When a dream becomes a nightmare

Angel Fernando Silva Corona, a deported immigrant from Mexico City, holds a picture of his daughter Lindsy Maria. Corona was arrested stealing baby formula for his two children, and has not seen either of them for two years.

American dreams shatter when undocumented immigrants are deported

by Katie Hyde

TIJUANA — The distance from the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico, to the California border is less than five miles. But for Angel Fernando Silva Corona, a 35-year-old deportee from Mexico City, it might as well be half a world away.

As Angel sits in the Casa, a temporary refuge for migrants and deportees, his head hangs in his hands. Loneliness and despair are etched in his posture. As he begins to tell his story, his eyes fill with tears.

Angel’s nightmare began on Sept. 15, 2011.

Angel had been living in Los Angeles without documentation for most of his life — 20 years — when he was stopped by police at a DUI checkpoint. Although he had not been drinking, he did not have a license, so the police confiscated his truck and all of his tools.

Without his truck, Angel could no longer run his mobile car wash business. And he quickly began running out of the money that had kept his two-year-old and 10-month-old daughters in diapers and milk.

At the end of the month, Angel’s landlord demanded the rent. He was $215 short. Angel went to the welfare office and contacted the food stamp program, but they said they could not help.

With the temperatures soaring daily into the triple digits, Angel knew his family would not survive if they took to the streets.

“I had no option,” Angel said. “I had to get the money somehow.”

Then, in a plot twist worthy of Victor Hugo, Angel made a desperate decision — and was caught stealing baby formula from Target. He was thrown in jail and soon sentenced to four years.

As the judge read the sentence, he said, “This is what happens when people like you come into my country and steal.”

I met Angel after he had served two years of his jail term in the United States — then was deported July 15.

Like many men deported from the United States to Mexico, Angel made his way to the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, which provides male migrants and deportees with food, shelter, and medical attention for up to 12 days.

There, like most of the men, he waits.

Waits for a job. Waits for his family to call. Waits for some indication from somewhere as to what he should do next.

Waits for a miracle.

Welcome to America

Angel was and is a firm believer in the American Dream. After all, California has been his home for 20 years. It’s where he went to school and worked, where he raised his children and first fell in love.

Angel first crossed the border illegally with his father when was 15, leaving his mother at home in Mexico City. Like most migrants from Mexico, they came in search of work, believing that America was the promised land for dreamers like them.

Life was good in Los Angeles. Angel and his dad had a small apartment, food on the table, and employment. Angel was able to enroll in school.

Then, when Angel was just 16 years old, his father decided to return to Mexico City to rejoin his wife, leaving Angel alone in the apartment with two months’ rent.

Angel’s father told him not to call Child Protective Services, or they would place him in foster care. So for two years, until he graduated from high school, Angel told no one that he was living alone and working part time after school in order to survive.

After graduating, Angel met his girlfriend and fell in love. They had two “beautiful” daughters. In 2011, Angel finally believed he had made it. He had a family, a job, and a home.

Then, in an instant, it was all gone.

One in two million 

Angel’s story is not uncommon. In fact, given the unprecedented numbers of deportations in the past five years, it is a commonplace one at the Casa del Migrante.

President Barack Obama’s administration has deported as many undocumented immigrants in five years as George W. Bush did in his entire eight years in office. At the current rate, Obama will have deported two million people by the end of 2013, nearly the same number of deportations from 1892 to 1997, according to some statistics.

Over 1,000 people are deported every day under the current administration, many of whom come to Tijuana and wind up in the Casa del Migrante.

“These are disposable people,” said Gilberto Martínez, administrator of the Casa. “When they are needed, they are used. And when they are not needed, they are deported.”

Angel’s story is just one of 220,000.

Since the Scalabrinian Missionaries opened the Casa 26 years ago, over 220,000 men have passed through its doors. When it was opened, 90 percent of the guests were going north, seeking employment and a better life in the United States.

Now, 90 percent are deportees whose American Dream has turned to dust.

Every day, an average of 100 migrants come to the Casa for free food, shelter and medical attention.

And as all of the staff and volunteers at the Casa will tell you, each one has a story full of tragedy and suffering just like Angel’s.

There’s 64-year-old Francisco Gastelum, who prefers to be called Frank. Frank came to the United States when he was two years old and served as an Army paratrooper for 12 years in Vietnam. He was deported after a fistfight led to the death of a debtor, and Frank was convicted of manslaughter.

There’s 49-year-old Victor Hernandez, who was deported on his way to the DMV after being in the United States for 32 years. He has been separated from his child, who is now living in Palm Springs, Calif., with a relative.

Like Angel, most men here consider the United States their home. They have few memories of life in Mexico or Central America. Furthermore, almost all have been torn from their families by deportation.

“After I was arrested, I begged them, ‘At least let me see my kid,’” recalled Victor. “‘He depends on me only.’

“They didn’t let me. I feel so helpless.”

An uncertain future

It has been two years now since Angel has seen his children.

All he has of his daughters is a yellowing photo of his eldest, Lindsy Maria, who is now 5.

He is stuck in Tijuana, with no family on this side of the border and no way to contact his children. He spends his days pawning his belongings in the streets of Tijuana, trying to raise enough money to return to the United States by whatever means possible.

And with a broken immigration system and a line for legalization 15 years long, the legal route back to Los Angeles seems a distant dream.

Many migrants decide to travel back to their cities of origin, reuniting with distant relatives still living in Mexico or Central America. Others stay indefinitely in Tijuana, searching for work.

Some, like Angel, risk everything and attempt to cross the border illegally once more.

At the time of this writing, Angel had decided to make the 70-mile trek through the desert to California with three women and another man. It is a perilous journey that has left thousands dead in the past decade from violence, exposure, and thirst.

Unlike many border crossers, Angel’s group will not be guided by a “coyote” — a smuggler paid to help people cross the border illegally. This is because the coyotes charge anywhere between $4,000 and $12,000 a person to get people across the border, and Angel barely has enough money for lunch.

Though mugging and beating are a near certainty, death a likelihood, deportation a viable threat, and reunification with his family a distant dream, Angel is going to cross.

Because any danger is worth it to see his children again.

“I can’t just leave them,” he said. “They are my babies. I can’t just go back to Mexico City and forget about them.”

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