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Undocumented youth describe migration to U.S.

Nerve-wracking journeys, separation from family are common

Dreamers' stories often begin with migration to this country, including tales of painful family separations, physical hardships and deprivation. Three local youth told the Weekly about their experiences.

Javier

Javier, a Sequoia High School graduate and San Jose State University senior, said his family faced escalating gang rivalries in their home region of Michoacan, Mexico. As a child, he remembers numerous violent incidents, including shootings, beheadings and dead bodies in the street and hanging from bridges.

Javier's mother was terrified that Javier, her eldest, would be recruited by his uncles, both of whom were leaders in the local gang. Javier said he was drawn to his uncles' power, money and weapons.

"I looked up to them. That was to be my fate, most likely."

As gang warfare continued, several of Javier's family members were tortured and killed, including his godfather, who, like Javier's father, was not involved in gang activity but was related by blood to gang leaders.

"He was a great guy but with the wrong surname," Javier said.

Javier's parents planned their family's escape. His father left first, risking death if discovered in flight by the rival gangs, but eventually made it safely to California. Meanwhile, the rest of Javier's family lived with his grandmother and awaited their turn to flee.

A few months later, a gang shooting occurred on the street in front of Javier's 3-year-old brother, Alex; he was badly traumatized, prompting his mother to accelerate her departure -- with Alex only. The older children would be sent for later.

Javier's mother and brother were caught at the border four times, jailed and sent back to Mexico. On the fifth try, a month after they had left home, the two made it across.

Reaching Redwood City, they reunited with Javier's father, who was living with relatives and working for a landscape company. His mother found a job on a taco truck. Eight months later they had enough money to send for Javier, then 13, and his two younger siblings. A local "coyote" was paid to lead the three of them, along with about 15 others from their region.

The first leg of the trip was a week-long bus ride.

"It was a horrible experience, a very old bus with an overflowing, stinking toilet," Javier said.

The bus dropped them in a small town near the Arizona border, where they stocked up on food and supplies, paying exorbitant prices exacted by profiteering merchants. The town's police also stopped them, demanding cash bribes. The taxi driving them to the border required another large sum. Javier's grandmother had sewn extra cash into their clothes for these occasions.

For three days after that the group walked through open desert towards Phoenix. Javier's younger brother soon became exhausted, so Javier ended up carrying both of their backpacks. Javier's shoes -- huaraches ("a huge mistake," he said) -- quickly wore out, and he lost all his toenails. On the third night, they were picked up by a truck and told to lie down on top of each other in the back -- one layer vertical, the next horizontal -- with a tarp over them to avoid detection.

After driving all night, they spent another day walking in extreme heat, short on water. Finally reaching their destination, a river outside Phoenix, they swam and ate food left behind by others passing through.

Javier smiled describing this moment: "We had a real buffet."

Another truck then drove them to Phoenix, where they stayed overnight at a "safe house" and were provided new clothes. The final leg was spent, again lying in layers, in the back of a mini-van driven by their coyote non-stop from Phoenix to East Palo Alto. They pulled into the Best Buy parking lot, where Javier's parents met them, paid the driver and collected their three kids.

"Everyone was crying," Javier said.

It had been two years since he'd seen his dad and one year since his mom and Alex had left.

"It was a strange feeling," he said. "We had to get to know each other again."

Angelica

Angelica, now 25 and a University of California, Santa Cruz graduate, was 12 when she arrived in the U.S. She drove with her mother and younger brother, age 8, through the border at Tijuana using false papers based on others' identities and purporting a lawful reason for entry.. They had spent hours memorizing the details of the adopted names and other personal details contained in the documents.

"It was nerve-wracking," she said.

Angelica's biggest fear, however, was for her baby brother, not yet 1 year old. He was making the same journey but separately, with a paid stranger who had legal papers that covered both the woman and an infant her brother's age, enabling the stranger to claim the baby as her own.

Angelica's mother explained that families often need to split up while crossing.

Angelica worried about what might happen to her infant brother. The stranger was supposed to call as soon as they made it over the border. But would she?

It took two long days -- waiting at a "safe house" near the border -- before the call finally came. The moment when her brother was handed back to her mother -- and the great relief and joy that brought -- remains a vivid memory for Angelica.

The four continued to East Palo Alto to join Angelica's father and older sister, who had left months earlier to find work and were staying with relatives. In Mexico, Angelica's parents had been farmers but could no longer make a living from the land due to an economy hit hard by the effects of the North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other forces of globalization.

Leaving Mexico was a "sweet and sour" experience, Angelica said. She wanted to see her father and sister again, but she was also very sad to leave behind -- perhaps forever -- her grandmother, other relatives, friends and home. Also she was fearful. She had been told that her family would be considered "illegal" and that she might have to stay in hiding and not go out much.

Her father already was working long hours as a gardener; her mother would be cleaning houses every day with her aunt. Angelica would be attending a new school, where she knew no one and could not speak the language. She steeled herself for tough times ahead and tried to keep faith that it would all work out.

Luis

Luis, a 2015 Sequoia High School graduate, now attending the University of the Pacific on a full scholarship, lived in a small town in Mexico as a young child with his grandmother and mother but not his father.

"Your daddy's in the north; he's up there working," his mother would tell him.

At first he accepted that explanation, but over time, he realized that he wanted what other children had -- a father living with them.

At age 7, he got his wish. Luis recited details of his journey north at a Sequoia student-run Dream Club conference last February (See "A safe haven to dream").

"(My mother and I) packed a backpack each, and within a couple of days, we found ourselves in Tijuana, waiting to cross the border. I was to be sent with a man I did not know, pretend that he was my father and be forced to memorize obscure facts: a fake birthday, a fake address, fake mom and dad's name, the color of a fake house. There was a list two or three pages long. I thought it was the worst thing ever. I couldn't even remember my own fake name.

"My mom was going through a similar time. She was sending off her only son with a man she did not know. While I was waiting for my father in the safety of some stranger's home, she was enduring a crossing through the desert, miles of walking, lack of water, food and suffering from fatigue.

"Aug. 1, 2004, was my first day in the United States. The day I met my father. I vividly remember. There were two men, my father and his friend, and tears came to my eyes because I did not know who was who. There were two men standing before me, and I could not tell who my father was. For all I knew, they could have both been him.

"I had lived my life without a father, seven, almost eight, years. And now he was there by my side, and I did not know how to feel about that. What I did know was that I no longer had my grandmother -- she had had to stay behind in Mexico -- and that my mom was somewhere out in the desert, trying to reunite her family."

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Read more:

Growing up undocumented

College adviser to Dreamers: Leverage strengths, get creative

Undocumented immigrants: key statistics

Pursuing the rocky path to college

Organizations, resources supporting undocumented youth

Federal and state laws expand opportunities for Dreamers

The Dreamer social movement

Educators discuss undocumented youths' challenges, resilience

A safe haven to dream

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Also find these and other stories on our Storify page

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