my eyes at that moment because I never thought I would see so much support for me just to come back, you know? Before that my thought of crossing the border was you just gonna get rejected. This country has rejected you and then seeing the people from that country that had rejected me wanted me to come back, was like that moment that like made me help me stand up. I had been, like, you know knocked down over and over again and that was like that moment I had, the moment I was able to stand up again. And, you know, fight back.
[“Home” – By Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes]
L: And it was like I get up to the entry point and there’s a female officer there and she was like what are here for? I’m here to go home, that’s what I tell her. And she giggled. She laughed at me. And I was like, no seriously, I’m here to go home. And so what she does is she handcuffed me.
SW: Immigration and Customs Enforcement – also known as ICE – checked Luis and the rest of the group, the “Dream 9” in to the EE-loy detention center in Arizona. It was in the middle of the desert, a huge complex surrounded by barbed wire.
L: I remember driving to it, seeing it out the window, it was just like a prison. They’re taking us in a prison, barbed wire top, barbed wire electric fences, you know? They patrolled the entire campus with trucks, you know? And these trucks actually had guards that had shotguns in the trucks. And so it was like, it was a scary view from the outside.
SW: Inside, Immigration officials controlled each hour of the day.
L: They would wake us up at 4 in the morning just to eat breakfast and breakfast was, like, this really really bad and nasty oatmeal with like a piece of bread and back to bed. And then they wake us up and they make us go outside at midday when it was like the hottest and it was horrible and they would lock us up at like three times a day just to count us. After, lunch we came back and they lock us up and count us. They would take us outside, take us back in and then count us. They take us to eat dinner, they’d come back, and count us. And then walking through it was like barbed wire everywhere. Like we’re not criminals we’re just wanting, looking for a better life. We’re normal people.
SR: So one of the main missions of the group was to meet people and hear their stories. Luis and the Dream 9 got to know the detainees.
L: They opened up to us and then it’s like no this place is horrible. No, but some of them told us they got isolation because they put them in solitary confinement because they will try to speak up because they wanted to speak to a better attorney because they were tired of the treatment and so many of them were scared of being in there. and the men there told us they had been in there for two years, two and a half years just waiting to know if he was gonna be deported.
SR: One detainee, Francisco, was inside for driving without a license.
L: He had been in there for six months because, he had his own landscaping business and then one day while he was working, on a way to the park on the highway, he hit a checkpoint. when he got there, well obviously he didn’t have a license so they took him in there and he had been in there for six months just for driving without a license. He had never had any kind of traffic violation, he no, he had no DUIs. He was really worried because his wife didn’t work and he had three US citizen children who were being left behind. He lost his business, all his machinery. His family lost everything. Two days later he was deported. Most of the cases are like that in there. These are just regular men that I met that all, I would say 90% of them were in there because they had some minor traffic violation like driving without a license or maybe rolling a stop sign.
SR: President Obama has deported nearly two million people during his five years in office, more than any other administration. 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US live under the constant threat of detention and deportation. Across the country, people have been urging President Obama to use his executive power to put a stop to deportations. People have done sit-ins, blocked ICE office entrances, and chained themselves to the wheels of deportation buses.
SW: On the girls’ side, they were not separated from Spanish speaking detainees so they were able to go farther. They were able to start a hunger strike where a number of women detainees refused food and water. For this, Immigration placed two of the Dream 9 young women into solitary confinement.
SR: The Dream 9 action gained national attention and led 34 house members to sign a letter asking for their release.
SW: Meanwhile, all members of the Dream 9 filed for asylum. Shortly after, they received the news that they would be free to go, released on parole.
L:And on that day they told us we were gonna be let out and I call my mom and I told her, like, mom I got some news, you know? I’m like, she’s like what is it? And I was like, my mom thought I was gonna be sent back to Mexico because of my 20 year deportation and I was like I’m coming home. And I remember my mom had been like, my dad’s name’s Rodrigo and my mom was like Rodrigo, Rodrigo, he’s coming back, he’s coming back and like, she was crying on the phone and screaming. I could hear my little brother jumping around all over the house and then the next day they gave up parole immediately. I remember the guard knocking at my door. He’s like, hey you’re getting out of here. And I was like getting out of here where? And they were like, no you’re out we’re letting you loose.
They give our parole papers, they gave us all our belongings back, you know, we changed into normal clothing again, they shot us on a van and they took us down to Tuscon, Arizona. And then we realized they didn’t want to drop us off at the Greyhound station because there was a bunch of media there waiting for us. And they were like the Greyhound station’s that way, just walk. And they just like, immediately, it was a matter of seconds they like got out and by the time we stepped out of the van our stuff was already on the road. They were like, leave. And we were like where did he say it was?
And we were like that way and we started walking that way and seeing so many people there and cameras with banners you know, greeting us, saying welcome home and I was like, oh my god, I’m in the US, you know? And I was like breathing in the air and I’m in the United States, something I had dreamed for since I was 8 years old finally came true.
SR: And finally, Luis made the trip back home to North Carolina. He decided to surprise his family and as he pulled into Marion, he stuck into his little sister’s room.
L: And so, I remember sitting in my little sister’s room. It was so good to see her little pink room, and, I sitting in there and I hear my mom and my aunts and and some of my friends are there and are like they need to get here, like where are they at? Oh they’re in South Carolina, and then so, I gently like, just opened the door and I walked into the kitchen and I was like hey, mom, do you have anything to eat? And she was like, she just paused and she didn’t recognize me and then when she silently saw me and recognized me, she just started screaming,
And then my little sisters and brother were like, they were shocked, everybody was shocked to see me and I was like, I’m really hungry, it’s been two years. And so we finally hugged each other, like hugging my mom and dad and family all at the same time was so amazing. I remember that night, that first night I slept in my room again, the next morning I felt little fingers like poking my face and it was all my brother was like, he’s real, he’s back, he’s finally back.
SR: Back in the US now, Luis says it’s like seeing things with brand new eyes. He appreciates every moment and he is willing to fight for it.
L: To folks that are in the same situation as me, I would, my thought is like, appreciate what you have, especially students in high school and like, younger dreamers, like you know that are green legal status. Appreciate what you have. Work harder for what you want. And, you know, fight for it. Because you never know when you’re gonna lose it and you never know how long you gonna lose. And if you ever get it back. And so in all this experience for me, you know, being in the detention center, being deported, you know, leaving my family behind, not seeing them for a long period of time, which changed me a lot. I appreciate things, you know? I enjoy my family time. I enjoy, everything I do.
And, now, you know, I’m here to fight more, I’m here to speak out, not afraid to, like you know, sit down and, you know other people [unintelligible] for me, you know, to fight for what I need and fight for what I want and you know. Now I’m here, making my own choices and being with the people that have the same thoughts as me, fighting them for these choices.
SR: Now Luis is back home with his family in Marion. He continues to fight for in-state tuition in North Carolina and still hopes to go to college.
SW: This episode covered Luis Leon, a part of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. To find out more about NIYA, visit their facebook page at national-immigrant-youth-alliance. To learn more about current national efforts to stop deportation, visit
SR: You’re listening to ReWork a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This weeks show was produced by Stefanie Ritoper, Saba Waheed, Vanessa Moreno, Tyler Milles and Clarine Ovando Lacroux. Music support by Francisco Garcia Nava and Armand Waheed. Special thanks to Henry Walton.
SW: For more information about ReWork, visit our website at rework radio dot org. There you can listen to previous shows and subscribe to our podcast. You can also tweet your reactions to this show to @rework_radio.
SR: Until next time, rethink, rework.