Growing Up Undocumented When Your Siblings Are Citizens
Andy grew up wishing for the security and opportunities the rest of his family had. But he had no idea how much pursuing citizenship would cost him.
Andy Magdaleno should have been born in California. And he would have been born there, just like his sister Beatriz was eight years earlier, had it not been for an unexpected visit from a government worker one day in March.
The year was 1986. Andy’s parents, Juan and Concepcion, were undocumented immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico, living in Anaheim, California, with six of their children, roughly ages one to 10. Life was hard. When Juan wasn’t working, he would collect cans to supplement their earnings. As Concepcion tells the story, a neighbor made a complaint because she believed the family wasn’t reporting the income from the cans. Then, someone they believed to be from a government agency came to the neighborhood to talk to them. His parents feared that their undocumented status and the visit to their house meant that they were at risk, and might be separated from their children.
Juan decided it would be best if Concepcion took the kids back to their small community in Mexico. She was about three months pregnant at the time. Andy was born in Mexico in September of 1986. The family spent two years there before returning to the United States at the behest of their father, who had stayed behind.
Different members of the family came back in different ways: The family’s five children who had been born in the United States crossed with their father’s cousin, presenting their birth certificates at the border. Andy, on the other hand, crossed over the border illegally, carried by his mother. They ended up in Selma, California—a small agricultural town in Fresno County known as the raisin capital of the world. That’s where Andy grew up until he was about 9 years old.
In these agricultural towns of Fresno County, mixed-status families are common. The situation can create inequalities within families that ripple out into the wider community. It’s difficult to pin down exactly how many families like Andy’s there are in Fresno County. According to analysis of 2016 American Community Survey data done by the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, just over 10 percent, or roughly 94,500, of the county’s documented residents—both U.S. citizens and documented immigrants—live with at least one undocumented family member. That’s a rate that mirrors the rest of California. This estimate does not account for undocumented family members who live in different households, so the actual number may be even higher. (To generate these estimates, USC analyzed ACS data covering the years 2012 through 2016.)
Rhonda Ortiz, the managing director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, says mixed-status families are common not just in Fresno County, but throughout the United States.
Jesus Martinez, chair of the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, says he sees such families all the time in the DACA application workshops his coalition runs. He points to several factors to explain how this came to be, what he considers, fairly normal. While mass Mexican migration to the United States has occurred since the end of 19th century, immigration policy has changed over time—in recent years, becoming stricter or more lenient depending on the national mood.
Decades ago, many immigrants arrived as lawful permanent residents or with some form of visa. Others were able to achieve legal status once they arrived through, for example, the legalization provisions in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. But in more recent years, in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, there have been fewer opportunities for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status. With the increased militarization of the border, seasonal workers who once traveled back and forth between the two countries have been choosing to stay in the United States on a more permanent basis, living in the country without documentation for longer periods of time. In fact, a report from the USC center and San Diego State University indicates that undocumented immigrants in Fresno County have lived in the United States for a median length of 10 years, according to 2008 to 2012 data. (The USC center’s data manager, Justin Scoggins, says the length of stay is likely to be longer now, considering research showing the rate of undocumented migration has decreased.)
The fluctuations in immigration policies mean that family members can easily have different legal statuses depending on when they arrived in the U.S. Undocumented immigrants who once traveled between the U.S. and Mexico may now be raising families full-time in the United States and giving birth to children who are citizens. “U.S.-born children are going to be able to be eligible for every type of program imaginable,” Martinez says. “So within the family there's going to be this unequal access to services, to education, and to medical care. We see those families all the time.”
The USC center’s 2012 Immigrant Integration Scorecard ranked the Fresno region last in the state when it comes to “successfully integrating immigrants” (evaluated in the report by economic mobility, civic participation and warmth of welcome for immigrants). “Although Fresno employs immigrants in its large agricultural industry,” it states, “...[t]hese seasonal, low-paying jobs do not lift immigrants out of poverty and keep them constantly on the move.” Ortiz, a co-author of the report, cautions that the research for this report took place around 2011-2012, and that the landscape for immigrant integration in the county may have changed since.
For Martinez of the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, a person’s undocumented status isn’t in and of itself a limiting factor in leading a successful, civically-engaged life. But, the problem, he says, is that not everyone is able to identify possibilities for upward mobility and integration that do exist. That’s especially true in today's political climate, given the level of fear among the undocumented population, he says. Many are uncertain about being in contact with any type of government agency, about purchasing a home, about establishing a business. “That's one of the consequences” of their fear, he told me.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program that might have helped Andy, who is now 31 years old, did not exist while he was growing up. Created in June 2012 and open for applications in August of the same year, the program temporarily protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and meet certain eligibility requirements related to age, length of residence in the United States, and education and military service, from deportation. DACA also provides them with work authorization. It does not, however, provide a pathway to legal status. Mixed-status families like Andy’s came into the national spotlight after President Trump rescinded the program in September 2017. A survey conducted by UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment found that respondents who were DACA recipients “are overwhelmingly from mixed-status families.”
Federal judges blocked attempts to end the program earlier this year, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has resumed accepting renewal applications. In late April, a federal judge ruled that the government must also begin accepting new applications, but stayed his decision for 90 days to give the Department of Homeland Security—which administers the program—the opportunity to "better explain its rescission decision." Earlier this month, that same judge ordered a full restoration of the program. But with promises of further legal battles ahead and no legislative solution in sight, the program’s ultimate fate—and the fate of its roughly 700,000 recipients and their families—remains uncertain.
Andy came to the United States as a toddler. Growing up, he wasn’t really aware of his undocumented status. But he noticed little things—little ways that his experience differed from his siblings—that hinted at it. For one, unlike many of his siblings, he didn’t have health insurance. “My mom used to have this little stack of cards which was like the Medicare, the Medi-Cal cards...and I would always ask why don't I have one,” he told me.
While Andy was growing up, undocumented immigrants—including children—were not eligible for full-coverage Medi-Cal under state law, according to Carolina Gamero, a spokesperson for the immigrant rights organization California Immigrant Policy Center. Today, all children under the age of 19 are eligible regardless of immigration status, provided they meet all other requirements, which include a qualifying income and California residency.
But it wasn’t until high school that Andy realized the full extent of what was going on. He wanted to play on the school’s football team and they required insurance. So he asked his mom whether he had coverage. She told him no, but declined to explain further. “I talked to my older sisters and they were the ones that explained to me that you're not documented, you can’t have insurance,” he said. His school’s football team had a separate insurance program that he could pay for independently, so Andy ended up playing anyway. But from that moment on, Andy began to notice other disadvantages he faced that his siblings didn’t—and many that could be traced back to his immigration status.
In high school, Andy wanted a job. As early as six or seven years old, he had worked alongside his parents and older siblings in the grape fields, helping them make a bit of extra money during the summers. Juan and Concepcion wanted their kids to know what it was to work and to understand the value of a good education. Andy remembers them telling him and his siblings that they could either “work with our back or with our brains.” As teenagers, several of his siblings who were citizens moved on from the fieldwork they had done together as children to slightly easier jobs: One worked at a Jack-in-the-Box. Another had a job at Burger King. His sister Beatriz had an office job, doing administrative work for a security company.
But at around the age of 16, Andy continued in the fields, picking peaches, nectarines, plums, and pomegranates together with his father. He knew that without the same documentation as his siblings, he probably couldn’t get work elsewhere. “I remember my shoulders hurt, my legs. I was dirty. I was burned from the sun. It wasn't a good experience, especially not for a kid,” he said.
Andy had always liked school. It was easy for him, especially compared to the kind of work he had done in the fields. In high school, he got As and Bs in most of his classes. But, he assumed that his undocumented status meant that he couldn’t take the SATs or attend college. “There was a moment in high school where it just felt––I felt really bad that I couldn't do anything,” he said. Beatriz, on the other hand, was the first in their family to go to college.
The truth is, in 2004, when Andy graduated from high school, there was nothing preventing undocumented students from taking the SATs or applying to college, according to Martinez. But many undocumented students in the Central Valley and beyond get bad advice, based on misinformation from their families or schools. “Some have told us openly that their high school counselors told them not to apply because they were undocumented,” said Martinez of CVIIC. Andy believed he couldn’t apply to college or take the SAT because that’s what family members told him. He says because there were other educational opportunities that he couldn’t participate in—his high school driver’s ed classes, for example—that required an ID, he assumed that the SATs would be the same. Martinez says that Andy probably believed he would be in danger if he had applied, ““which is ridiculous, unfortunately.”
The cost of college was also a factor, as it is for many undocumented students—since, at the time, state and federal aid weren’t available to undocumented students. Without the assistance he could not afford to attend a California State University (CSU) or a University of California-system school. (Today, state aid is available through the California Dream Act, but federal aid is not.) In 2005, he started at Fresno City College, despite feeling as though he could have gone to a state school.
While studying at Fresno City, Andy met a girl. Her name was Miranda. She was a U.S. citizen, born and raised in Fresno. Her family was Mexican too, but the way she and Andy grew up was very different—“two opposite ends of the spectrum,” as she puts it. “He had to go to work in the fields as a kid with his parents … I could run around the neighborhood and play with my cousins.” Miranda and Andy dated for about two years. During that time, Miranda saw how much Andy struggled because of his status. She says that he was depressed because he had been working so hard. They wanted to get him documented—so they decided to get married to help speed up the process. A few weeks after their wedding they started to gather paperwork to petition for his immigrant visa. A few months later, they received instructions from various government agencies on what Andy had to do next.
As Andy understood it, he had to attend two appointments at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, where family-based immigrant visa interviews are held: At the first appointment, in September 2008, he would present his case. At the second appointment in November, they would let him know whether or not he would receive a visa to return to the U.S. and obtain his residency. In the two-month period between those appointments, he would not be allowed to return to the United States.
Andy was excited about that two-month stay in Mexico. He had been working non-stop for years and he thought this would be a good opportunity for a short vacation. He and his mother, Concepcion—who had since become a legal permanent resident—crossed the border. It was Andy’s first time back in the country in 20 years, since the two years he had spent there as a child.
On September 23, 2008, Andy and his mom attended his first appointment. But things didn’t go as he planned. "They told me, ‘We’re not going to let you back into the U.S. for three years.’” The news was devastating, both to him and his family. “My dad doesn't cry a lot...when he found out about Andy, I think that's one of the first times I saw him cry,” Beatriz, Andy’s sister told me.
The first year or so was hard. Andy knew some Spanish, but it was a bit broken and he was less comfortable with the language than English. He was living in the small, rural community where his parents grew up. Despite having dozens of cousins that could help him with the transition, the lifestyle was completely different from what he had known in the United States. People lived off the land and a steady income was hard to come by. His siblings would send him money to help him make ends meet. Eventually, he saved to move to Irapuato, a larger city that felt a bit closer to home. He worked at a movie theater for a few months and then found a job teaching English. Andy spent a total of four years in Mexico, including the time it took to reapply for his visa. During that time, the family did their best to stay in touch: phone calls and Skype sessions and visits from siblings, parents, and his then-wife (the two are now divorced). But the separation still took its toll.
Four years after his 2008 appointment, Andy returned to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez. They reviewed his case, gave him his immigrant visa and a few weeks later his permanent residency arrived in the mail. He came back to the United States on July 4th, 2012. “I just felt like hey, I finally belong here,” he said. “I could celebrate July 4th because I'm legally here now.” The very next month, Andy returned to school.
Before he left for Mexico, Andy had earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts. He says he had stuck to a broad major in part because of his status. He felt unmotivated in school because he knew that even if he finished, his job prospects would be limited. In Mexico, he met several engineers and became interested in their work. Upon his return to the country, he went back to Fresno City College to take the prerequisite courses for an engineering degree. He later transferred to Fresno State to study civil engineering. "I got back and I realized now I have everything," he said.
While pursuing his bachelor’s degree, Andy took a timber design class with Kimberly Stillmaker, a professor at Fresno State. She remembers him standing out right away as a curious and invested student. Beyond his inquisitive spirit, Stillmaker noticed that he was the type of student who put her at ease, especially as a first-time professor. “If I had to pause and collect my thoughts,” she says, “he would be vocal about saying something like, ‘It's okay, take your time. You know we're all here to support you.’”
She was curious about how he had developed that sense, Andy ended up telling her his whole story. She remembers asking him why he didn’t try to come back illegally, given that he had lived in the United States undocumented for most of his life. He said that he wanted to do it right, that it had been hard for him to grow up without residency and it was important for him to do what they asked.
“I remember having so much respect for him. It was really quite amazing that despite his situation and the apparent inequity of it all that he was willing to go through that in order to have a better life in the end,” Stillmaker said. For Stillmaker, meeting Andy has had a profound impact on the way she views immigration. “I've always kind of been the type of person who feels like we have laws and they need to be followed and that's part of what makes America orderly,” she said. “Before it was very easy to have those types of opinions, before I knew someone who was personally affected by them.” During his senior year, Stillmaker encouraged Andy to pursue graduate school. But he was hesitant. She realized that he was worried about the financial burden. So, she encouraged him to apply for a scholarship. He ended up being one of the four students selected from the civil engineering program for a full-ride scholarship to the master’s program. He is now at Fresno State, studying to become a structural engineer.
Andy says the experience of growing up undocumented put him at a disadvantage in a lot of ways. Being stuck in Mexico, in particular, was hard. “As it was happening, I was not happy about it,” he says. “It was like, ‘Why is this happening to me?” But now, his attitude has changed. The challenges he faced in order to return to the United States made him all the more driven to build a life he’s proud of, and to do it in the place he's always called home.
Sawsan Morrar contributed to this story.