A House Divided By Immigration Status : Code Switch All four of the Gonzalez kids grew up under one roof, in Los Angeles, Calif. But when the oldest was in middle school, she realized that she and her siblings might have drastically different lives. That's because she comes from a mixed-status family, where some members are free to work, and others are constrained by the fear of deportation.
NPR logo

A House Divided By Immigration Status

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/587413503/589376600" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A House Divided By Immigration Status

A House Divided By Immigration Status

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/587413503/589376600" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Nine million people live in mixed-status families in the United States. We're going to introduce you to three - the Gonzalezes. Abigail (ph) is undocumented.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABIGAIL GONZALEZ: I feel like I don't belong anywhere.

DEMBY: Miriam (ph) has DACA, which is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

MIRIAM GONZALEZ: OK, so are you going to take it away? Are you going to, like, leave it? Like, what are you going to do?

DEMBY: And Joseventura is a U.S. citizen.

JOSEVENTURA GONZALEZ: There's so much pressure on me.

DEMBY: They're all siblings. They all live under the same roof. And one of them is suing the government to stay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. I met Abigail Gonzalez while I was doing some reporting in Boyle Heights, which is a majority-Mexican neighborhood here in Los Angeles. She's an undocumented DREAMer. So she was brought to the U.S. as a baby, but she doesn't have DACA or any other type of legal documentation. And there's a lot of uncertainty in her household right now.

DEMBY: I guess that's a bit of an understatement. So right now, there are an estimated 3.6 million DREAMers in the United States. Of that 3.6 million, about 2 million of those are eligible for DACA. But only around 800,000 of them have it. For how long? That's still kind of up in the air because legal battles are playing out in the courts. Both Democrats and Republicans say they want to fix this predicament, but they just can't agree on how to do it. Which means a lot of young people's futures are still in limbo - people like Abigail Gonzalez, who Shereen is about to introduce us to.

MERAJI: Abigail's an 18-year-old high school senior. She's class president, a softball star, in every AP class except Spanish because of a scheduling mishap that she's still mad about. And she was planning an East Coast trip to visit colleges when we first met. So Abigail was about to travel cross-country without any U.S. documentation. And people in her life said don't do it. What if you're stopped? It was definitely something I thought about. But Abigail? She wasn't worried at all. It was her second time flying domestically. And nothing happened the first time.

A. GONZALEZ: So we just boarded the plane. I came in with my Mexican passport. And they really just checked to make sure that my name is the same as on the ticket.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, from the flight deck - your captain speaking now. Welcome onboard American...

A. GONZALEZ: OK.

MERAJI: I had Abigail keep track of her trip in an audio diary for me. I said, just talk into your phone whenever you have a sec. And as you heard, there are parts that just end abruptly. But this next mashup is a pretty good representation of what she said.

A. GONZALEZ: The campus tour was really good. UPenn is beautiful.

I don't know how I really feel about Columbia. I feel - I don't know if I would really be happy

there. You know, Princeton's the, quote, unquote, "dream school."

When I was on that campus just looking around, I was like, this is the school. And this is what I want.

MERAJI: To me, Abigail sounds like a typical high-achieving senior, weighing the pros and cons of one fancy university over another. She's way more concerned with being rejected from Princeton, her dream school, than being an undocumented DREAMer. I asked her about that. And she told me it's because the idea of being deported still feels really foreign to her.

A. GONZALEZ: Me and my sisters were actually talking about it - how we don't have a plan if we're deported. We've been in this country long, like, so long that we feel like nothing's going to happen to us because, like, it's just - it hasn't happened before.

MERAJI: Abigail has two older sisters - Dalia's (ph) 21, goes to UC Santa Cruz and has DACA. And Miriam, her oldest sister, is 24 and also has DACA. Abigail calls Miriam...

A. GONZALEZ: My biggest inspiration. And she remembers - she's the only one who remembers Mexico.

MERAJI: And Miriam calls her youngest sister, Abigail...

M. GONZALEZ: My little prodigy. But she's done everything on her own.

MERAJI: Miriam says she was 6 years old and Abigail was 6 months old when their mom brought them from Mexico to Los Angeles to reunite with their dad.

M. GONZALEZ: I remember we took a plane from Guadalajara to Tijuana. And then we took a bus from TJ into downtown LA. It's funny because I think my mom had also mentioned Disneyland - like, oh, yeah, because he lives in LA. We're going to go to Disneyland. And I was like, oh, yeah, cool. We didn't end up going to Disneyland until, like, two years later. So it was always like, oh, you promised Disneyland to me and now we're here. I'm 8 years old, and I still haven't been to Disneyland.

MERAJI: Miriam says, as a little kid, she never gave much thought to how that one trip totally changed her life. She adapted fast. The oldest of four, she was the first to learn English and quickly became the family interpreter. And she went through a bunch of other firsts that helped pave the way for her younger sisters like being the first to know their legal status. She was in seventh grade, and there was a flyer at school. And she can't remember exactly what it was for - some sort of after-school job thing. To participate, you needed a Social Security number.

M. GONZALEZ: And I went home that day. And I told my mom like, hey, mom. Can I have my Social Security number? And then she was like, you don't have one. And then I was like, well, let's go get one.

MERAJI: Her mom told her why it didn't work that way - because she was undocumented.

M. GONZALEZ: She just said, don't tell anybody. And I do remember that.

MERAJI: She didn't until high school. Miriam was number one in her class and determined to go to college. So she shared her secret with a high school guidance counselor who told her about an undocumented student group at UCLA. Miriam realized not only could she go to college, she could have a support network. She applied to UCLA and got in. But the family couldn't afford it on the money her dad made. He cuts meat at a factory and supports their mom, all four kids, grandma and great grandpa. And Miriam couldn't work legally or apply for financial aid. Her plan - live at home and get scholarships. But after her second quarter...

M. GONZALEZ: I didn't get one of the scholarships that I was depending on, so I had to take time off from school. So yeah.

MERAJI: While Miriam was trying to figure out what to do, something big happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people.

MERAJI: President Obama announced DACA. It was June 15, 2012. Miriam was with a bunch of her undocumented friends from UCLA who were graduating later that day.

M. GONZALEZ: You mean, we get emotional (laughter). Yeah. So it came like at a perfect time where, you know, they're getting ready to graduate. And now they have the opportunity to work.

MERAJI: And so did she. She got DACA, graduated from UCLA. And she's getting her master's while teaching middle school full-time. With her teaching salary, Miriam helps out her family a lot. She sends money to her middle sister, Dalia, so she can live on campus at UC Santa Cruz. And she helped her youngest sister, Abigail, with her college application fees and took her on that all-expenses-paid East Coast college tour. But remember - Abigail doesn't have DACA. So even if she got into all those expensive schools they visited, she'd need scholarships to make it work. And there's nothing really protecting her from deportation. Abigail says she doesn't resent her sisters because they have DACA and she doesn't.

A. GONZALEZ: I do resent the fact that like just the feelings that my status has had on me and just like the impact that it has had on me emotionally. I feel like I don't belong anywhere. I feel like if I'm - I don't feel a part of Mexico because I've never lived there. I don't remember my relatives. I don't remember life in the ranch. I don't remember anything. In America, I've had to assimilate. I mean, I don't speak Spanish fluently like perfect Spanish because all my years I've tried to perfect my English. And so I've had to let go of certain things from my own culture just to assimilate into a country that, you know, where people don't respect me because of just legal documentation.

MERAJI: At this point, you're probably wondering why Abigail doesn't have DACA. Well, she wasn't 15 when it was announced, and you had to be at least 15 to apply. And when she turned 15, she was in high school and didn't think she needed a job until she graduated. She mostly thought of DACA as something that let you work.

Deportation has never really been top of mind for the Gonzalez sisters until recently. Also, it's not cheap. It costs nearly 500 bucks to apply, and you have to pay that again to renew it in two years. Once Abigail finally decided it was time, Miriam talked to a lawyer who said hold off. Don't give the government all of Abigail's information until the Trump administration decides what to do with DACA.

M. GONZALEZ: Like, I definitely regretted not applying early as soon as I turned 15. And then like it was already too late once we waited it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: I'm here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama administration is being rescinded.

MERAJI: On Tuesday, September 5 of last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the official announcement. And Miriam got ready for a fight. She's a plaintiff in a case suing the Trump administration for ending DACA - Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. A district judge ruled in that case that the federal government has to keep taking DACA renewals but doesn't have to accept new applications.

The federal government appealed that decision directly to the Supreme Court, skipping the lower courts altogether. The Supreme Court just rejected that request. So back to the circuit court it goes. A short term win for DACA recipients like Miriam and her sister Dalia but one that won't help her youngest sister, Abigail, a DREAMer without DACA. Miriam really wishes she could go back and change that.

M. GONZALEZ: Like, I know that we don't talk about it 'cause, you know, our family doesn't really talk about things. But like, does she blame me? I wouldn't blame her for like blaming me since, you know, we kind of like didn't do it when we had the opportunity to do so, you know.

MERAJI: So what do you hope happens?

M. GONZALEZ: Let's just hope that Congress acts.

DEMBY: After the break, we'll meet Abigail and Miriam's little brother. He's 17.

J. GONZALEZ: I have more opportunities than my sisters. So now that I have more opportunities, I should take advantage. and I should stop being lazy and just focus on what I've got to do.

MERAJI: Joseventura Gonzalez shares his thoughts on what it's like being the only citizen in the family.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. OK. So now we're going to meet Miriam and Abigail's only brother.

J. GONZALEZ: So my name Joseventura. Gonzalez. I am 17 years old, and I am in 11th grade.

MERAJI: Joseventura - all one word, 11 letters.

That's a very long name. Are you named after anyone?

J. GONZALEZ: I'm named after my dad and one of my dad's tios who took care of my dad and his family when my grandpa passed away when my dad was 6 years old.

MERAJI: Jose is his dad's name, Ventura, his great uncle's. So it's not just a long name, it's a heavy one. It carries a lot of family weight. Joseventura told me his grandfather was murdered in a fight over a piece of land back in Mexico. Great-uncle Ventura took care of Joseventura's dad until he died. That's when Joseventura's dad stopped going to school and started working to support his younger siblings. He never went to high school. Joseventura's three older sisters rocked high school. Miriam and Abigail told me they didn't have a choice. Their dad and mom sacrificed everything to bring them to the U.S. so they'd have more opportunities. And they were undocumented. Abigail told me they always had to be on top of their game.

So how would you describe yourself?

J. GONZALEZ: It's tough. Myself, I really don't push myself to have good grades. Like, my overall GPA isn't that really - isn't that good. I messed up freshman year and sophomore year. But then junior year, I stepped up.

MERAJI: OK. So how would you describe yourself besides your grades? Let's take that off the table.

J. GONZALEZ: Besides my grades, I'd describe myself as really annoying to my sisters. I like to bug them. Athletic, I love to play sports. That's pretty much it. Lazy, actually.

M. GONZALEZ: Oh, my little pain. He's so annoying. But, I mean, I'm his sister, so I guess I get to say that.

MERAJI: Older sister Miriam thinks Joseventura's description is pretty on point.

M. GONZALEZ: He always says that he's like the dumb one in our family. And I'm just like, you're not dumb, you're just lazy.

MERAJI: And Abigail goes one step further and says why it's so important for their youngest brother to get it together. He's the only citizen in the family. And when he turns 21, he can help his parents get their green cards, that is if they meet all the criteria and he can prove to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that he makes enough money to support them both. Here's Abigail.

A. GONZALEZ: We need him to work, to go to college because those factors will be able to help my parents get their papers. So - and I don't know exactly how he feels. And I don't know if he knows that we put a lot of pressure on him, but I'm pretty sure he does because we always tell him, like, you need to do good in school. You need to do good in school. So...

MERAJI: He knows. I asked him.

J. GONZALEZ: There's so much pressure on me. So I feel like all the eyes are on me and the family. Oh, I'm just waiting for you to get - turn 21 so you can have papers. But now that we have Trump, I feel like it's going to be hard to be able to fix them.

MERAJI: President Trump is pushing to reform family sponsorship. He wants to restrict it to spouses and minor children only. He says it's a non-negotiable if a deal is going to get done that helps the DREAMers. Joseventura told me his family doesn't talk that much about all this uncertainty about what the president might do.

J. GONZALEZ: We don't really talk about Trump in our house. Everyone in my family is on it. They're still doing what they have to do. You know, life continues. They still wake up, do what they got to do, come back home, eat, sleep, do the same thing over and over again.

MERAJI: A few minutes after we finished the interview, Joseventura actually ended up coming back into the room where I was packing up my recording equipment. And he told me he wanted to share something really important with me, something he forgot to say that actually was about President Trump's administration and his oldest sister.

OK. All right. What are you missing?

M. GONZALEZ: So what I feel like I missed was the part about Miriam when she first told me about suing the government. And now that her name is out there, you know, people know who she is. I asked her. I was like, aren't you afraid of getting caught? The fact that she just looked at me in the eyes and she told me, I'm not afraid. And she's like, if I do get caught and I go back to Mexico, you know, I'll find something I have to do over there. If one of us goes, then all of us will go. I don't like the idea of families being separated. That's not fair for anyone. And I wouldn't want that to happen to anyone. So if my sister gets deported or my parents get deported, I'll go with them.

MERAJI: I interviewed Joseventura, Abigail and Miriam separately and on different days. And one thing they all told me was that they don't talk much about their family's predicament. They said things to me they've never shared with each other. Miriam's never asked Abigail if she blames her for not doing more to get her DACA. Abigail's never asked Joseventura if he resents being the only one with U.S. citizenship. Maybe it's too overwhelming. Or maybe they want their identity to be more than documented, undocumented and citizen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you, as always. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed. And please, please leave us a review on iTunes. That's how folks find the show.

MERAJI: Leah Donella and Sami Yenigun produced this episode with help from our intern, Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Sami Yenigun. We had original music by Ramtin Arablouei. And special thanks to the after-school program College Track for helping me organize interviews with Abigail and Joseventura. Tina Kim, Jennifer Estrada-Feller, I couldn't have done it without you, so thank you so much. And thanks to Professor Hiroshi Motomura for helping me understand the issues and for taking time out of your sabbatical to do it.

DEMBY: A shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Steve Drummond, Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez and Kat Chow. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.