Six years ago a simple traffic stop ripped Thalia Torres-Medrano’s life to shreds.
Her boyfriend — the father of her child, her rock since she was 13 years old and their family’s financial support — was driving over the speed limit. And he was undocumented.
“As soon as those lights came on, we knew, somehow,” she said. “It was an unspoken thing. We looked at each other and we knew.”
Alvaro was about to be deported.
Torres-Medrano met Alvaro (she declined to give his last name) when they were both lost, scared teens from rough homes — so rough, in his case, that Torres-Medrano said a domestic violence incident left him with two broken legs when he was five years old. They became each other’s family, and at age 15 they bought a trailer for $500 and lived together in a back yard in Hermiston.
They were poor, but happy.
“I loved my life,” she said. “We struggled, but we struggled together.”
They became parents at 17. Neither of them had grown up with fathers in the house, and they talked about how the one thing they wanted to give their son was a loving two-parent home.
“That’s all I ever wanted was to give my child a father figure,” she said.
The specter of deportation always haunted them, however. It had haunted Alvaro since he came to the United States before kindergarten, and it had been woven into the fabric of Torres-Medrano’s life growing up with an undocumented single mother. They left the “father” space on the birth certificate blank, even though it pained them to do so, because they were worried about outing Alvaro to the government.
Six months after their son was born, Alvaro’s mother called and said she had a doctor’s appointment in the Tri-Cities and needed someone to drive her.
That night, heading back, an unmarked patrol car flooded their rear-view mirror with red and blue lights and a Washington state trooper asked Alvaro to step out of the car.
“Never in my life have I seen fear like I saw in his eyes that night,” Torres-Medrano said.
She waited helplessly as police sorted through the fact that Alvaro was undocumented, driving without a license and had a juvenile record from years earlier when, she said, he tried to escape the neglect at home by looking for acceptance in the wrong crowd. She said she must have smoked a whole pack of cigarettes, one right after another, to try to calm herself down.
“It was the most intense feelings I have ever felt,” she said, breaking into sobs.
“I’m sorry, I don’t ever talk about this,” she said after a moment, her voice cracking as she wiped away tears with the back of her hand. “It was harder because they showed no sympathy. It was just another traffic stop for them.”
Alvaro was taken away in handcuffs without being given the chance to hug his girlfriend, his mother or his infant son goodbye. He spent Christmas in a holding facility in Tacoma, then was sent to Mexico, a country he had only vague memories of. They left him with an ill-fitting pair of shorts, a T-shirt, cheap sandals and enough money to make a single phone call to Torres-Medrano.
“He said, ‘I don’t even have socks. I don’t know what to do,’” she said.
He spent the night on the street, and was able to eventually make contact with his grandparents, who lived in a different city, and make his way there.
Meanwhile, Torres-Medrano — who had just turned 18 and wasn’t on speaking terms with her family — fell into depression.
“I didn’t want to be alive,” she said.
She survived those first confusing, terrifying months as she tried to figure out what the rest of her life would look like, and pulled herself together for her son. After two years she was able to scrape together enough money to visit Mexico.
Alvaro seemed to have lost the will to live, she said. When she headed back to the United States for work a couple of weeks later, he begged her to leave their son in Mexico and she relented, worried what it would do to him if she said no. She knew other people who had died after getting deported and deciding they didn’t care — a fatal attitude in a place where walking down the wrong gang’s street can get you killed.
“That was the hardest thing for me,” she said.
She sent money as often as she could, and picked the boy up a year later. They have not returned since.
A complicated process
Torres-Medrano is now living with her sister Selene Torres-Medrano, a Umatilla city councilor.
Selene recently made a passionate plea during a council meeting for community members to show compassion to their immigrant neighbors. She was born in the United States, but she has been touched by her sister’s story, by growing up in the care of her undocumented mother, and by friends who are undocumented “Dreamers,” not allowed to become citizens of the country they grew up in.
She remembers waiting each night with Thalia for their mother to come home from working in the fields, sometimes for less than minimum wage. They stayed inside and hid when there were rumors of immigration officials — “la migra” — in town. And they knew if mom didn’t come home they were supposed to call their aunt and tell her she had been taken away.
In the end it was their aunt who was deported and their cousins who made that call to them.
“I do remember it was a pretty sad time in our family,” Selene said. “The kids were left behind and we didn’t know what would happen. Our cousins missed their mom.”
The cousins — U.S. citizens — went to Mexico for a while, but the region where they lived didn’t have a school that went past elementary level and so eventually their mother sent them back to the United States to get an education and start their families where there is more opportunity, less poverty and less violence.
“My aunt can’t be part of her kids’ life,” Selene said. “She can’t be a grandma. She misses those milestones, those birthdays. It’s hard on my cousins.”
Immigrating legally from Mexico costs more than many are able to afford and it takes years, even decades. That’s not counting the 10 years that those who have been deported from the U.S. must wait before trying to return legally. Congress has so far declined to create a path to citizenship for those currently living in the country undocumented.
Selene said she can’t believe the misconceptions people spout about undocumented immigrants. She doesn’t understand why Americans think that people who walked thousands of miles across the desert, risking death and rape and enslavement, then suddenly decided they were too lazy to fill out some paperwork that would solve all their problems.
“It’s not like the DMV, where you go and get in line for a couple of hours and you get your paperwork settled and they call and say you’re going to take your test in a couple of weeks,” she said. “Is that how people think it works?”
Selene worries about Initiative Petition 22, which will allow voters this fall to vote on Oregon’s “sanctuary” status, which bars local law enforcement from using their resources to apprehend people whose only crime is being in the country illegally. She said even citizens such as herself could be affected by racial profiling — being pulled over and asked to prove their citizenship because of the way they look.
Thalia said it has been hard seeing so much about immigration on the news, from debates about DACA to children being separated from their parents at the border. She cried when she talked about seeing a news report about a man in his 60s who was deported from his wife and family — and realized she was jealous of him.
“I think, you guys had all those years together and I didn’t even make it to adulthood,” she said. “We didn’t end it, they ended it for us. He just got taken away ... It hurts me because I get reminded that I’m part of that.”
Contact Jade McDowell at email@example.com or 541-564-4536.