Immigration impasse: A family divided

Immigration impasse: Charlotte teen forced to find own way

Washington CorrespondentAugust 31, 2013 

  • About this series

    This three-part project was sponsored by an international reporting fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

First of three parts

SALVATIERRA, Mexico - As Armando Cruz and his friends in Charlotte watched U.S. senators vote on a massive immigration overhaul in June, his mind drifted over 1,600 miles away to the dusty town where his little sister was on a 30-minute walk to the closest Internet cafe.

Maria Elena crossed the railroad tracks by her house on a rocky hill. She passed squatters at the abandoned station. Finally she sat down in front of a faded black computer in a converted storefront near the former convent of the Capuchinas.

Armando’s phone buzzed:

“How does the vote look?” Maria Elena wrote via Facebook.

“I don’t know,” he responded. “They don’t have the numbers yet. But it sounds good … let’s see if it stays good.”

Armando Cruz was 16 when his family was ripped from his life. It’s been three years since he’s seen his parents, his little brother and all but two of his sisters. They all returned to Mexico after his father was deported following an early morning raid at their East Charlotte duplex.

When Washington lawmakers debate immigration, they frame it as a political issue. But the repercussions are real for young people such as Armando, whose parents chose the difficulties of starting new, illegal lives in the United States over the safety and small horizons of home.

This fractured relationship between right and left, Republicans and Democrats, has left hundreds of thousands of young people like Armando and his brother and sisters either alone or confused, trying to make sense of life in a country they may not know well.

As a result, Armando has spent some of his formative teenage years in Charlotte being raised by people his parents have never met.

The U.S.-born teenager, who graduated from East Mecklenburg High in 2012, is one of an untold number of children born to the millions of migrant families who came to the United States during the booming 1990s. Then as the American economy soured, their lives were unraveled by years of record-breaking deportations under the Obama administration.

Armando’s father, Juan Cruz, 41, is among the more than 200,000 parents of U.S. citizens who were deported from 2010 to 2012. Thousands of U.S.-born children, like Armando, were left behind to fend for themselves in hopes that they could achieve what their parents could not: the coveted American dream.

In June, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation that would put most of the 11 million people living in the country illegally, including 325,000 in North Carolina, on a path to citizenship. President Barack Obama, who has allowed some young undocumented immigrants to remain in the country, has pledged his support.

But now the Republican-led House of Representatives has refused to take up the Senate plan. Instead, the House is taking a piecemeal approach that focuses more on border enforcement. None of its proposals are expected to include a path to citizenship.

The Cruz family has a lot riding on the Senate plan, which would also allow some families who’ve been separated by deportation to be reunited.

The deportation of Armando’s father forced all his siblings – sisters Maria Elena, now 16; Valeria, 18; Sandra, 15; Leslie, 13; and Jocelyn, 9; and brother Juan, 4 – to relocate to Mexico. It was their first trip to their parents’ homeland. All the children were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens.

Their family’s fate lies largely in the hands of Republican House members, who are reluctant to allow the previously deported back into the U.S.

“It’s a bridge too far for the House,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees immigration. “They were deported for a reason.”

‘They took him’

Armando Cruz, now 19, was on his way home from school in March 2010 when he saw his dad’s blue pickup in the driveway. Juan Cruz traveled frequently as a roofer for a construction company. It was a treat for Armando to see his dad after classes.

“Papi!” Armando yelled as he raced into the house.

The lights were off, the room silent. His mom was sitting on the couch in the corner where his dad usually sat. She was crying.

Armando checked room by room.

“Where is Papi?” he repeated over and over. “Is he upstairs? Is he in the yard?”

“I kept badgering her,” Armando said of his mother. “She told me, ‘Shut up. ... They took him.’ ”

Immigration agents had arrived that morning after Armando left for school. They asked for another man, but they had a warrant and decided to look around. The agents found Armando’s father asleep upstairs. They woke him and asked if he could prove that he lived in the country legally; when he could not, he was deported.

Armando’s mother, Maria Teresa Cruz, who was also in the country illegally, tried to remain in Charlotte. She got a job cleaning houses as she struggled to simultaneously care for the kids.

Months later, she voluntarily moved back to Mexico, taking the kids with her.

Armando traveled with his mother to Mexico but returned to Charlotte with an uncle. He lived with the uncle for several months, until the relationship soured as the uncle struggled to afford another mouth to feed.

By then, Armando had begun volunteering at the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, where he got to know the group’s advocacy coordinator, Lacey Williams.

In December 2011, Williams and her wife, Laura Maschal, asked Armando if he wanted to move in with them .

In Mexico, the Cruz family lives in a converted garage; the kitchen is separated from the carport by a blue tarp. It’s a big change from the three-bedroom duplex they had rented in Charlotte near Eastland Mall. The girls sleep together on bunk beds. Little Juan sleeps with his father, while his mother works the night shift caring for an older woman.

Juan Cruz says he may earn in one week what he earned in a day in Charlotte. Sometimes, he must choose between a meal or buying new shoes for the kids, he said. He struggles with not being able to take his kids shopping or to the movies like he once did. He’s lost over 50 pounds, he said, from stress and eating less.

“You want to think that everything is going to turn out okay, but that is not always the case,” he said.

Everything is different

About 35,000 people live in Salvatierra, which is about three hours from Mexico City. It’s primarily an agricultural community. Most residents work on farms or in small retail shops. Jobs are scarce and work is infrequent, said Octavio Garcia, who leads the municipal office that assists returning migrants.

Eating pizza one night as rain poured through a large hole in the ceiling, Armando’s four youngest sisters spoke nostalgically about Charlotte, especially Concord Mills mall, where they’d often spent weekends shopping and going to movies. They hadn’t seen any movies since they moved to Mexico.

“I liked Claire’s. They have bracelets,” Leslie said, looking at the purple bands around her wrist.

Everything is different, Maria Elena said. She missed her friends. She missed the schools.

“I miss hearing the teachers talking English,” she said. “I miss people talking English with me. Because here, you can barely talk with someone because all of them are Mexican.

“I don’t want to be in Mexico,” she said. “I want to be in North Carolina. But that’s how life is: harsh.”

Remembering the faces

In North Carolina, Armando lives with Williams and Maschal, sheltered and cared for – but alone in many ways.

Armando’s graduation from East Mecklenburg high school should have been a special moment for the family. His parents wanted him to get the education they didn’t. It was a dream for him to graduate from high school, then go to college. His mother, Maria Teresa Cruz, remembers how Armando called the night of the ceremony.

“I want you to be here,” he said.

She told her son how proud she was and how she missed him every day.

“It’s been three years,” said Armando. “I’ve missed out on a lot of ‘I love yous,’ hugs and talks with them. I miss them a lot. There are days when I try to remember their faces, and sometimes I can’t.”

Williams and Maschal attended the graduation.

“His parents should have been able to see him graduate from high school,” Williams said. “They should have been able to be there to take him to college. It’s just the height of ridiculous unfairness that they haven’t been able to experience that, and that’s been heartbreaking.”

Straight A’s at Queens

Armando told his personal story in his application for a scholarship at Queens University in Charlotte. The school rewarded him its Presidential Scholarship, the school’s top merit scholarship. He got straight A’s in his freshman spring semester this year.

Woody O’Cain, associate vice president and dean of admissions, said the school weighed Armando’s 4.7 GPA and his high school rank, but also took into account what he had overcome. O’Cain said a lot of kids, even adults, think they have it tough, but their challenges pale in comparison to Armando’s.

“There is something about him that just defies the odds,” O’Cain said.

Yet Armando’s calls to Mexico are not typical of an excelling student and his proud parents.

They revolve around money, though not for him. It’s his mom and dad struggling to make ends meet.

“I don’t want to talk with my mom most of the time because it just makes me feel depressed,” Armando said. “It just makes me feel worse.”

He sometimes refuses to eat, he said, knowing that his parents and sisters were struggling to put food on the table.

Armando has grown angrier over the last three years – mad at himself for not being able to do more for his family, mad at his parents for the expectations they put on him and mad at his country for the immigration system his family is caught up in.

‘He’s not the same boy’

Juan Cruz lay on his bed in Mexico. He was smiling while throwing his youngest son, Juan, 4, up in the air. The little boy screamed and told his father to stop, yet he couldn’t stop giggling.

Opposite the bed were photos of all the kids, taken when they were students at Shamrock Gardens Elementary and Windsor Park Elementary in Charlotte. Cruz grabbed Armando’s baby photo from a shelf.

“He was a chubby baby,” Cruz said, smiling.

“I miss him,” he said. “I wish we were together. I know it’s probably hard for him to live far from us, but it’s the only way.”

His mom worries that her son is growing more distant from her the longer they’re apart.

Talking to a reporter who’d met her son, she rattled off questions about her oldest child: How big is he now? What’s his favorite thing to do? Does he think about us?

She worries she’ll never see him again.

“He’s changed,” his mom said in Spanish. “He’s not the same boy anymore.”

A visit to Capitol Hill

On a recent morning, Armando Cruz stood in the Capitol Hill office of U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a North Carolina Republican, to speak with one of her legislative aides about the Senate immigration plan. If the Senate plan passes, it probably would allow him to petition for his father to return from Mexico. He told the aide that he hasn’t seen his parents in three years.

“I still can’t deal with my depression,” he told the aide. “I still can’t deal with the fact that my parents are in Mexico suffering every day because they can’t find jobs.”

Ellmers wants to keep families together, the aide told Armando. But the Senate bill, he added, cannot pass the House. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said the House wouldn’t take up the Senate bill or a similar comprehensive measure.

Many House Republicans believe that if the government allows such people to stay – or deportees to return, as in the Senate bill’s proposal – it would only provide incentives for more illegal immigration.

The impasse between the Senate and House versions of immigration reform has raised concerns that the whole debate could be pushed into 2014 – an election year, when passage of such divisive legislation could be more difficult.

Doing more for the family

For Armando and his family, the argument in Congress is about the future of a family that had easily made its way in Charlotte’s growing immigrant community.

Sitting outside the U.S. Capitol, peering up at the dome, he said he once saw his country as a place of promises and dreams. If someone worked hard, Armando thought anything could be accomplished.

“But after what happened to my family, I feel that it’s very flawed – very flawed – in how it views who can be here,” he said.

His mom and dad press him to do more to help them return. They want him to send money. They want him to finish his degree and get a good job. They want him to take the rest of his sisters to the United States.

In the spring, an uncle brought one of his sisters, Valeria, back to Charlotte. She now also lives with Williams and Maschal. Despite being 18, Valeria had to return to the 9th grade when she returned to Charlotte. She’s struggled to catch up in math and English. Armando is helping her improve her study habits.

And in early August, Maria Elena came to live with them as well. She’s starting the 10th grade.

In Charlotte, Maria Elena won’t have to make the long hike along dusty roads to use the Internet. But if she stays, she also won’t have her mother and father at her side for her late teenage years.

Back in Mexico on that June visit to the Internet cafe, Maria Elena spent hours on Facebook. She managed three conversations while posting updates to her status page.

Armando wrote again: “Well it looks like the immigration bill passed the Senate.”

“That’s really good,” Maria wrote. “Well I have to go now.”

“Bye Maria,” Armando typed. “I love you.”

“I love you,” she wrote.

Coming Monday: A country she barely knows

Armando Cruz

Email:; Twitter: francoordonez

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