For one Houston family, a new year full of fear
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Published Dec. 29, 2017
Juan Rodríguez slid out from under the silver GMC Envoy and began to wipe the sweat off his face with one of the white cloths he keeps in his garage.
A self-employed auto mechanic, he’d finished a good day’s work, but his smile was gone.
“We have had some harmony in the house lately, more tranquility,” said Juan, breaking a long afternoon’s silence, although he hardly looked tranquil.
He changed the white cloth for a darkly stained one and began to wipe his oily hands. He paused and, without taking his eyes off his fingers, explained what had been troubling him for days: “The problem is that we are already in November, and since this month arrived, I feel as if I am awakening from a dream. My nights have turned into nightmares because the countdown for me has started again.”
He’d been working legally in Houston and paying taxes for years, supporting his wife, Celia, and three daughters, Karen, Rebecca and Kimberly, all U.S. citizens. He had been required to check in annually with immigration officials.
Rebecca Rodriguez, 16, Juan Rodriguez and Karen Rodriguez, 19, play games at their home in Houston. Photo: Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle
An undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, he was the beneficiary of so-called “prosecutorial discretion” under the Obama administration, for people with families and no criminal record.
But all that changed with the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration.
When Rodriguez appeared for his regular annual check-in in February, officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement told him he would be deported. No more discretion.
He pleaded for time so that he could see Karen graduate from high school in June,when the Chronicle and The New York Times told the family’s story and his case became a cause celebre in Houston’s Hispanic legal community.
The Hispanic Bar Association blamed the Trump administration for “devastating family break-ups” and noted Hispanic lawyers, led by former Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina, filed suit to block the deportation in federal court, prompting another extension. They ultimately withdrew the case so that Juan’s asylum claim could proceed, knowing they could re-file later, if necessary.
But now ICE has ordered him to appear on Jan. 10, facing possible deportation once again, the legal maneuvering nearly exhausted.
“That is going to be the third time since February, and you know what they say about the number three,” Juan said, a wan smile crossing his lips. “We have December, and then only a few more days left with my family. You don’t know what is going to happen, but I only pray that Celia and the girls are still living the dream that I already woke up from.”
He stepped from the garage into to the kitchen of his home near the University of Houston. Celia was in the kitchen stirring a pot of atole, a corn flour drink from El Salvador. She caressed her husband’s cheek, but Juan headed straight for his room without a word. He didn’t want his wife to notice his worry.
Celia knows. She sat down at the kitchen table in silence and covered her face with her hands. Tears began to fall beneath his fingers. She grabbed a paper towel from the table and padded her face.
“We don’t talk about it at home, but I know we’re all anxious,” Celia said, still covering her face.
She had been recently diagnosed with severe depression. Karen, 19, an engineering major at the University of Houston Downtown, Rebecca, 16, in high school, and Kimberly, 11, a sixth grader, are all in therapy.
Celia says she has to control herself constantly to avoid showing her emotions. Every time immigration news comes on television, she has to leave the room. “When one sees families suffer,” she says, “it’s inevitable to cry because…it’s the same agony that we are living.”
Celia and Juan grew up together, sweethearts, in La Union, a Salvadoran coastal city that nature paints with exuberance in the dense groves of mountains and volcanoes and gangs just as surely terrorize the streets that run blood red. Coming back here as a deportee after so many years in America, Juan fears, could be something akin to a death sentence.
Celia left La Union 18 years ago on a resident’s visa to escape a country coming out of a civil war and descending into gang violence. She didn’t marry Juan before she left because that would have disqualified her from being claimed by her parents, already American citizens and living in Houston. Juan followed two years later, crossing the U.S. border illegally.
A dozen years ago, he applied for so-called temporary protective status, but it was denied. But he was allowed to stay in the country and work legally, as long as he checked in regularly with immigration officials, which he did 25 times without incident — until Trump was elected.
La Union retains the atmosphere of a fishing village that Celia and Juan still remember. It’s Located on La Union Bay in the Gulf of Fonseca that El Salvador shares with Honduras, the city is sprinkled with red, green and yellow boats around an intense blue of the sea, like big fish out of the water.
The beauty belies a visible poverty in its modest, earthen-color homes, squalid in their half-finished facades, as if their builders had run out of materials halfway, and in the palpable fear of its residents.
The locals do not smile but act instead with suspicion of strangers. In the park that serves as the town center, a visiting journalist from Houston praised the beauty of the white apron that a woman put on starting to sell baskets and handicrafts. She ignored the compliment.
“Is it a typical El Salvadoran apron?”
“What are you doing here?” the woman replied.
“I’m only visiting La Unión.”
“Get away from me. They don’t like us to talk to strangers,” the woman shouted, her eyes scanning the street to see if she was being watched.
The visitor decided to move away and called a local she’d contacted through connections in Houston. She’d never met the man, but somehow he knew she had arrived in town that morning in a red SUV.
He told her she was being watched.
“You haven’t noticed the men standing on every corner?” he asked.
The journalist looked around and noticed a man in the shadow of a nearby tree, looking at her intermittently and typing on his cell phone. The man pretended to be an ice cream vendor, except that the ice cream cart next to him was empty.
The local asked her who the “tall young man” was accompanying her. “Remember that I agreed to receive you,” the local said, “but I clearly asked for discretion.”
The “tall young man” was actually a security advisor working for the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of a reporting fellowship that brings foreign journalists to Latin America. The journalist and the guard soon sensed that “postes,” or posts — vigilantes working for the main El Salvadoran gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 — were following their every move.
“These gangs have a very effective system to detect and report on any stranger that enters their territories, or on residents who do not belong to the neighborhoods where each one dominates,” José Martínez González, deputy head of the National Civil Police (PNC) delegation in La Union, later explained in an interview.
Drawing on a large piece of paper in his office, Martínez outlined the modus operandi of these gangs. They place posts on corners every one or two blocks. “The posts used to be recognized more easily because they were tattooed and wore the stereotypical baggy clothes of gang members,” he said. But now, people affiliated with these organizations blend more easily into the fabric of their towns, like the pretend ice cream vendor who had been watching her, so they have an excuse if the police question them, the official explained.
STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN HOMELANDS: Trump’s deportees are often preyed upon by gangs
Martínez said that posts inform the heads of their clique of any eventuality by cellphone. Cliques are the base organizations of the gangs, which as a whole include many “clicas” scattered throughout hundreds of neighborhoods across the country.
If necessary, the heads of the cliques inform the top leaders of the gangs, who give orders from the prisons where they are usually located. Armed with contemporary technologies for communication, the gangs’ response capacity has become almost immediate.
In the neighborhood where Celia and Juan used to live, graffiti on walls marked the territory for Barrio 18 and made the atmosphere tense.
As the government has tried to crack down on the gangs’ illegal and violent behavior, the gangs are using ever more encrypted codes to spread their messages, said Jonatan Funes, a photojournalist who covers crime for the El Salvadoran national newspaper La Prensa Gráfica.
A couple of blocks away from the Rodriguez’s former home, where a Barrio 18 boundary gives way to Mara Salvatrucha turf, a threatening text read on a wall: “The hand of the shadow is coming soon.”
Walking in this neighborhood, the journalist stopped at a little blue house with an orange tile roof that used to be the Rodríguezes’. She approached the house to look closer through a black gate that dominated the facade. But she stopped midway when her security guard shouted a firm order: “Abort! Abort, right now!”
“We are out of here,” he said, taking her by the arm towards the red SUV parked a few feet away. “They are now shooting photos of us with their phones. And I don’t know what the f**k they would shoot next.”
A driver gunned the SUV through the narrow streets of La Unión, the town and its smell of rotten fish receding behind them.
Around the Rodriguezes’ kitchen table in Houston, Celia’s brother painted an even darker portrait of La Union. As an American citizen who travels back and forth between the U.S. and El Salvador, this detail stood out: he didn’t want his name used because of concerns about security.
“Do you remember the guy that was the boss of the [Barrio] 18, who lived in front of the house?” he asked, referring to the family home. He “was actually in the street when a group of kids came to shoot the guy, right in front of me!” the brother said.
One story followed another, like that of a little boy who was killed in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out on the same street. Or the other story of a Houston resident, Walter Antonio Vargas, who went to La Union in July to visit his sick mother. While there, Vargas, 23, attended a wake and was assassinated in a drive-by shooting.
“And what about the mayor?” continued the brother. “Everyone seems to be muddied with the crime!”
Since February, El Salvadoran media has published several accusations against him for alleged links to drug trafficking and the Central American Texis Cartel. In another nearby municipality, the mayor was arrested in June, accused of being the leader of a drug trafficking ring.
Juan sat in silence, appearing to zone out the conversation, as his wife became more and more agitated by the thought that her husband would fall victim to gang violence if he were forced to return. “What would happen to us without him!” she said later.
The family managed some cheer around Christmas. Celia called a family reunion to decorate the Christmas tree on a Friday in December. The countdown to Jan. 10 and Juan’s appointment with ICE was on everyone’s mind, but the Rodríguezes, deeply religious, reveled in the season.
Celia wove silver ribbons vertically along the tree, placed in the living room next to the brick fireplace.
Karen, Rebecca and Kimberly, the Rodriguezes’ daughter, helped clip white butterflies, powdered flowers and snowy balls here and there around the tree.
They also seemed to be in charge of the party, leading games they’d learned at their Seventh-day Adventist Church in Pasadena which they forced “Papi” Juan to play.
He didn’t stop smiling all night, enraptured by the joy of his daughters. It was a precious moment that he wanted to cherish and keep in his memory.
Money has been scarce for the Rodríguezes since Juan was enrolled in an ICE’s intensive monitoring program in June as a condition of remaining in the country.
Once a week, he has to go to the program’s office for a check-in. Also, he cannot move from home on Thursdays, when an agent could pay a surprise visit as part of the program, although it rarely occurs. Overall, this program has reduced his work time and increased his family’s costs, he said.
“I lose two days every week because of that,” Juan said in a quiet moment on the back patio, explaining why the tree would not have many packages.
On the days he must stay home, he can’t take the girls to school or work, forcing them to take Uber. Costs related to his legal quest to stay in America are mounting as well, even though his lawyers are working pro bono.
Juan has severeal legal options that could further delay his deportation. His attorney, Carolina Ortuzar-Diaz, is waiting for a ruling from the Immigration Board of Appeals on his asylum request, which was denied earlier this year by an immigration judge. But ICE typically does not delay deportations to wait for the board to rule.
Ortuzar-Diaz will ask for a stay of the deportation, in any case, and also plans to file a new asylum request before Jan. 10, presenting updated grounds and country conditions. But it’s not at all clear whether ICE would extend the deportation deadline to allow this new claim to be heard.
The Hispanic Bar Association lawyers led by former Supreme Court Justice Medina, in any event, can’t go back into federal court and re-file their case claiming that the Rodriguez family’s religious rights were being violated by Juan’s deportation until he exhausts his claims in immigration court, which won’t happen until the Immigration Board of Appeals rules.
Celia, meanwhile, has gone to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to ask, as a U.S. citizen, that her husband be granted residency. If the USCIS were to grant waivers in the case, Juan could go home to La Union, complete his paperwork and then return to the U.S. as a legal resident almost immediately. But those waivers, were they to be granted, might take a year to arrive, leaving Juan to have been deported in the meantime. And once he’s out of the country the wait can be longer, even years.
While Christmas at the Rodriguezes seemed at first to offer similarly meager prospects, the base of their tree soon told a different story. Packages arrived right before Christmas from the Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School of Houston, where Rebecca is studding and Karen graduated this year.
But the days after Christmas turned grey as the day of Juan’s possible deportation approached. He came down with a severe flu. Celia and the girls stopped taking calls or receiving visits. On Friday, Celia finally answered the phone. “The days are going by quickly and one feels more and more like falling to the ground,” she said.
Karen said she was terrified that in just a few days she would have to play again “the role of the family´s leader, as Papi always says.” She paused for a moment, choking back tears. “I am exhausted,” she said. “Please don´t tell anybody that you heard me crying; I have to be strong for my sisters.”
To see more stories about the Rodriguez family, go here.
And to see what the Rodriguezes are going through in photos, go here.
OUT OF TIME: Candidate Donald Trump inspired anti-immigration fervor across the country – and created panic at Juan Rodríguez’s home. His family felt that Juan, an immigrant from El Salvador who was in the country illegally, would be in danger of deportation. Soon after the election, he was told that he wasn’t “a priority for this country anymore.” An immigration lawyer came to his defense, and three high-profile attorneys signed on to assist Juan’s wife, a U.S. citizen, and their three American daughters in the legal battle. Click here to read the series.