Leslie and Adilene Muñoz were upstairs when agents arrived. Marcos, who was downstairs, ran upstairs to tell them. Reached by phone, Leslie recalls, "My brother came upstairs and told me that immigration was downstairs. So I ran downstairs, and I saw a bunch of agents. Five in the kitchen, another 5 in the dining room, another 5 in the living room. There were more than 15 agents inside the house. It was shocking. Plus, they closed the whole street and searched the whole house like they were looking for some criminals."
As agents searched for him in the house, Abel, who had been out shopping, returned. Zulma remembers, "They immediately took his driver's license and put him in handcuffs and put him into a car."
"It was all done so unjustly," Leslie recalls. "Not only did they not let my dad come in, they wouldn't let us go out to say good-bye to him."
Zulma begins to cry again. "As they were taking us away, the kids were hanging on to me. They didn't want me to leave. I told them, 'We're going to be okay.' It's very sad. They don't care about the pain they're causing to children and families. I know they're doing their job, but it's a heartless job. I understand when they arrest people who are criminals and send them back. That's okay. But we're just hardworking people trying to make a living and get ahead and raise a family. We're a very united family. Abel has always provided everything, even if he had to work two or three jobs. I worked a few hours every week for the school district. I've always gotten involved in school things for my kids. I've always been there for my kids, and they need me."
After being held separately for four hours or so, the Muñozes were brought to the border and released into Mexico at 1:30 a.m., February 23. Seventeen and a half years had passed since the last time they were in their native country. They stayed, and continue to stay, with Zulma's mother in Soler neighborhood, just west of downtown Tijuana. The next day, they woke to a Tijuana far different from the one they remembered. "After 17 years," Abel says, "it's all different. It's another world. And now we're not from over there," he nods northward, "and we're not from over here either."
Now familia Muñoz straddles the international border. Mom and Dad live in Tijuana, where they're trying to make money by selling hot food at the weekly flea market in Zulma's mother's neighborhood. Meanwhile, their children continue to live in their Lomita house during the week and see their parents in Tijuana on weekends. Though under the supervision of an aunt, it's Leslie, a junior at Morse High School, who acts as primary caretaker during the week. "I have the whole responsibility to myself," she says, her voice choking on tears. "I have to be in charge of the bills. We're trying to rent our house, and I have to be in charge of appointments and showing the house to whoever comes. I have to be in charge of my sister and my brother to make sure they have what they need. I have to be in charge of groceries. Everything my parents did has become my responsibility. It's really hard because I never had to do this before. Overnight, I had to become an adult. Sometimes I just want to give up because it's so much that I have to do. I don't have time for myself anymore. But the thing that keeps me going is my brother and sister. They look up to me, and they need me to keep on going. So I keep on going."
Murray Hilts did not return phone calls.