Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers were on North Lake Tahoe/Truckee streets on Aug. 6 conducting targeted searches. On this day, the agency was limiting its investigations to those who have outstanding warrants for serious crimes, but any ICE activity sends shock waves through local neighborhoods. According to one source for this article, anytime a search like this occurs, fear spreads through the Latino community with one message — tread lightly, ICE is in town.
We are a nation built by immigrants, but it has never been an easy journey. As the latest wave of nationalist fervor builds on the back of a staunchly anti-immigration presidential administration, the loudest voices on both sides of the issue fall back to their respective talking points. In the clamor and noise of the argument, the voices of those who are most profoundly affected by these laws are often lost. Often they are too nervous to speak.
For this reason, we reached out to learn the stories of local people who have experienced our nation’s immigration policies firsthand. After conducting inquiries, we found a few people who were willing and able to share their stories; although it was not our intention, all of the people who came forward are female. They come from all walks of life, from students to grandmothers, but they all share a firm and unyielding desire to live the American Dream. Sometimes this comes at a horrific cost. Although a tough decision in journalism, we have respected the anonymity of two sources in order to bring you the stories you would not otherwise hear. ~ SS
“One feels like a ghost, always having to hide,” says Alejandra, a woman who’s lived in Tahoe/Truckee for over 20 years, about being an immigrant in the area.
The story of Alejandra (not her real name) begins in a small town in Mexico, where she lived modestly with her husband and five children. Life was simple, bills a struggle, but two incomes helped. Her husband began having mental health issues, and somewhere between the dark and light of an average morning in the 1990s he took his own life.
For Alejandra, the daily routine faded into complexity. A single, widowed mother trying to make ends meet meant even her children’s education became a challenge. “In Mexico, school is expensive, this country (U.S.) is privileged; anyone who wants an education can have one,” Alejandra said. Poverty kept them from moving forward.
Alejandra believed joining her sister in California, who had been granted amnesty in the ’80s, would provide economic stability for her family. She hired a coyote, or human smuggler, and promised to send money to her parents in Mexico as soon as she found work. According to Havocscope, a crime data site, the current average cost of human trafficking from Mexico to the U.S. on foot is around $4,000. She and her youngest daughter boarded a bus to Tijuana armed with faith in God, two sandwiches, and two bottles of water.
Once off the bus in Tijuana, they met the coyote, who said, “Follow me, don’t look back or talk to me.” Mother and daughter shadowed the man into the cool desert night accompanied by the sound of barking dogs, helicopters, and howling coyotes (the Canis variety). Tragically, a young Nicaraguan also attempting the journey was bitten by a venomous snake while leaning against a tree. There was nothing they could do but watch as the poison coursed through his body. The coyote refused to take the young man and he was left to die alone. This is not an unusual thing on such a journey, and an article by The Guardian cited about 412 migrant deaths on the U.S. and Mexico border in 2017 with drowning, exposure, and dehydration as the most common causes.
After eight hours of walking, they boarded a truck in San Diego bound for Los Angeles “packed in like animals,” Alejandra says. Upon arrival, food was offered and kindness was a welcome stranger. The wife of a coyote took pity on Alejandra and allowed her to shower. Three days later her sister arrived.
Alejandra found employment at a hotel in housekeeping and food service. She managed to send money home and the rest of her children crossed the border with relatives or friends. Their transition into American life was difficult. After more than 10 years with steady income, her employer laid her off due to her status. Jobs were hard to find, but “God never abandoned us,” Alejandra said. “Here there is tranquility because even when you run out of money, you know the next check will come.”
As of this writing, one of Alejandra’s daughters is a DACA recipient who fears revocation of the program that currently protects her status as a legal student. Another, born here, is an activist for underserved populations. Two of her sons were deported — one crossed the border again to work and has since returned to Mexico. He now lives with his family in the house he built with the money earned in the United States. Alejandra has lived among us for almost 30 years. ~ MC
Leslie Caratachea is an 18-year-old graduate of Truckee High School, and a recipient of a full-ride scholarship to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. At the time of this writing, she is en route across the country with the knowledge that her immigration status could be revoked at any time, and her college dreams snuffed out alongside.
Caratachea is currently protected under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) status. The program is an immigration policy signed into law by former President Barack Obama in 2012 that allows for two-year renewable periods of deferred action from deportation for children brought into the country illegally. When Caratachea applied for the program four years ago, it was a relatively smooth process, and she came out the other side with a work permit and a Social Security number that allowed her to pay her way through school working at Jax At The Tracks in Truckee. The program’s safeguard became a form of security she had never known.
“When you’re here illegally you wake up with fear and you go to sleep with fear,” Caratachea said. “When DACA happened not only was it a relief and you felt more confident to go out and live your life really like everybody else … but also knowing that you have a better chance at a greater future.”
Caratachea came to the U.S. by way of a desert crossing when she was 4 years old, and says that the reason for immigrating was ever present throughout her childhood. “[My parents] had come to the United States because they wanted a better education for me,” Caratachea said. And she followed through. After some coaxing by a teacher at Truckee High, she started taking honors classes, advanced placement college courses ranging from psychology to criminal studies, and helped found a Latino empowerment group called La Fuerza Latina at the school. The group has raised funds to help with textbooks, college-level courses, SAT prep and testing, and is quickly growing, according to Caratachea.
A barrier to the group however, and other students who might follow in Caratachea’s footsteps, is that the DACA policy has been in a state of flux over the last two years and is currently hanging on by a thread. The Trump administration threatened to dissolve it in early 2017, and on Sept. 5, 2017 the Department of Homeland Security announced the rescinding of its 2012 policy and an end to processing new applications — the announcement coincided with a White House memo that stated “The Department of Homeland Security urges DACA recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States.”
Since the 2017 announcement DACA has been held up in the courts, with the most recent event being an Aug. 19 U.S. District Court ruling that the current administration does not have to continue to accept new applicants but must continue to accept renewal applications while the program is under appeal. Future decisions will most likely lead the DACA decision to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Caratachea is on her way to Wesleyan regardless of the obstacles in her way, and she says she hopes to become an immigration lawyer. ~ SS
Undocumented immigrants are one of the most vulnerable demographics in the country to crime and abuse. According to a study by San Diego State University, “The majority, 58 percent, of the unauthorized migrant laborers currently in the work force have experienced at least one type of trafficking violation or abusive practice.” Fear of deportation or a lacking knowledge of the rights available to all immigrants, legal or not, blocks them from seeking the help they need until irreparable damage has been done. This was the case with Maria (not her real name) and her family.
Maria, her husband, and their 20-year-son were deported from the North Lake Tahoe area in 2010 after a mistake by their lawyer caused a problem with their work visas. According to Elizabeth Balmin, director of Tahoe-Truckee Mediation and Legal Assistance Program, processing mistakes with different visa forms happen to many immigrants who must go to less qualified lawyers, or notarios, because of cost constraints. Maria’s younger sons, ages 12 and 18, were left in the country on their own. Because of the mistake, the three were barred from entering the country, but decided to immigrate illegally to be reunited with the family. “There was nothing for us in Mexico,” Maria said.
On the first attempt, a hired coyote abandoned them in the desert for three days before they were rescued on the verge of death by some passing Mexican Army officers. Maria says they sold everything they had just to get back to Mexico City. On a subsequent attempt, her husband and son successfully crossed the border then set about raising enough money to reunite the family. In 2011, Maria’s husband made a deal for Maria’s passage through three brothers living in Tahoe who had connections with smugglers across the border.
Maria was told the journey would take 30 minutes this time. Instead, it wasn’t until the fourth night of her journey when she crossed the border, barefoot and exhausted — the last remaining immigrant out of 10 who had attempted the journey. The other nine had been apprehended by ICE or left behind. When the coyote finally brought Maria to Phoenix though, it was against her will. She says he stole her phone, locked her up in a hotel, and used her as ransom to bleed more money out of the husband and son. The family paid the ransom and Maria was returned to the rest of her family in Tahoe, but the extortion continued. The three brothers who had arranged the crossing continued to demand more money and beat her husband so badly he was sent to a hospital.
Although she had been reunited with her family in the U.S., Maria still lived in constant fear. She says it was difficult to find work because employers didn’t want the trouble, and she suffered from severe depression. A saving grace came from a connection through the Tahoe SAFE Alliance where Maria found therapy for three years. She was put in contact with a local law officer who helped apprehend two of the brothers who had beaten her husband — one left jail with a work visa, and the other returned to Mexico where he allegedly killed three teenagers within three months. “That’s my fear of going back to Mexico,” Maria said.
A detective on the case suggested Maria and her husband apply for a U-visa, which is available for immigrant victims of crime. They were awarded the visa and she now has steady and meaningful work in the Tahoe Basin.
“I want people to know they can have hope, and there is the opportunity to move forward,” Maria says, explaining why she pushed through the many tears to tell her story — her historia. “I want it to go to people who don’t know, because so many of us have stories like this.” ~ SS
Francesca Curtolo’s final evening in her studio apartment was a mess of sorts. There were haphazard piles scattered throughout the room — it was everything important and sentimental that her life in America had accumulated. And it all, somehow, needed to fit into a few duffel bags. The next day she was going to San Francisco, then back to northern Italy.
“Tahoe is the home I’ve built,” she said before her final farewell. “And it’s sad to think I can never live here again and return to the life I’ve lived here. I can only now be a visitor.”
Leaving Tahoe/Truckee and the life she’d built here, in the end, wasn’t her decision, but that of the complicated U.S. immigration visa policies that international students face when graduating from college in America.
For Curtolo and most international students, it ends with the H-1B visa: an employer-sponsored visa allowing students to continue work in the United States. Students must have an employer who is willing to pay up to $8,000 (for lawyer and government filing fees) in order to file an application that goes into the H-1B lottery system. If picked, the U.S. immigration services look at the salary and education. The highest of both get accepted. For students just entering the workforce, it’s hard to stand out on paper. And, with President Trump’s recent executive order “Buy American, Hire American,” some think it’s making the H-1B process tighter.
“The only people they bring in are advanced in their careers,” she said, “and they don’t give people the opportunity to get there. To me, that’s very distant from what the U.S. used to be. Everyone deserves that opportunity to build something.”
A revered student-athlete, Curtolo first arrived in Incline Village with a full-ride athletic and academic scholarship to Sierra Nevada College Tahoe in 2014. Completing college in three years, Curtolo graduated in May of 2017 with honors, earning a B.S. B.A in economics and finance with a minor in journalism. She was the valedictorian of her graduating class and represented SNC Tahoe as a collegiate ski champion in alpine skiing.
Following a college marketing internship with the Truckee clothing manufacturer bigtruck, Curtolo spent a year as its project manager under a one-year Optional Practical Training visa, independently spearheading bigtruck’s B-Corp certification. She also spent the year working for Stanford as head coach of the alpine ski team.
Of her two employers, bigtruck was willing to be her sponsor, but when realizing the unlikelihood that Curtolo would get the H-1B visa, decided not to pursue it.
“After four years I finally had my roots in Tahoe and America, and I finally didn’t feel like a stranger,” she said. “I worked hard to find my way there. And now I am back home, starting all over again. It’s hard feeling unappreciated from a country you spent so much time and energy for.” ~ JW
“At age 14, I had never been farther away than half an hour from my hometown, so I figured the United States was about that same distance, not three days and three nights of travel,” said Leticia Aguilar, who immigrated to the United States over 40 years ago. After a few hours on the road with her sister, brother-in-law, and their five children, Leticia was mired in fear of what was to come. Would immigration officers stop her and put her in jail? Would she never see her family in Mexico again? What was to become of her?
Yet even with all these questions, Leticia always felt her decision to leave Mexico was the right one. She was adamant, even as a young child, not to repeat her mother’s life, a woman who gave birth to 18 children and was always under the thumb of her domineering husband; she wanted more. Leticia wanted to help others like her in similar situations, especially women; she wanted an education; and most importantly she wanted respect, first from herself and then from others.
Once across the border, in 1971, Leticia lived in Sacramento with her sister and sister’s husband, looking after their children. She learned English by sitting in the back of the classroom of the oldest child’s kindergarten class. Leticia also picked tomatoes in the fields near Sacramento and worked at a laundry service. In the fields, she met a man whom she would marry in Reno. Later, she remarried, had three children in Truckee, and started Lety’s Preschool and Daycare, a wildly successful preschool and immersion program.
“Things are getting hard for the Latino community right now,” Leticia says of current immigration practices. She recounts two families in Truckee where both wives were sent back to Mexico, leaving their husbands and children behind. “And neither family has criminal records,” she says. In one case, the family had just lost a child to cancer. “Then they send the mother away? How could they do that?”
Leticia says that Mexicans are constantly harassed about their immigration status — “green card holder or citizen?” Those who do not have citizenship are highly discriminated against, especially those who are trying to get jobs. “But what will happen when so many Mexicans leave the United States?” she asks. “Who will pick the lettuce and strawberries? Who will be the dishwashers? Who will build all the homes in Tahoe?”
If there ever were a person who exemplifies the definition of determination — strength of character and resolve — it’s Leticia. She grew up in a 2-bedroom house with barely enough food to eat, watched a mother whose only job was to bear children, cook and clean, and a father who worked but who drank often. Today, and for 35 years, she has owned and managed a flourishing preschool. Leticia is known as the bridge between the Anglo and Latino communities in Tahoe, and she’s been an encouraging mentor to many: “It’s all about respect. If you don’t respect yourself, you have nothing.” ~ EQ