“Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” — old proverb with origins in the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans

The Trump administration has no qualms about its desire to make immigration tougher. Despite efforts to tighten the stream of immigrants to the U.S., this nation of laws guarantees rights even to undocumented immigrants.

In an ongoing series, the VCReporter will look at immigrants to the U.S. and specifically to Ventura County. Part I, “Risking it all,” presents six immigrants who spent at least some time in the U.S. without proper documentation, sharing their stories, from living in the shadows to the rich lives they have now. But even in the shadows, even if many of them kept silent about their residency status, they all worked hard and achieved great educational recognition, as guaranteed to them via the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, holding that states cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education on account of their immigration status. Coincidentally, in 1982, Future Leaders of America was founded in Oxnard as a means to serve Latino students who had been flailing in school or who suffered from certain societal ills that would halt their progress. And it was through Future Leaders of America that this story came to be, all of these people having gone through programs at the organization that gave them the confidence to pursue their dreams.

In 2014, then-President Barack Obama made March 31, César Chávez Day, a federally recognized holiday. Chávez, a social activist for the rights of farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, once lived in Oxnard. On April 2, in honor of Chávez, immigrant leaders and lawmakers, hosted by United Farm Workers, will lead the Oxnard César Chávez/Resist Trump March starting at 10 a.m. at 937 Cooper Road in Oxnard.

To learn more about Future Leaders of America, go to www.futureleadersnow.org or call Eder Gaona-Macedo at 642-6208. If you want your immigrant story or your family’s to be considered for The Immigrant Story series, email michael@vcreporter.com.

Born in Tepochica, Guerrero, Mexico
Came to Santa Ana, California, undocumented at 4 years old in 1992
Undocumented from 1992 to 2009
Applied for green card/permanent resident status in 2001, granted in 2009
U.S. citizen in October 2016
B.A. in political science UCLA, M.P.A. at Columbia University
Executive director of Future Leaders of American

I came here with my single mom, younger brother and aunt with kids. We grew up — if you think of a campsite, no paved roads, no electricity. It’s still kind of like that — lack of economic opportunity. My mother had a restaurant but wasn’t able to keep up with it. My mom and her sister had dreams that they wanted to fulfill. Essentially, the only way for us [to come to the U.S.] was to run across San Ysidro. I remember a little bit, [in particular] a lollipop. What’s this lollipop mean? It turned out to be a Blow Pop. I was about to faint as we were trying to cross the border; it gave me some energy. … EDER’s STORY CONTINUED HERE

Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
Came to Carpinteria at 7 years old in 1999
Currently undocumented
Low priority enforcement under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
Graduated from Oxnard High School
A.A. in psychology at Oxnard College
B.A. in Spanish and Latin American Studies at UCSB
Advocated for immigrant rights through IDEAS at UCSB
Youth coordinator at a social justice nonprofit in Oxnard

My parents had both attended trade schools in Jalisco, Mexico, after graduating from high school and had held jobs as a secretary and bookkeeper before I was born. Both of my parents came from humble homes that did not have any accumulated wealth so, in a sense, they were both part of the first generation in their families to have access to formal schooling. My mom dedicated most of her working years in Mexico as a small business owner; my dad tried his luck at a variety of jobs, among them purse/handbag, jewelry maker and food delivery truck driver. … GABRIELA’s STORY CONTINUED HERE.

Born in Santa Ana Maya, Michoacán, Mexico
Came to Santa Paula undocumented at 4 years old in 1992
Undocumented from 1992 to 2015
Green card/permanent resident through spouse sponsor in 2015
Initiated Dreamers without Borders in Ventura County in 2008
B.A. in Spanish at CLU 
Former executive director for CLUE-VC
Independent consultant in Westlake Village

My parents made the difficult decision to move to California when my father’s accounting job was threatened by dirty politics. After a local election, the incoming mayor would be cleaning out city hall positions to fill them with friends and relatives. My father’s impending unemployment, combined with job scarcity, and my mother’s delicate health after three life-threatening pregnancies meant that my parents would soon find it extremely difficult to feed our little family. With the help of my maternal grandparents and without much time to prepare, I made my way to Santa Paula with my mother and 1-year-old sister. We crossed the border in Tijuana. My father stayed behind two more months to get his affairs in order and to say painful goodbyes to his entire family and lifelong friends before joining us. We were very lucky to have a support system and a place to rest as soon as we arrived. Everything was different, including the food, but there was no time to sit with doubts about our new life. We had to quickly integrate. I started kindergarten immediately, my father went to work in farm labor and my mother was suddenly responsible for a crowded household of 12. There was never a quiet place to do homework but I cherish memories of living in a full house. … JUANA’s STORY CONTINUED HERE.

Born in San Salvador, El Salvador
Came to Oxnard undocumented at 14 years old in 1994
Undocumented from 1994 to 1995
Humanitarian parole visa in 1995
Green card/permanent resident through fiancé sponsor in 1999
U.S. citizen in 2008
Three A.A.’s at Oxnard College
B.S. in sociology at CSUN 
Counselor at Ventura College EOPS

After my parents got divorced, we lost our house and my mom lost her business as a seamstress. When my father moved to Guatemala and my mother moved to the U.S., my mom worked as a seamstress and she got TPS (temporary protected status) through the amnesty program because of civil war in El Salvador. My Mom left me with my maternal grandmother, who only had four kid at a very young age, including my mom. At one point, 11 of us lived there, all of us sharing three beds. We went from semi-middle class to worst of the worst in El Salvador, an abundance of poverty. I was robbed four times walking home from the market. I still remember one time, we only had two tortillas among four of us and that’s all we were going to eat. She gave me the most before giving to my uncles. They would provide for me first, though I wasn’t super well fed. Three years later I left that house and moved to my paternal grandmother’s house. I only lasted one year there before I decided I wanted to be with my mom again. My paternal grandma had raised seven kids. Grandmother was getting older and suffered a lot her entire life — she was an orphan herself. She was not in the best nurturing state of mind to raise another adolescent. She motivated me to leave the country and be with my mom. … KENYA’s STORY CONTINUED HERE.

Born in Agua Caliente, Jalisco, Mexico
Came to Oxnard on student visa at 14 years old in 1998
Undocumented from 1999 to 2001
U.S. citizen in 2001
B.A. at UCSB
Master’s in counseling and guidance at CLU
Assistant principal, Oxnard High School
Board member for Future Leaders of America

I had five older brothers, three of them living here already, documented and working — two in the fields, one in a factory. My parents came to visit them and my dad, who had worked in the fields in Modesto from 16 until he was almost 60, suffered a debilitating illness on that trip. I was living with my grandpa and two brothers in Mexico when they [my parents] said, we are moving to California. Why? My father was not doing well and it was not a choice. As a young teenager, I came to the U.S. on a student visa. My parents were residents but I just had a student visa. I was 15 to 16. [My student visa] at some point had no more renewals — it expired — and I couldn’t travel back to Mexico. It was really hard, I lost my grandpa and I wasn’t able to see him. I was afraid to come back. In 2001, a law passed for us to be able to have documents, as [children] of U.S. citizens under the age of 18. My dad was a resident and U.S. citizen. My dad immigrated at 16 as undocumented. He was born in 1936 and, in 1952, he crossed the border, came with one cousin, went to Modesto and got a job in the fields. He became really close with his employers and they helped him to become a resident. … OSCAR’s STORY CONTINUED HERE.

Born in rural outskirts of Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico
Came to Oxnard undocumented at 4 years old in 1991
Undocumented from 1991 to 1992
Green card through father sponsor in 1992
U.S. citizen in 2001
B.S. in business at Loyola Marymount University
Master’s in public policy at Pepperdine University
District director for Assemblywoman Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara
School board member at Hueneme Elementary School District

My dad began coming to the U.S. under the Bracero Program in the 1960s. When that program ended, my dad would cross the border undocumented. He would come to the U.S. for about three years, sending money back for my mom and the rest of my siblings. My older brothers and sisters wouldn’t see my dad for three years at a time because it was such a process to cross the border; it cost money and the trek was difficult. It was always a risk crossing and possibly getting caught by Border Patrol. … VIANEY’s STORY CONTINUED HERE.

Full circle

Once-in-a-lifetime reunion between writer and long lost woman

by Michael Sullivan michael@vcreporter.com

With the recent call for cracking down on undocumented immigrants coming from the White House, it had become overly apparent that now was the time to revisit the topic after my VCReporter cover story in 2009. To find local immigrants, I contacted Future Leaders of America to help connect me with willing participants. The response was quick and relatively plentiful — six in total — but there was a special woman who would flip the story on its head.

When Juana Tapia arrived at the office on March 16 for a portrait shoot, I led her to a pop-up studio and I told her that I would reconnect with her when she was done. I had overheard her saying that she thought she would be nervous but that she was instead excited to be a part of this story and to have her photos taken. She was kind and somewhat shy but there was something about her that was oddly familiar.

Once her shoot was wrapped up, I saw her in the studio and started to ask her for more details about her arrival to the States. She said she walked over as a young child but didn’t remember that exact moment. I asked her about where she had been living. She said Santa Paula. I asked her if she went to California Lutheran University. She said yes. I then asked her if she had a dog, a feisty one at that. She said yes but her dog was old now.

I realized, as if some epiphany had hit me, that it was the reserved woman I had met eight years ago for my story “Life under the Radar” on undocumented immigrants. She was the woman who asked to remain anonymous, that I not take pictures of her face, her purse or even the windows in her room for fear she would be identified. She was the woman who I lost touch with for almost a decade. And while she didn’t disclose to me right away that we had already met years prior, she said that she knew all along who I was and she wanted to see if I would recognize her. It took a few moments, but she was a person I never truly forgot. In fact, the cover art for the 2009 story that included her sister’s drawing still hangs in my office today.

As we chatted, she relayed a profound sadness over how she had lost touch with the other undocumented woman in my story who had come to the U.S. as a child and had been working in the restaurant industry back then. Tapia said she only knew two people then who were also undocumented and that it was a secret life that so few would understand. She didn’t speak much of what caused the friendship to end, but it was obvious that the loss had hurt her.

It’s been about a year and a half since Tapia was naturalized and 25 years since she came to this country undocumented. At the office and now in a new realm of reality between her and me, she was free to be Juana Tapia and no longer had to hide her identity. She was emboldened to be her true self and to be true to herself, rich with life. It was a truly stunning moment and a reunion that surely won’t escape the memory any time soon.