As Armando Cruz and his friends in Charlotte, N.C., watched U.S. senators vote on a massive immigration overhaul in June, his mind drifted 1,600 miles away to this dusty Mexican town where his little sister was on a 30-minute trek 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 Capuchinos.
Armando’s phone buzzed:
“How does the vote look?” Maria Elena wrote via Facebook.
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“I don’t know. They don’t have the numbers yet. But it sounds good,” he responded.
“Well that’s good.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s see if it stays good.”
Armando Cruz was just 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, who returned to Mexico once his father was deported after an early morning raid at their East Charlotte duplex.
As a result, Armando has spent some of the most formative years of his adolescence in Charlotte being raised by people his parents have never met.The U.S.-born teenager, who graduated from Charlotte’s East Mecklenburg High, is one of an untold number of children born to the millions of migrant families who were lured to the United States during the booming 1990s and then, as the American economy soured, 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 the hope that they could achieve what their parents could not: the coveted American Dream. Their father’s deportation 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 thus are U.S. citizens.
They have a lot riding on the ambitious U.S. Senate plan, which, in addition to creating a path to citizenship for millions of people who are living in the country illegally, would allow some families who’ve been separated by deportation to be reunited.
Their fate lies largely in the hands of the Republican-led House of Representatives, whose focus has been on enforcement and is 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.
Armando Cruz, who’s now 19, was on his way home from school in Charlotte 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.
“Papee!” 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 went room to room.
“Where is Papee?” 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 had left for school. They asked for another man, but they had a warrant and decided to look around. They found Armando’s father asleep upstairs. They woke him and asked whether he could prove that he lived in the country legally.
Months later, Armando’s mother moved back to Mexico, voluntarily, taking the other six kids with her.
In Mexico, the family lives in a converted garage, the kitchen 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.
Eating pizza one recent night, as rain poured in through a large hole in the ceiling, the children spoke nostalgically about Charlotte, especially Concord Mills mall, where they’d often spent weekends going to movies – they haven’t seen any since they moved to Mexico – meeting friends in the food court or just looking at the stores.
“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.”
In North Carolina, Armando lives with an immigration advocate, sheltered and cared for – but alone in many ways.
His mother, Maria Teresa Cruz, remembers how Armando called her a year ago, crying, on the night he graduated from East Mecklenburg High.
“I want you to be here,” he said. “I want to be there.”
She told her son how proud she was. How she missed him every day.
“Mijo, we can’t be there,” she recalled. “It’s impossible. He was crying. ‘Mommy, I miss you.’ We miss you. We’re so proud of you.”
Armando’s graduation 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 and then go to college. They shouldn’t have had to share it over the phone, he said.
“I think about the things that they told me,” he said. “And the things I wish I could have told them. It’s been three years. I’ve missed out on a lot of ‘I love yous,’ hugs and talks with them. I miss them a lot. I miss them so much. There are days when I try to remember their faces, and sometimes I can’t.”
Queens University in Charlotte gave Armando a Presidential Scholarship, the school’s top merit scholarship. He got straight A’s this past semester.
His calls home are not typical of an excelling student and his proud parents, however.
They revolve around money, though not for him. It’s his mom and dad struggling to make ends meet, who sometimes must choose between putting food on the table or buying shoes for one of the kids.
“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’d sometimes refuse to eat, knowing that his parents and sisters were struggling to put food on the table.
Armando walked back to his old house recently after a conversation with his mom. He walked along the same street where he use to ride his green mountain bike for hours. He looked at the front door where his mom used to say goodbye to him when he left for school.
He thought about what she’d said on the phone: “If only it could be like it was.”
Armando has grown angrier over the last three years. He said he was mad at himself for not being able to do more for his family. He’s mad at his parents for the expectations they put on him. He’s mad at the country for creating the system his family is caught up in.
One afternoon last spring, he was walking into Walmart when a little Latino boy came out of the store riding in a buggy pushed by his father.
“It makes me happy because the kid is happy,” he recalled to a friend. “But it makes me sad because I don’t want the kid to ever have to feel the sadness – one of their parents is probably undocumented – and I don’t want them to ever have to go through what I went through.”
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 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.”
Proponents of greater immigration enforcement largely support the mass exodus of those who are in the country illegally. They say the parents are responsible for gambling with their children’s future by sneaking into the country illegally, knowing that they could be deported.
In a clear indication of the perilous path the immigration bill faces, many House Republicans think 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.
For Armando and his family, the argument on Capitol Hill is about their life, and the future of a family that had made its way in Charlotte’s growing immigrant community.
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. Valeria joined him last spring. She’s several years behind in school, and Armando is trying to help her improve her study habits.
Armando and the family he’s staying with considered bringing Maria Elena to live with them as well. Early in August they decided to do it, and Maria Elena arrived Aug. 18.
She’s starting the 10th grade at Charlotte Secondary School.
“A lot of times I feel like I have all the responsibility,” Armando said. “In the back of my head, I’ve told myself that after I’ve helped my family get back here and get settled that I’m leaving. I just want to go.”
His parents want him to lobby Congress.
And so he does.
On a recent morning, Armando 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, which, if it passes, probably would allow him to petition for his father to return even though he’d been deported.
“I still can’t deal with my depression,” Armando said. “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, is a non-starter. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House wouldn’t take up the Senate bill or a similar comprehensive measure. Instead, leaders have begun to roll out a piecemeal approach, including crafting a bill to deal with children who were brought to the U.S. illegally and others that strengthen enforcement and border security.
Armando knows the uphill battle the immigration bill faces. 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, he thought, he could accomplish whatever he wanted.
“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.
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 the immigration bill passed the Senate.”
“That’s really good. Like,” Maria wrote. “Well I have to go now.”
“Bye Maria,” Armando typed. “I love you.”
“I love you,” she wrote.
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.