In March 2003, when Elizabeth Gonzalez was 17, she paid a coyote $3000 to lead her across the Mexican border and into the United States.
Elizabeth was told that getting into the country would be simple — a fake ID would be provided. She was encouraged to dress up and to bring a suitcase filled with her things. Gonzalez left her home in Acapulco and traveled to the border town of Nogales, in Sonora, Mexico. From there, she would enter the United States.
Elizabeth talks life in Rosarito and San Diego
Elizabeth had a plan: once safely across the border, the coyotes would bring her to Phoenix, Arizona, where her sister, Carla, a legal U.S. citizen who lived in Oxnard, California, would pick her up.
“The day I was to cross, the coyotes said, ‘Who told you that you were going to get a fake ID? You are going to sneak across like everyone else.’ My suitcase stayed with them.”
Elizabeth’s accent is thick, but her English is good. She retells her story from her sister’s dress shop, a block from the beach in Rosarito, Mexico. Intricately designed quinceañera dresses hang on the walls.
Frank and family. "At first, I was very angry. Now, I feel like I am in a better place with myself in Mexico."
Elizabeth says she was the only woman to cross in a group of five. It took three days to make it to Phoenix. At night, everyone stretched out in the desert. Elizabeth had a hard time sleeping. She tried to separate herself from the men, but she also wanted to be near them, because she was frightened.
Frank talks about prison life
In Arizona, the connection that was to take the group to Phoenix never showed up. The five immigrants were left in the desert to fend for themselves.
“One of the coyotes said he was going to walk and get the truck to drive us to Phoenix. [The others] told us to wait for him or go on our own and figure it out. They said, ‘Good luck,’ and gave us some water.”
Elizabeth waited a couple of days for the guy to come back with a truck. One of the men in her group told her that another coyote was leading 80 people from different places in Mexico. Some of the guys in that group, he said, wanted to abuse the girls. Elizabeth freaked out and took off on her own. While she was walking, a U.S. Border Patrol truck stopped and pulled up beside her. The agents asked where she was going.
“They said, ‘¿A donde vas?’ I told them I was walking to Oxnard to see family. I was hoping they’d send me back home to Mexico, but they told me I was free to go. I wished they had arrested me. I was starving and dirty. I wanted out of there. I wanted to cry. Everyone talks about the dream in the United States. When you get there, you discover that the dream doesn’t exist. I was disappointed.”
Not long after the Border Patrol stopped Elizabeth, a man driving by stopped and offered a ride. He spoke Spanish.
“He knew that the area was a place that illegals cross and get lost. He drives around and picks them up, feeds them, and puts them in contact with their families for cash. He steals them away from their coyotes to make money.”
The man took Elizabeth to his house. She met his wife. They gave her something to eat and allowed her to shower.
“I called my sister, and she was, like, ‘Where have you been? We’ve been so worried. Our mom is going to have a heart attack.’”
Carla, Elizabeth’s sister, made arrangements for the man to drive Elizabeth to Oxnard. She told him to feed Elizabeth and buy her clothes.
“It took 15 hours for him to drive me to Oxnard. He wouldn’t let me out of the car until he counted the $3000 he charged my sister to drive me there. At first he wanted $5000, but my sister talked him down.”
Once in Oxnard, Elizabeth started working at her sister’s dress shop.
“At first, I didn’t like it in the United States. I thought I was going to go to high school and all my dreams would come true.”
A few weeks after Elizabeth arrived in the United States, Carla started traveling. She left Elizabeth in charge of the store by herself for an entire month. Elizabeth did not speak English.
“[But] by the time Carla came back, I spoke English and could read it. She was, like, ‘How did you do it?’ Every time a customer would come in and talk to me, I couldn’t understand what they were saying, so I would cry and cry. I got a notebook. Every single word I would hear I would write down and ask Spanish-speakers what it meant and how to spell it in English. That’s how I started learning the words.”
Elizabeth recalls that one of her biggest struggles in the U.S. was dealing with other Latinos.
“It’s so sad, you see Latino people, your own Mexican people, and when you speak to them, they say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.’ I thought, You bitches. I knew they spoke Spanish. They used to laugh at me. I hated it.”
In 2004, a year after Elizabeth’s arrival, she and Carla got into a fight. Elizabeth then moved to Salt Lake City to live with her brother.
“In Utah, I got a Centura ID card, so I could open a bank account. My brother took me to a driving school. Using my IRS number and proof of my home address, I was able to get a legal ID that would last for ten years. After three months of driving school, I got a privilege card for driving. But I couldn’t get a real driver’s license because I don’t have a Social Security card. I bought my first car. With the Utah ID, I was able to travel within the United States. I went to Washington and Atlanta.”
After six months in Utah, Elizabeth moved back to California to manage a new dress shop that her sister had opened in Fullerton. A few weeks after her arrival, someone stole Elizabeth’s purse. That was the end of both her driving privilege card and the Utah ID.
In March 2006, Elizabeth started dating online. She became serious with a Salvadoran man named Aldo. He lived in Athens, Georgia, and in April flew out to visit Elizabeth. He proposed on their first date. Elizabeth said yes. Two months later they were married.
“We got married on Tuesday, June 24. We have a saying here in Mexico: ‘Don’t get married or move on a Tuesday. It’s bad luck.’”
At the beginning of their relationship, Elizabeth and Aldo were happy. They lived in a trailer park in Athens. Elizabeth got pregnant right away. But then Aldo started working long hours, and Elizabeth was lonely. She decided to move back to Oxnard to live with her sister. A few months later, Aldo joined her. They rented an apartment. Their son was born. For a long time, they lived as a family. They joined a local church, and Elizabeth taught Sunday school, joined the choir, and attended Bible studies.
“After our son went to preschool, my husband said, ‘It’s been five years in Oxnard. I want to go back to Athens. We can get a mobile home and not have to pay rent. You won’t need to work. I can get my old job back.’”
With some hesitation, Elizabeth agreed. The packed up their truck and went out on the road. They left on July 19, 2011. The next day, their truck broke down in Texas. They stopped at a repair shop to have it fixed.
“I had a feeling that something was going to happen. My GPS was telling us to take a strange route. I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but I decided we should just keep going. All of a sudden, I saw the orange cones and a big sign that said, ‘Prepare to show papers, Immigration.’ I thought, Oh, my God, this is the end! I started praying that we would pass through without a problem.”
One of the Border Patrol dogs started sniffing around their truck. Elizabeth and Aldo were told to pull over and present identification. Elizabeth had only her consular ID. The Border Patrol asked if she had another form of ID.
“All I had was a Mexican passport. They said, ‘So, you are illegally here? Get out of the car and bring your baby.’”
Elizabeth was taken into an office, where eight agents bombarded her with questions. They asked her name, her nationality, where she was born, and how long she’d been in the U.S. They wanted to know where she’d crossed and when, what her father’s name was, and if she could prove that she was married. Elizabeth handed over her marriage certificate and her son’s birth certificate.
“They took copies of everything. They made many, many phone calls. They asked the same questions over and over. I asked what was going to happen. They told me that they could deport me. They also said that they could deport my husband because he was driving me and I was illegal. I said, ‘I know the law. I don’t know what the problem is. We are married. We have a son that was born in the United States.’ I told them to let Aldo go.”
Elizabeth requested a lawyer, but the request was denied. She asked to make a phone call. The agents said no.
“I asked to use the bathroom. They took me to it. It was a cell. It had a big silver door. You can’t hear anything there. They locked me inside for 30 minutes. I was knocking and knocking on the door, begging to get out. I started crying. Finally, they came and got me.”
They took Elizabeth’s photo and fingerprints. They asked if she was pregnant, or on medication. She told them no. Again, she asked to see a lawyer. Again, she was refused.
“I told them that my record was clean. I hadn’t ever done anything illegal, other than cross the border.”
When Elizabeth retells the events of that day, she sobs. Tears roll down her face, ruining her makeup.
“They made me sign a paper to deport me. I said, ‘What if I don’t sign?’ They told me it didn’t matter if I signed or not, they would still send me back to Mexico. They told me they spoke to Washington. ‘They want you out now,’ they said. I was in shock.”
Elizabeth was told that if she didn’t sign the paperwork, it could take days, weeks, or months before she saw a judge. She would wait in jail.
“I didn’t want to be separated from my son for that long, so I signed the papers. They told me I could take my son with me to Mexico. I didn’t want to, because he didn’t have a U.S. passport, and he wouldn’t be able to come back to America. I told my husband to keep going and take our son. I was crying so much. I was so mad at Aldo. I didn’t want to hug or kiss him. I just wanted my baby. Aldo left with our son. At 5:00 p.m., agents from Mexico came for me.”
Soon after, they brought her to Mexico.
“I used to tell my mom that I would never go back to Mexico, and that the only way I would return was if I was deported. My mouth gets me into trouble. I never thought I would return to Mexico the way I did. It was over a big bridge into Ciudad Juárez. There were about 1000 other people waiting to cross.”
Elizabeth asked the agent how long it would take to get to Tijuana from Ciudad Juárez. Her dad still lived in TJ, and she planned to reunite with him. The agent told her it would take two hours by plane or several days by bus.
“It started raining hard. I got a taxi. The driver took me to the airport. He said, ‘Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t tell anyone what happened to you. People will kidnap you to get money from your family.’ He told me to stay in the airport because there were security guards there. It was the only safe place in the city.”
Elizabeth slept in the airport that night. She arrived in TJ on July 22. It had been eight years since she’d last seen her dad.
“It was devastating. My dad said, ‘God knows what is best for you. Be strong. We will get your baby and family together again.”
It took Elizabeth weeks to recover from the shock of being back in Mexico.
“I didn’t want to go outside. I was scared. I didn’t feel secure. In the U.S., I saw on the news how dangerous Tijuana is.”
It took two months to get her son back. There was a delay in obtaining his passport. She spoke to him every day over the phone. He cried and begged to come to Mexico. The day he arrived was a happy reunion.
“For many reasons, I don’t want to go back to the United States. I can wait until my son turns 21 and get citizenship through him, or I can go illegally to be with my husband. Aldo and I separated. The only good thing that America brought me was my son. I want to stay here in Mexico.”
Elizabeth is still angry about her deportation.
“I wish that they had had more heart. They didn’t care; they just kicked me out. I have adjusted. I like it here. In the U.S., I was in constant worry that I was going to be deported. I feel free now.”
The first time Frank saw a white man was the day his mom’s boyfriend showed up to smuggle him across the U.S. border. Frank was six years old and lived with his grandmother in a village near Tepic, in central Mexico. The boyfriend brought along his own four children from Fullerton, California. He tried to convince Frank that entry into the U.S. would be an adventure, not an illegal activity.
Frank was scared. He didn’t know any English. He was anxious about reuniting with his mother, of whom he had no memory. He’d been a toddler when she left for the United States.
“It was a 32-hour drive from my village to the U.S. border. We stopped overnight at a fancy beach resort. I had never seen anything like it. We collected shells on the beach.”
Frank and I are sitting in plastic lawn chairs on the front patio of his employers’ Rosarito home, while he tells the tale of his entrance into the United States. A shaggy white-and-brown pit bull roams the patio and barks to get our attention. “Shush, Marilyn!” Frank says while petting the dog’s head. Frank is wearing a baseball cap, a Sublime band T-shirt, and cargo pants. Soft-spoken and serious, he reminds me of my junior high school history teacher.
They arrived at the border after midnight. The boyfriend instructed Frank to feign sleep. When they drove up to the post, the boyfriend told the border agents that Frank was his son. The lie went unquestioned. Frank was in.
“I remember the bright lights on the freeway and the bridges. When we drove into L.A., I thought it was the most beautiful city in the world.”
Frank had high hopes for his reunion with his mother. In his mind, she was nurturing and warm.
“My grandmother was very stern. She gave me one too many whippings. I was expecting my mother to be different. I thought she would be soft. She was anything but. I was disappointed. We didn’t speak Spanish because my mom really wanted me to learn English. She wanted me to be perfect at it. She would beat me in order for me to get the words right.”
Frank arrived in the United States during the summer, and by the time school started in the fall, he was fluent in English.
Shortly after his arrival, Frank’s mom and her boyfriend broke up. He and his mom moved from an upper-class neighborhood in Fullerton to San Pedro, where there was lots of gang activity.
“My mother worked harder than anyone I have ever met. She worked 14-hour days. She worked at a bakery and an old folks’ home. I used to go with her to her jobs. I would sweep and mop at the bakery. I played cards and read to the elderly. It kept me out of trouble, for a while.”
When Frank was seven, his mother paid a coyote to bring her other two sons over from Mexico. She wanted her boys to have opportunities she had not been afforded. The younger boys were three and five. After crossing the border, the coyotes made the boys stay with them an extra week. They demanded a sum of money larger than what had been originally specified. It took seven days for Frank’s mom to raise the funds.
“I was ecstatic when [my brothers] came. Before that, it was just me and my mom. She was going through a depression from breaking up with her boyfriend. She was drinking every day. Each night, I thought she was going to die.”
Frank did his best to take care of his brothers. His mom worked during the day, and the boys’ care was left to Frank. They lived in a duplex across the street from Frank’s elementary school. Periodically, he’d leave school to check on his brothers.
“I got in trouble for ditching. My teacher thought I was a bad kid. I knew I was doing what I had to do. I tried to be a dad to them.”
Despite spending nearly all of his childhood — and most of his adult life — in the United States, Frank never attempted to become a citizen. When in 1986 Ronald Reagan signed an immigration-reform bill granting amnesty to immigrants who’d entered the country before 1982, Frank’s mother filled out the paperwork for herself and her children. They all became residents but not citizens.
“I got a Social Security card and was able to get a driver’s license when I was a teenager. I didn’t try for citizenship.”
Frank’s decision not to become a U.S. citizen was deliberate, an attempt to honor his heritage.
“Growing up, my friends were all gang members. The people I hung around with believed that we should hold strong to Mexican pride. I got swept up in brown pride. I had fond memories of Mexico, my aunts and uncles there that I loved, the food, and the relaxed lifestyle. Growing up in the U.S. was rough. My mom was an alcoholic. She started dating a drug addict and dealer. He was a loser. The cops were always at our house because of him. America didn’t look so good to me. I joined the Navy after high school and served for seven years. All the Filipinos in the service with me were getting their U.S. papers. If you try to get your papers in the military, they aren’t going to say no to you. It would’ve been easy. But I still didn’t do it because of my brown pride. In hindsight, it was foolishness.”
When Frank got out of the military, he started drinking heavily. He was going through a divorce, and his ex-wife had moved out of state with his young son. Frank gambled, too. At a time when he was heavily in debt, he was approached in a casino by a man who said he could help: “All you have to do is smuggle someone across the border, and you’ll make $1000 per person.”
It sounded like easy money.
“At the time, in my deliriousness of gambling and drinking, I didn’t consider the penalties. A couple of white guys were working for the same people, and one of them got caught while trying to take a guy across. He got a $5000 fine. It never sunk in that my residency could be in danger. I thought that if I got caught, maybe I would be in jail for a week or two. No big deal.”
The man from the casino put a Chevy Blazer in Frank’s name. Frank was to use the Blazer for smuggling. Frank’s girlfriend, a woman who lived in Tijuana, was against the idea. She begged Frank not to do it. He assured her that it would be fine.
“The night everything happened was like a movie. My girlfriend and I fell asleep. I woke up at 2:00 a.m. to go get the car. I walked three blocks away from my girlfriend’s apartment to get a cab [to where the car was waiting]. I turned around and saw her running after me. She was whistling and yelling. She was barefoot and still in her pajamas. She grabbed me and hugged me. She told me not to go. It was almost like she knew it was the end. She said, ‘I love you’ and started to cry.”
Frank got into a cab, leaving his girlfriend behind. He met his employers in a Tijuana parking lot at 3:00 a.m. A few days earlier, he’d given them the Blazer, so that they could install a compartment where a person could hide.
“When they gave me the car, I couldn’t see the compartment. There were no extra bumps, nothing. They did a great job. It was a small Blazer, and I was thinking, There is no room. How is someone in there? I never saw the inside of the compartment. They rushed me.”
Frank got in the car and started driving toward the border. He had a newspaper in his hand, an attempt to look low-key, just an average guy crossing into the United States. He was only ten cars from the guard post when Border Patrol surrounded him.
“Everyone was coming at me from different angles. I had Border Patrol coming from both sides and from the front and the back of my car. I was the mark. I was set up. I chalk it up to stupidity. They set people up like that to get drugs across. They’ll call and say there is a car in lane 16 smuggling someone in and, meanwhile, at the same time, on lane 4 there is a car going across with kilos of cocaine. All the focus will be on the car with the illegal person. The drug car gets in without a problem. Smuggling drugs makes more money than smuggling people. Looking back, when I picked up the car, they were sweating. They wouldn’t even look me in the eye.”
A Border Patrol agent shouted at Frank to show his driver’s license, registration, and to hand over his keys. Frank was still trying to keep his cool. He was optimistic that maybe they wouldn’t figure out he had a person hiding in a compartment in his back seat. They didn’t open the compartment, not then. But when Frank stepped out of the car, he was handcuffed. Reality set in.
“It was a stunning situation. I thought, Okay, I am in trouble, but I can handle jail for a few weeks.”
The agent told Frank he was looking at eight years in prison and deportation.
“I started crying. I called my girlfriend. Two hours later, I was told I would do three years in jail.”
Frank ended up serving two years, after which he was deported to Mexico. At the time of the trial, Frank’s public defender urged him to plead guilty.
“He told me I had two people in my car, not one. I thought he was lying and they were trying to stick it to me. He showed me the pictures. Sure enough, I had two guys in my car when I attempted to cross. When I got the car, the compartment was sealed. I never saw who or what was in there. It could have been meth or cocaine or a dead body and I wouldn’t have known. I just thought I was crossing one person over. That was the agreement. I was naive. I was floored. Two guys! How did they even fit in there? They could have suffocated and died. What would that have made me? I deserved everything I was getting.”
Frank had been in prison for a month when a white guy arrived who’d been arrested for the same reason — attempted smuggling of a person.
“He said, ‘I’ll be out in a week.’ When his defender came to talk to him, he learned that not only did they put a person in his car, but they also put kilos of cocaine. Having cocaine changed everything. When his lawyer showed him the pictures, he was devastated. He did eight years in prison. That’s when I realized I was lucky to be doing only two years.”
The judge in Frank’s case didn’t want to deport him.
“The judge was brokenhearted. I could almost see him crying over my case. I had a clean record and had served seven years in the United States Navy. I was told that, in my case, they didn’t have the judge’s discretion. They would have to go by the law. I found out, if I would’ve said, when they first caught me, that the guys in my car were relatives, I would have just gotten a fine. It’s not considered smuggling if it’s family.”
For a long time, Frank believed he had a fighting chance to remain in the United States. He hired a lawyer to fight the deportation.
“It didn’t help that my lawyer was terrible. She said that if I paid her $2000, she could get me out of prison. ‘You’ll be fine,’ she told me. ‘I’ll get you out.’ So I paid her. I kept calling her, and she kept ignoring me. Several of the people in prison with me had her as a lawyer, too. They had nothing but bad things to say about her. I started going to the library every day. I researched everything there was to know about deportation cases. That’s when I realized that there was no way I could win my case. I had no chance.”
It would have taken Frank years to fight his criminal case and another couple of years to fight the deportation. He gave up.
“I said, ‘Forget it. I want out of prison.’ I decided to take my chances in Mexico. I got out a year early.”
The day Frank was released from prison, he was bused from Arizona to the U.S./Tijuana border. He was led handcuffed into Mexico and let free in Tijuana.
“It was really scary. I have always known how to make money in the States. In Mexico, you don’t know how you are going to work. I even applied to a warehouse in Tijuana, and they said, ‘You don’t have schooling here. We can’t hire you.’ Even if they could have, I would’ve gotten only $60 a week.”
Frank says that his first day back was eye-opening. Before his arrest, he’d met a woman in TJ (they are now married) and started a serious relationship. She had two children from a previous relationship, and she and Frank had a daughter together. Frank helped support the family, sending money a couple of times a month.
“When I got arrested, [my girlfriend] had no income. When I was in jail, she turned to prostitution. People told me what she was doing, but I didn’t believe it.”
Frank’s first stop in Mexico was his girlfriend’s house.
“When I got there, no one was watching the kids. They looked bad, like little Ethiopian kids. When my girlfriend got home that night, she was dressed like a prostitute. She told me she had to go back to work for a little while. She didn’t get back until the next morning, and she was wasted drunk. It was really sad. She was a mess. The first couple of months in Mexico were really hard on me. I’d been deported, and on top of that, I was dealing with a woman who didn’t care about her kids, herself, nothing.”
It took Frank awhile to settle into a job.
”No one wanted to hire me. In Mexico, if you are over 30, no one wants to hire you. I was 34. All help wanted is for [people] 18 to 25. It’s just that way here. When I first got here, I couldn’t speak Spanish at all. I felt like a foreigner. I took Spanish in high school and failed it. The Spanish I knew was gangster Spanish, street stuff. I knew all kinds of derogatory words. When I started courting my wife, she used to say my Spanish was horrible and make fun of me. She would mimic my voice.”
Frank didn’t have any Mexican paperwork. He didn’t have an ID or a birth certificate. He had to start from scratch. He began selling doughnuts on the street. One of his neighbors had also been recently deported. He’d worked at Winchell’s in San Diego and had their doughnut recipe.
“This guy is the best doughnut-maker around. As a matter of fact, his doughnuts are better than the ones they sell at Winchell’s. He let me borrow his pans, so I could start selling them. They could only fit 30 doughnuts, which I sold for a peso each. I had to pay my neighbor half of what I made, about $10 a day. [What was left] supported three kids, my girlfriend, and me. It was humbling. It was something I had to do. I used to blow $3000 in a casino in one day in the U.S. Now, every penny is counted. I have to hold on to everything.”
Frank eventually landed a job at Telvista, the largest telemarketing company in TJ. He worked there for six months. It was a high-stress job. Eventually, he met an American man from his church who runs a robo-call company out of his home in Rosarito. He hired Frank. Frank married his girlfriend and moved to Rosarito with her and the kids. It proved be a more relaxing community than Tijuana.
“I‘ve been doing robo-calls with Conrad, my boss, ever since. It’s less stressful. It’s something I am good at. I am operations manager. We do robo-calling and political campaigns. We do commercials for Chicago, San Diego, and other cities. It keeps me connected to the U.S. I speak English all day.”
Frank has now lived in Mexico for four years. It took time to come to terms with the idea that he would never again live in the United States.
“If I could do things differently, I would’ve gotten my citizenship when I was in the Navy.”
Frank has a son and a brother he hasn’t seen since his deportation. After his incarceration, Frank’s youngest brother and mom filled out the proper paperwork, and they are now U.S. citizens, but his middle brother has also been deported. He works for the same robo-call company as Frank.
“I’m okay with the way things ended up. At first, I was very angry. Now, I feel like I am in a better place with myself in Mexico. I am not drinking, I’m not in a casino. I am grateful I didn’t end up with ten years in prison. I have a purpose. I have my daughter and my stepchildren. I feel like this is why this happened. I got out of jail at the right time. God wanted me to intervene in my wife’s situation. He wanted me to grow. When I was in prison, I read the Bible a lot. I had reflection and meditation. That’s why I love Rosarito. It’s not like the U.S. It’s very, very relaxed.”
While Frank takes responsibility for being deported, he is angry over the way the U.S. legal system treats undocumented workers.
“The U.S. makes money when people cross the border. For every person in jail that is illegal, the government makes more money. When an illegal is in jail and gets transferred to Arizona, they bill the U.S. government $3000 for that transfer. It only costs, like, $100. They are making millions a year off of the damnation of these people. When an illegal immigrant crosses the border, they are going to do a minimum of six months. Why? When someone who doesn’t belong comes here, why detain their life for six months? Just send them back home.”
Frank would like to see more awareness in Tijuana about the dangers of crossing into the United States illegally.
“People in Mexico don’t know how serious it is. They don’t realize how much jail time they might do. Right after I was locked up, a new show called Homeland Security started. That show is perfect. It tells you what happens, how people get caught, and their consequences. There should be more shows like that, especially in TJ. There needs to be a campaign telling people not to do it.”