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The lives of four people living on the South Coast, undocumented for decades

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Tim Mossholder
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There are over two million undocumented people living in California. No matter your opinion on illegal immigration, industries like agriculture have a demand for these workers. They’re here. Working and living. This piece gives you a glimpse into the lives of the undocumented and specifically those that have been ‘without papers a really long time.

The story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.

Vanessa Frank is an immigration attorney based in the City of Ventura. And she wanted me to meet some of her favourite people, as she calls them – her clients and friends who have something in common – they’re undocumented… and have been for a long time.

And when I say a long time I mean decades.

“I haven't done the math, maybe 75 percent of my clients have been in the United States at least 10 years,” said Frank.

Also 15, 20 years.

“So all of my DACA clients, by definition, have been here at least 15 years. And those are the young ones, right? DACA are the kids,” said Frank

DACA stands for Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals. It’s an Obama-era policy that protects certain young undocumented immigrants from deporatation. These immigrants, also known as DREAMers, were brought to the U.S. as young children, before 2007.

Currently DACA is on shaky ground with only existing DACA recipients able to get renewals processed, and no new applications being granted.

That fight is in the hands of Congress, the Biden administration and the courts.

And the young people eligible for DACA have parents.

“Before DACA existed and even now of course I represented DACA kids’ parents. So now we're talking about people who've been here for 20 years, 25 years,” said Frank.

Some even more than 30 years. And these are the people Frank wanted to introduce me to.

Victoria - the mother and essential worker

First there’s Victoria Galindo. She’s been in the U.S. more than 25 years.

I met with Victoria at her home in Ventura. Her extremely friendly cat greets me when I arrive. Victoria has dark eyes, as dark as her long jet black hair and she speaks softly.

Victoria says she came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was young – everybody comes young, she says, to get ahead.

Victoria gives me her full name because she has been public about her case to gain legal status. She has been in the media before. Years ago, in an attempt to become legal she was misled by someone who claimed to be an immigration lawyer but wasn’t. The action by that notario, as they are called, led to a deportation order.

Fortunately for Victoria she found a legitimate attorney, Vanessa Frank, who was able to assist her with getting something called a stay of removal – basically halting deportation proceedings.

“So there are people that already have an order to leave, but for humanitarian reasons, in their discretion, the authorities can grant a stay. And she has been renewing her stay of removal ever since because she is the mother of four amazing kids, three of whom are citizens,” said Frank.

Victoria was an essential worker during the coronavirus pandemic. She kept going to her job as a housekeeper at a motel that was converted into a shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

She has been through a lot with her case. And really daily life is a challenge for someone who is undocumented.

Victoria says there are many challenges.

“Your children want to get ahead but the parents don’t have papers,” said Victoria in Spanish.

She says it’s hard to request public assistance because she doesn’t have a social security number. Adding that to try to get a job here in the U.S.

“It's difficult when you don’t have papers,” Victoria said.

I ask Victoria what worries her the most. Her answer is probably what you’d hear from any mother, undocumented or not.

“Even though my kids are grown up, I feel that if I were to be taken away from them, they would be able to get ahead without me. I do know that they could, but as a mother you always see your kids as little ones, right?” Victoria said in Spanish.

She is proud of all her children. Two are teachers, one is studying nursing and helped with administering coronavirus vaccines during the pandemic. Her son, an 18 year old, has graduated high school and has also been volunteering and helping with the vaccine rollout, Victoria says.

I asked Victoria what it’s been like being so public with her case. Bravely putting her name out there.

“People have called me to say, ‘You’re so brave’ because they saw me in the paper or in public and they say they could never do that, they would feel too ashamed,” Victoria said emotionally. “But that’s why it’s important to not be afraid, in my own case, to find out what can be done and have success. And for that reason, most of all, we shouldn’t hide ourselves if we want to win this battle we’re in, we have to keep moving forward.”

Her stays of removal are a temporary fix. Her attorney has filed an application for something known as U status which would provide her a path towards legal status.

Vicente - the graduate and small business owner

When I meet Vicente he is dressed formally in a beautiful suit. His hair is impeccably styled and he’s an extremely friendly person.

Vicente is not his real name. He’s asked that we change his name as he has a job that is quite public, working with nonprofits in this region helping families in need.

Vicente was brought to the U.S. when he was 14-years-old and has been here over 30 years.

“I remember not wanting to come. I was happy. I was very poor. But because that was my environment I didn't know otherwise. I knew we struggled to eat,” said Vicente.

For Vicente it felt like being brought against his will.

“Pretty much told that we have to do this, in order for you to have a shot in education or getting an education or in life, we have to start over somewhere else,” said Vicente.

In his time in the U.S. Vicente has earned two bachelor's degrees and a master’s degree. He owns and runs a small business, but Vicente is humble about his achievements.

“I don't consider myself successful. I consider myself limited in what I can do. And within my own limitations, I've been able to somewhat achieve. A certain level of I guess, success. But I think I've been resilient enough. To avoid telling myself that I can't do things,” said Vicente.

Limitations because of his undocumented status.

“It's like living with some sort of disease, and you just forget about it, right? You forget that you're sick and you just go on about your life without thinking, there's this thing that holds me back. I'm not going to think about that. I'm going to continue moving forward,” said Vicente.

The biggest challenge, Vicente says, is the inability to fulfill your dreams to the fullest extent.

“It's kind of the golden cage,” said Vicente.

A golden cage in the golden state. California has so much to offer but not so much for the undocumented.

“I guess if I have the papers, I could probably pursue a bigger role in society. I just don't… I don't have that yet,” said Vicente.

He says it is human nature to want to belong, to be part of a club or society. He says he’s been in the U.S. so long he thinks of himself as American.

“At some point in my life, I came to the realization that Spanish is no longer my first language, even though that's what I grew up speaking, that I'm able to have a more, I guess, in depth conversation and in English. And therefore, I've become, quote unquote, ‘an American’, whether we want it or not, whether a paper says you are or you aren't” said Vicente. “I don't think of myself as someone without status, as someone without documents, as someone who is from another country, I consider myself a member of this society and this is my home. And the law may say something, but the reality of the day to day life is different.”

Vicente has attempted to gain legal status, but his case remains in limbo in immigration court.

Jesus - the poet and community leader

I met Jesus Noyola in a park in Oxnard. We sit on one of the park benches, people are sitting around on the grass enjoying the cool evening. Jesus is dressed casually. He’s got very short dark hair, a round face and small, kind eyes.

Jesus came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was around 18. That’s more than 20-years-ago now. He’s lived in the U.S. for half his life. Like many other undocumented people Jesus followed family in search of a better life. A life out of poverty.

When he first got to the U.S. Jesus worked as a farmworker. He said that work was really, really hard. He’s also worked in the restaurant industry.

Today he is a community leader and poet. He uses his writing to talk about important issues going on in his community. Jesus embraces the many cultures around him when he writes. He shares a little about one of the poems he’s written about his indigenous roots and indigenous community.

“This poem I titled Mixteco Hands and I talk about workers’ rights, salaries, violence against women, our role as parents of children of farmworkers, that they don’t have to follow our path as farmworkers, not that working in the fields is a bad thing, but our kids can go to the university, even go to Harvard,” said Jesus in Spanish.

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Jesus Noyola
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Jesus Noyola's poem 'Mixteco Hands'

He loves the opportunities that are available to him in the U.S. But as with all undocumented people, he does have worries.

“It's hard because my kids don’t understand that situation, that I’m really nervous and they’re living a different reality. Since they were born here, they don’t know, they don’t have that fear in their life. And I think that most of our community when they travel to certain places, they have that fear of traveling and being out and about with their family. If they go someplace and maybe ICE is there or there’s a roundup or whatever,” said Jesus.

As with all of us, there are the things that worry us most and the things that bring us joy.

“What makes me happy is to see my kids growing up and I try to give them the best life that I can. I’ve enjoyed being involved in my community. It’s been about seven years and it was always my dream to publish a book of poetry. I published it and I think I’ll continue to do that, focusing on my community and feeling united with people,” said Jesus.

Jesus Noyola's book El Aguila de Plumas Hermosas is available on Amazon.

Jesus does not have a path to legal status. He told me he hopes his daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, can petition for him when she’s 21. Unfortunately that would entail Jesus leaving the U.S. for 10 years without the ability to return during that time, and no guarantee of a visa. That… or he hopes for a change in immigration laws.

Evelia - the mother and grandmother

The final undocumented person you’ll meet is Evelia

It’s in Port Hueneme that I’m welcomed into Evelia’s home. Evelia’s hair is tied up neatly and she’s fussing around her home when I arrive. It takes her a little while to finally sit down for the interview.

The walls of this home are filled with pictures of her children and grandchildren. As I look at the pictures of the family I also learn about their incredible achievements.

Evelia is undocumented but her children are citizens and so have been able to take on careers in the U.S. Navy, the Army, The Air Force and one is a successful ranch manager.

Evelia’s daughter Ruth joins us that day to act as translator. Ruth works for a member of Congress.

At the family’s request I am only using their first names to protect their privacy.

Evelia has lived in the U.S. undocumented for more than 30 years. But after all these decades she recently received some good news about her immigration status.

A petition, made by one of her children, for permanent residency had been accepted, after previously being denied. There is still a journey ahead but if all goes well she could get a green card.

I asked Evelia what it was like to receive that news. Ruth acted as translator.

“My Mom, she was very, very happy and overjoyed. After 30 years of being in this country it does bring a lot of overjoy that moment, it's a sense of pride. And she's very she thinks God for it,” Ruth translated from Spanish to English for her mother, Evelia.

Evelia’s eyes are filled with tears throughout the interview. It is incredibly emotional for her to have this conversation. I asked what getting a green card would mean.

“So she's saying there's a lot of barriers, obviously, after being here for 34 years. She wasn't able to travel very much. When she got notification, mostly, she said that what she realized was that she would if she does get her green card, she'll be able to travel and back to see her parents because she hasn't been able to go back,” Ruth translated for her mother, Evelia.

There have been many difficult times for Evelia and her family. They’ve slept on floors and lived in bad neighborhoods where there was gun violence – and always feeling like they’re in hiding.

I asked her what worries her the most about being undocumented.

“She's saying her biggest worry is, as that comes up, her grandchildren. It's funny she's telling me this, but she says it's hard thinking of the idea that if she gets denied,” Ruth translated for her mother, Evelia. “And that's why the thought of being sent back is unbelievable to her. It's a strain on a heart. That's the one thing she wants is that if she can get through this without the idea of leaving, it would be like the best thing in the world having her child, her grandchildren, raised alongside, with her.”

I asked Ruth, Evelia’s daughter, what this process has been like for her and her siblings.

“It's hard. Yeah, it's a sign of relief, not just for me, I think for my brothers, for my sister, our cousins. It's not like big news, but it's enough to be like, ‘OK, we're on the right path’. We're almost there,” said Ruth.

Ruth says as a child they didn’t really understand the consequences of being undocumented. It was common in their community.

“I mean, we grew up in a very agricultural place, so the majority of the kids I went to high school and middle school — we all have the similar story,” said Ruth.

Ruth knows her parents and her mother have relied on her to help them through this process.

“Your parents might rely on you a lot to get things done, it's because they're still strangers to a country they've called home because they don't know the systems yet, because they've been invisible for so… try to be invisible for so many years. So they rely on us,” said Ruth.

Those are just four of the over two million undocumented immigrants living in California.

The link between Victoria, Vicente, Jesus and Evelia is Vanessa Frank – the immigration attorney from Ventura.

Frank gets frustrated because she sees polling showing the public wants immigration reform – but that majority opinion has never been enough to push through legislative changes.

“One of my clients said that living undocumented is sort of like living with a sickness, and you sort of forget about it until every once in a while flares up. But an illness we often attribute to sort of an act of God who knows where an illness comes from. We don't know what causes cancer type one diabetes or these sorts of illnesses, but the illness of being undocumented, the United States, we know exactly where that comes from,” said Frank. “That comes from us. It comes from citizens. It comes from voters. It comes from a Congress. It comes from senators who refuse to budge on this issue, even though they know that it is not morally just. It's not economically sensible. It's against all humanitarian values.”

She says for many undocumented immigrants paying taxes, working hard, raising good kids isn’t enough. She says she has to have difficult conversations with clients everyday.

“Every day I talk to people who've gotten the gumption. They have the interest, they have the money and they're ready, and they're talking to a licensed attorney who knows what they're doing and say, ‘What can I do?’ And every day I tell at least one family. ‘Find the people you know, who are citizens, ask them to vote to change the law’. That's what you can do,” said Frank.

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