April 20, 2007

From High School Honors to Overnight Parent

A sixteen year old picking up the pieces ICE left behind

By Raymond R. Beltran

Sixteen year-old Leslie Muñoz is trying to sell her parents’ sport utility vehicle. On weekends, she rummages through her family’s luxuries, the televisions, the radios, the computer gadgets and all the furniture to sell what she can from their home, where she’s also stuck a ‘For Rent’ sign out front.

She has a new Chrysler PT Cruiser that’s paid off, but she needs it to get her eight year old sister to school. Her thirteen year old brother, Marco, takes the bus to a prestigious middle school in La Jolla. For them, what was once a lavish lifestyle is now a financial anchor since their parents were deported in February and are now living an alien lifestyle in the colonias of Tijuana, México.

“We never had to ask for anything because we always had it all,” Leslie says. Now scared that it’s been two months since her parents, Abel and Zulma, have been gone and food in the house is scarce, she’s taken parental control and is running out of options.

Leslie, who speaks to her father daily with a cellular phone through a family share plan, has been thrown into the realm of bill paying, tax season and mortgages.


Leslie and Marco

“I have to make the payments and check the bank account online,” she says. “I have to do all the stuff that my parents did. I didn’t used to pay too much attention, but now I have to do it.”

March’s mortgage payment, $2,500, on the home they own was paid because Abel was able to do his taxes before he was taken. The money he got in return paid the bills and left his three children with a little over a thousand dollars to fend for themselves until they figure out a plan.

Next door to the children is their older cousin, who visits them daily but has a small overcrowded house already. Their aunt lives in National City and can’t squeeze the three into her one bedroom apartment a full size family already shares, and going back to Tijuana? Not happening for the three honor roll siblings who were born and raised in San Diego, both Leslie and her parents say.

Just two months ago, Leslie was in her third high school semester of French classes and maintaining honors World History and English. Her brother won multiple Future Leadership Awards throughout his elementary school years, and their parents made good money.

Abel, an electrician and gardener, and Zulma, who worked in the cafeteria at Audubon Elementary with an Employment Authorization card issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, have created a life from scratch here in the U.S. that began eighteen years ago.

They worked legitimate jobs and earned honest money with a wealth of records proving it. Leslie has tax forms dating back to 1990 and copies of check stubs from when her parents first entered the U.S., Abel working as a meat cutter at a carnecería in Vista.

Back in 1989, he and Zulma, living in Tijuana then, sent their sick newborn baby across the border with Zulma’s sister, a U.S. citizen, to get care at Children’s Hospital of California. When the baby boy was diagnosed with leukemia, the family was granted permission to cross with a letter from the hospital.

Two months later their son died, but not before they found out Zulma was pregnant with their first daughter, Leslie. With doctor’s pleas, the couple was granted a three month-long stay in the U.S. so doctors could monitor her pregnancy.

Abel found work in the carnecería and the couple decided to stay, clandestinely.

“He was cutting meat and he also made friends who taught him how to be a gardener,” Zulma says about her husband over a cellular phone. “And then he got into electricity and became a fulltime electrician, remodeling homes.

“I didn’t have a permit to work, so I had to sell food, tailor people’s clothes, clean houses and more than a year ago (October 2005), I got permission to work in the school district.”

What began as a tragedy ultimately became a success story for the couple. Fifteen years down the road, the family was making enough money to afford owning a home they bought two years ago for approximately $500,000. Abel was on his way to becoming a certified electrician, but now, all that’s left is Leslie sifting through the ashes, old receipts, tax documents and check stubs that don’t mean much now.

“I want to get back to my parents, but here,” says Marco, Leslie’s fourteen year old brother, who suffers from a deficiency in his left ear that could lead to deafness. “I was born here and I want to stay here.”

They say that a social security number was never a big issue, but merely a looming cloud that crept over the family when Abel wanted to advance at work, or gain employment with certain companies.

They’ve been denied citizenship by immigration judges three times in the past two years and have spent a recorded $15,500 on a lawyer, not mentioning bartering with Abel for his labor Abel says.

A letter from Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, denied taking jurisdiction over their case in order to accept their second appeal.

“The temporary stay of removal and voluntary departure confirmed by the Ninth Circuit General Order … shall continue in effect until issuance of the mandate,” reads the December 2006 letter. The mandate never came and their lawyer told them not to worry, the family says.

Abel and Zulma’s house was raided by ICE agents February 22 in the middle of the night. They were never told why they were denied appeal, and the pile of court documentation doesn’t offer explanation.

Murray D. Hilts, who the family has payment receipts for, dating back to August 14, 2003, did not respond to requests for an interview with La Prensa San Diego.

The family says Hilts had promised their case victory but has since, washed his hands of the situation, taking his payments and advising them to sell their home and buy property in Mexico. But Zulma says they just refinanced their home and the current housing market looks bleak for their chances of attracting buyers.

Representatives from human rights organizations American Friends Service Committee and San Diego’s Center on Policy Initiative say the possibilities look hopeless for the Muñoz family, unless the children decide to reunite with their parents in Tijuana.

The family is currently seeking a lawyer to help Abel and Zulma gain sponsorship to return to the U.S.

For now, the couple is selling tamales, tacos and menudo from a food cart in the colonias of Tijuana three days a week for forty-five dollars a day and living with Zulma’s mother and sister. Leslie says her dad gives them ten dollars every weekend they visit him and says he’ll find his way back across to take care of them.

“It’s a completely different world,” they both say, not having stepped foot in Mexico since their first crossing.

“In eighteen years, Tijuana has changed so much, the money, the system. It’s so much more expensive,” Zulma says.

Leslie and Marco say they don’t fight as much as they used to. There’s been no takers to rent their home, and April’s mortgage is almost due. But Leslie has taken on maternal instincts to keep the family surviving, especially when her younger sister goes silent or when Marco stops eating. She recently walked out of class to confide in a school secretary when teachers and counselors ignored her story.

When she visits her parents on the weekend, she says the best feeling is being a kid again.

“Unjust, it’s unjust,” she says nodding her head. “My dad did something that most immigrants couldn’t do. He had a house and he did all this. He worked too hard to get this, and for someone to just come and take it away …”

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