Before making the trip, Gabriela Alvarez and her family got rid of everything. Their house in Mexico, their cornfield, their cows. Alvarez, 11 at the time, gave her Barbie dolls to her best friend.
Her mother said they were going to America, the “green land,” and were staking all they had on a new life. Alvarez didn’t understand why — decisions like that aren’t explained to little girls.
The family reached a Tijuana motel room and sat tight for about a week, Alvarez remembers. Her two older siblings — born in the U.S. when their parents lived there on a previous stay — flew to America legally and joined their father. Alvarez’s mother, meanwhile, would walk across the border, saying she was only coming to work for the day.
But first Alvarez and her three younger siblings had to make the crossing with smugglers, known as “coyotes.” The children were told they could bring nothing — not even a change of clothes — and they packed into the back of a family van, with two coyotes posing as their parents. From appearances, they were a middle-class family on vacation, and they slipped over the border undetected in the summer of 2000.
That, it turned out, was the easy part.
For Alvarez, life would never be the same. The family of eight — some here legally, some not — reassembled in Basin City, a scrap of a town about 60 miles southwest of Ritzville, Wash. They crammed into a single-wide trailer and, as a family, went to work in Washington’s fields, picking apples, cherries, peaches, pears and watermelons.
In some ways, Alvarez’s is a quintessential American story: an immigrant in a foreign land, attending school in an unfamiliar language, working back-breaking jobs to put herself through college.
In other ways, hers is the tale of a criminal, one of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in America whose lives have become political footballs, picked up from time to time and tossed around.
And with the U.S. Senate and President Obama proposing new reforms last week, the issue once again steps into the national spotlight, providing a glimmer of hope for millions of people who, legal or not, have already become Americans.
Alvarez started sixth grade just days after arriving from Mexico and remembers it as the worst year of her life. In her new elementary school, she navigated a sea of unfamiliar faces. Strange fashions and foods, too: the kids in baggy pants, the ugly smells of the cafeteria food, which she tried to avoid. Outside, the cold weather waited. Alvarez learned to layer and bundle: jackets, shoes, hats, gloves.
She survived the early days with her English basics: yes, no, one, two, three, maybe. She used the word “maybe” so many times one teacher asked her about it.
By her second semester, Alvarez was in English as a Second Language classes and slowly learning. As she began to get by, Alvarez found herself cocooned in the ebb and flow of school and teenage life.
In her summers, Alvarez would pull herself out of bed at 3 am. She’d pack a lunch made by her mother — usually tacos with eggs or meat — and carpool across the pre-dawn emptiness of Central Washington. Dressed in a sweater so the afternoon sun wouldn’t burn her, Alvarez would climb up and down a metal ladder, picking pears or peaches, or pruning apple trees. A slight girl of 5-foot-2-inches, she hefted the ladder from tree to tree.
For Alvarez, the job lit up two distinct paths.
“You work in the fields like your parents and get married, have kids and be a mom,” she says, “or you work your ass off, go to college and have a career.”
She may be tiny, but Alvarez, now 24, owns a voice that booms. She’s sitting at the Atticus coffee shop in downtown Spokane dressed like a professional — a stylish black jacket, brown leather boots, a purple paisley wallet — and, recounting her time in the orchards, points to the tall trees outside the back of Atticus.
“For a teenager to work like that is hard, and I don’t even know how my mom does it every day,” she says. “I just don’t know.”
When Washington state made it legal for undocumented immigrants to attend state colleges in 2003, Alvarez didn’t even know she was undocumented. She didn’t learn that until the beginning of her senior year at Connell High School, outside of Basin City, when she was nominated to go to a nursing camp. Without a Social Security number to complete the registration, she had to stay home.
Her family had already discussed college, and Alvarez had come around to the idea.
“My mom was like, ‘Well, Gabby, think about it,’” Alvarez recalls. “‘Your education, no one can take that away from you. No one. Education opens so many doors.’”
Like many aspiring American high schoolers, Alvarez was already juggling the pursuit of high grades with community service and sports. She joined the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. She played soccer and tennis. She volunteered at the local food bank and served as vice president in the student body. And when the time came, she applied to the University of Washington, Washington State University in Pullman and a school in Oregon. All three schools accepted Alvarez.
Without papers, however, college looks less like a steady path upward and more like a rocky climb. Undocumented immigrants can’t get government financial aid. Her parents, with their field paychecks, couldn’t afford to help her. Alvarez would have to come up with more than $20,000 a year to live and pay tuition.
“It’s very difficult and stressful because there’s not much scholarships out there for you,” says her younger sister, Vanessa, who is currently a freshman studying civil engineering at WSU Tri-Cities.
Alvarez did her research and found every scholarship application that didn’t require a Social Security number. She sought advice from her teachers on how to write winning application essays. She had a message for the financial officers of WSU, the school that offered her the most money in the private scholarships they hand out: “I’m not ashamed of my story, I don’t need your pity, I just need your help.”
She landed enough in scholarship money, and Alvarez enrolled at WSU in the fall of 2007. She had stepped into another new world: college, and the middle-class Americans who predominate it.
“For us, it’s normal to live in trailer parks,” she says. “And then when you go to your [classmate’s] house, they live in a huge house it’s like, ‘Oh.’”
‘This is my life’
Before coming to the U.S., Alvarez grew up west of Mexico City, in the state of Michoacán, in a sunny little town called Coalcoman. When she talks about home, she remembers her family’s cows, dressing dolls in clothes stitched by her mother and running up the hillside to play with friends.
Since she’s left, though, Michoacán has become a central battleground between drug traffickers and the Mexican government. More than 6,000 soldiers descended on the state in 2006, flushing out drug growers and burning produce. Between that year and 2011, drug war violence killed more than 35,000 Mexicans, according to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.
It’s not a place Alvarez can really imagine returning to.
One memory from Coalcoman that sticks out fondly is of its medical clinic. It was so small the doctor visited only a couple times a week, so when people wandered in with cuts or colds, they’d ask for help from the nurse. Alvarez’s experience at the clinic is what drove her to nursing.
She spent her first two years at WSU cranking through her general requirements and working on the side for a research firm. She then moved up to Spokane. There, in the glass and steel paradise of WSU’s Riverpoint Campus, she began nursing college.
“I was always like the nurse in my family. Your little brother cuts himself and you want to help him,” she says, adding later: “When I came to nursing school, I was like, “This is my life. I love the hospital.’”
Sitting in the cavernous classrooms, Alvarez absorbed the finer points of human nutrition and microbiology. In mock hospital rooms, she learned how to check pulses and insert needles. She handled her first heart attacks, first births and first deaths, all on lifelike simulation dummies. She worked in nursing homes and learned about specialties like pediatrics and obstetrics.
Outside of class, she worked at a fast food restaurant, taking orders and making sandwiches. In the summer, she’d return to Basin City to work in the fields. Tuition payments hung over her head like a persistent hangover.
“A lot of the times, students are facing the difficulty of registering for the next semester, because they haven’t finished paying for the previous semester,” says Angela Larkin, who works with undocumented students at WSU and advised Alvarez. If you can’t pay for your current courses, you can’t register for next semester. Classes you need fill up with other students. To fall behind is easy.
Friends and classmates describe Alvarez as a “sparkling person” and “incredibly hard-working.” After hours of lectures, fellow nursing student Beth Sheeran would spend several hours studying. Alvarez would sometimes join her, and then go work a full shift at a fast food restaurant, according to Sheeran.
“I would have never been able to do what she did,” Sheeran says.
Alvarez also joined the Kappa Delta Chi sorority and became a member of Riverpoint’s Diversity Club. She shadowed a translator at Sacred Heart Hospital and even translated some conversations with Latino children. “I liked it because I was helping someone,” she says.
On the Border
It wasn’t until 1924 that the U.S. government formed the Border Patrol with 200 agents. At that time, they wanted to stop Chinese migrants from entering the country, according to Joseph Nevins, a Vassar College associate professor of geography who studies border control issues.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that immigration on the southern border shifted from being an occasional issue to a “permanent crisis,” according to Nevins. With it came the build-up. By then, the Border Patrol had grown tenfold to about 2,000 agents. Today, there are more than 20,000 Border Patrol agents, most along the southern border, according to Nevins.
The border itself changed, too. The U.S. government leveled land so federal agents could patrol with vehicles. Double and triple layers of fences and walls sprang up, enhanced by underground sensors, stadium lights and motion detectors. Overhead, like satellites-on-demand, aerial drones now scour the ground below, collecting surveillance.
Despite the draconian overhaul of the border, Alvarez’s family is part of a heritage of laborers coming to America to work. Between 1942 and 1964, the federal government ran the Bracero program, which actually translates to “laborer.” During those 22 years, it brought about 5 million workers to contract jobs in the U.S., working in the fields and on the railroads. The migrant workers in Washington state today are a product of the economic ties forged then.
After the Bracero program ended, the mutual reliance between farm owners and laborers remained, according to Leisy Abrego, a professor of Chicano studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
But the stream of laws that have been passed since the 1980s have put more pressure on the people once considered just laborers.
“Coming into the country without documents would be a matter of civil law in the past, like jaywalking,” Abrego says. “You get a ticket, [you’re] asked not to do it again.”
One day in college, Alvarez picked up the phone to her mother’s voice. Alvarez’s father, Agustin, had been arrested. He’d been in California working, according to Virginia Alvarez. The federal government sent Agustin back to Mexico, where he now runs a little shop selling snacks, soda, chips, lollipops.
Alvarez speaks with her father by phone every so often. They talked just a few weeks ago. “He called me for my birthday at six in the morning,” she says.
As part of her final semester, Alvarez took a practicum in the children’s wing of Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital.
A mentor showed her around the first couple shifts, then Alvarez was mostly on her own. She talked with patients, jotted down notes, dispensed medication. There she was, play-acting her dream, a mirage right before her eyes. Without a legal Social Security number, she couldn’t get the background check to become a nurse.
At the same time, Alvarez took a class that taught her how to write resumes and cover letters. Only her close friends knew her immigration status. Alvarez did her homework and pretended it mattered.
“My friends were like, ‘I got a job in this hospital, I got a job in that hospital,’” she says.
Junior and senior year had been hard. Many scholarships are only available the first two years, so Alvarez worried more and more about affording each semester. After all the time and money and study and worry — what did it amount to?
“The last semester of nursing school was really difficult for her, because she didn’t have a lot of options,” says Sheeran, her classmate. “She was really nervous about having to go back to Mexico or about staying in the U.S. and not using her skills.”
If Alvarez stayed here, she likely wouldn’t become a nurse. If she moved to Mexico, she likely couldn’t return to live in America. She wouldn’t be able to bowl or party with her friends and classmates. Wouldn’t be able to gossip with her younger sisters. Couldn’t spend Christmas nestled at home with her mother.
To keep her head together, Alvarez decided she needed some kind of plan. She could go back to Coalcoman, live with her father and try to get work at the clinic. Sheeran offered another idea, through some Mexican friends of her own.
“I have some friends that live in a little bit better of a town, higher education level. We were thinking they might have a better work atmosphere,” Sheeran says.
Over the years, Alvarez watched as politicians dangled reform — and hope — that might allow her to stay. When she was 12, members of Congress introduced the DREAM Act, designed to give children who came into the country illegally — by no fault of their own — a path to citizenship. The proposal withered after the Sept. 11 attacks. The act later surfaced in 2010 when, in its last days of Democratic control, the House of Representatives passed a version — but the Senate couldn’t get the votes to bring it up for debate.
It stung, Alvarez says.
“I was like, it happened for a reason,” she says. “Maybe God doesn’t want me here. I lost faith. I was questioning.”
Magna Cum Laude
On the auditorium stage, Alvarez sat with her WSU classmates. They’d already walked in commencement. Alvarez had already shared with her family the celebratory dinner prepared by her mother: horchata, a rice drink; pozole, a dish with hominy and pork; and enchiladas. For dessert, a custard flan.
But this celebration was different. A pinning ceremony is just for nursing students, a ritual with roots in 19th century social reformer Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. It symbolizes the passing of medical knowledge from teacher to student. At one point, each graduate jots her name and some words about her gratitude and her future on a card. As the dean reads each card, that student comes forward, meets her family near the front of the stage and they light a candle. Alvarez wrote her message differently; a friend read it aloud in Spanish so Alvarez’s mother could understand it.
Here Alvarez stood, a young woman with her bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, the first in her family to earn a degree.
A few weeks later, this past June, Alvarez got a phone call from a friend. The president had come on TV and announced that children eligible under some of the DREAM Act standards would not be deported. The plan doesn’t solve many problems. Immigrants approved under the program get two-year work visas. There’s no path to citizenship. There’s no guarantee of anything after two years.
But it would give Alvarez a work visa, opening the door to her becoming a real nurse.
She jumped online and read the news. Alvarez and her younger sisters, Vicky and Vanessa, all appeared to meet the eligibility requirements. So they sat down and debated. Is this real? Should we do it?
“What if this is a trap and what if they just want to send us back?” Alvarez recalls thinking. “We thought that, and so we researched.”
While Alvarez’s younger brother, also eligible, did not apply, she and her sisters took the chance. They dipped into their savings and took community donations and scraped together the $3,000 needed for the three of them to apply. They drove to the federal building in Yakima and walked into the immigration office.
“I was scared. What if I go there and someone’s waiting for me?” Alvarez says. “But nothing happened.”
Afterward, they settled in to wait: Vicky with her high school classes and life with Virginia in Basin City; Vanessa in her first year of college in Richland at WSU Tri-Cities; and Alvarez in Pullman where she now lives with her boyfriend and other roommates, looks for jobs and contemplates all her goals.
She wants to work in pediatrics and live in different parts of America — Boston or Minnesota or maybe Maryland. She wants to help her mother with money. She wants to visit her father. She wants to work as a nurse in Peru or Guatemala, helping poor communities. She wants to “go higher,” earn a master’s and then a doctorate degree in nursing.
In the Mail
One day in December, Vanessa stopped by the family’s post office box on her way to back to college. There, in an envelope marked for Vicky — the youngest of the Alvarez sisters — was tucked a watermarked document from the U.S. Citizen Immigration Services. And with it, a photo ID card — her work visa.
Gabriela Alvarez’s wait ended the day before February began, with a letter of approval. It’ll take a few weeks to get the visa, and then she’ll need to go to the Social Security office and get her number.
She and her boyfriend now are planning to move to the East Coast, where she’ll soon begin applying for surgical or pediatrics nursing jobs.
Alvarez doesn’t yet know their destination, but with a visa, she knows one thing. Wherever she goes in this great, big “green land,” she’ll have the same opportunity as any citizen: the chance, free of fear, to build a life and find her path. At least for now.
WHAT'S NEXT IN THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE?
Last week, a group of eight U.S. senators declared that they had agreed on a set of principles for a large immigration reform package this year. Their principles included some type of amnesty for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently here, a more secure border and making it harder for businesses to employ undocumented workers.
Two days later, President Barack Obama came out in support of largely the same principles. For the first time since President Ronald Reagan signed a 1986 amnesty and immigration reform bill, change could be on the horizon.
But it’s too early to cheer. Politicians, from conservatives like George W. Bush to liberals like Nancy Pelosi, have all failed in efforts to update the immigration system.
Bush, a Spanish-speaking Texan who as governor had to deal with the realities of living along the border, headed up the last major reform push in 2006. That proposal included a program for seasonal guest workers, increased security along the border and amnesty for longtime non-citizens. It also included the DREAM Act, a law that would allow a pathway to citizenship for undocumented children brought by parents. The DREAM Act came up again in 2010, but faltered.
But the 2012 general election provided a psychic reset on immigration. Overnight, the crushing loss of Hispanic votes shifted Republican politicians away from much of their party’s fiery anti-immigration rhetoric.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Spokane’s congresswoman and the fourth-highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, sympathizes with Washington orchard growers who can’t find enough labor to pull in their crops. McMorris Rodgers spent time as a young adult working on her family’s orchard north of Kettle Falls. They grew cherries and peaches and apricots, pears, apples and some raspberries. When asked whether McMorris Rodgers’ family ever employed undocumented immigrants at the orchard, she wouldn’t say no.
“I think you should probably talk more to my dad about that,” she says.
When told the story of Gabriela Alvarez — the undocumented immigrant whose parents brought her here when she was 11, and who then paid her way through nursing college and graduated with honors — McMorris Rodgers says, “There needs to be a pathway for her to become legal. But it all points to the fact that our immigration system is broken.”
— JOE O’SULLIVAN
IDAHO AND ITS IMMIGRATION LAWS
Every time she left her house, Alicia carried her cell phone, her charger and extra cash. As an undocumented immigrant, she wanted to be prepared to call home in case law enforcement ever arrested her.
“It’s horrible. You walk out every day like it’s the last day,” says Alicia, who didn’t want to give her last name for fear of discrimination.
A resident of Burley, Idaho, Alicia, 30, is one of about 6,500 undocumented immigrants in the Gem State who stand to benefit from the president’s order last June allowing some undocumented immigrants who came as children to stay in the United States.
Alicia and her husband have received their papers. Alicia says she is planning for college; she already got a driver’s license.
Washington state and New Mexico are the only two states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses. In Idaho, the lack of driver’s licenses either restricts the movement of immigrants or leaves them with no option but to drive unlicensed — and hence without car insurance.
“Which creates a lot of problems for the community,” says Fernando Mejia-Ledesma, an organizer with Idaho Community Action Network, a social justice nonprofit. Mejia-Ledesma says there are close to 4,000 businesses in Idaho owned by Latinos or other immigrants, and allowing people of those communities to move around more freely would be good for the economy.
Mejia-Ledesma says undocumented immigrants in Idaho tend to be found working in agriculture in the southwestern and south-central portion of the state: Canyon County, especially Caldwell, west of Boise; and the Magic Valley, a few hours to the east. Some also work in the service industry in Sun Valley, he says.
Mejia-Ledesma himself is an undocumented immigrant who has also received papers under the president’s order. He was born in Mexico, grew up in Idaho and studied politics at Boise State University. It’s not easy being an immigrant in Idaho, he says, and the state’s policies don’t help with that.
In 2006, the state passed a law requiring all government contractors to use E-Verify, a system that determines whether workers participating in a project are in fact legal residents. In 2007, Idaho passed a bill that made English the official language. And after Arizona in 2010 passed the strictest immigration laws in the nation, state Sen. Bob Nonini (R-Coeur d’Alene), then a representative, spoke of introducing similar law into the 2011 legislative session. He ultimately held off, according to news reports, because he said he wanted to see how the United States Supreme Court would interpret the law. The court struck down most parts but upheld the portion allowing local law enforcement to ask people for proof of residence.
Currently a secretary, Alicia is applying for a job at a bank, and “it looks like it’s going pretty good.” By getting a job with better pay, she hopes to save up to attend college.
— JOE O’SULLIVAN