Life after an illegal immigrant is sent home

MEXICO CITY — Ana Reyes walks briskly through a crowded neighborhood here, out of place among the provocatively dressed women of the night soliciting work in the middle of the day.

The 41-year-old mother of four slips through the entrance of a clothing store, its racks thick with the latest fashion, a sign on the door indicating the shop is hiring female assistants.

She approaches the manager about the job but is told it's only for women 20 to 30 years old.

Manager Maria Inez elaborates when prompted: "A younger girl will be able to bring more male customers into the store. She's too old."

Ten months after she was picked up by immigration officers in an early-morning raid of her Burien home and soon deported to Mexico, Reyes — jobless and broke — struggles to eke out the barest existence in the dirt-poor barrios of one of the world's biggest and most crowded cities.

After nearly two decades picking hops and fruit in Eastern Washington and cleaning hotel rooms near Seattle, she was among more than 870,000 Mexicans the U.S. government expelled from the country last year.

For all the attention illegal immigrants get in the U.S. — from those who believe they're a drain on social services to advocates who say they do the jobs Americans won't — little is known about what happens to them after they're ushered by U.S. immigration authorities through revolving doors into Mexico's border towns.

Once there, they get little help from their government. Many stay, others try to get back to their hometowns. For the most part no one tracks them — not their government, or the U.S., or their advocacy groups in the states. They become largely forgotten — along with the U.S.-born children they sometimes take with them.

Reyes' two adult sons, Christian and Carlos Quiroz, whom she and her then-husband had brought illegally into the U.S. as little boys, were also returned to Mexico last year.

And with no family in the U.S., Reyes' two American daughters, Julie Quiroz, now 13, and Sharise Hernandez, 6, have also joined her here.

Now, unable to find work in a city she left 18 years ago, Reyes shuffles between the cramped homes of a brother and a sister in neighborhoods so unsafe her children aren't allowed outside to play.

Neither daughter is in school.

The older one longs for her life in Seattle, saying that on the rare occasion she gets close enough to the hotels that cater to tourists here, she strains to hear Americans speak. "I always think that if I had the courage I'd go up and talk to them," Julie said.

For her mother, small things, like the Starbucks white-chocolate mocha her son sometimes buys her, remind her of their old life. And some days she thinks of little else but how to get it back.

"It's ugly here," Reyes said, sitting in her sister's living room, her children and other family members around her.

"I never wanted to come back here to live. I wanted to stay and watch my daughters go to school and graduate, have the kind of life I didn't have."

Fuel for economy

The engine of the American service economy runs on the labor of many of the 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

Many had fled poverty in small towns across Mexico and Latin America, becoming the cheap labor that builds houses, cleans hotel rooms and tends gardens in the U.S.

In recent years, stepped-up immigration enforcement increasingly has led to their arrests in work-site raids, on routine traffic stops, when immigration officers sweep through jails and prisons or, in cases such as Reyes', when they show up at the front door.

"This country simply can't absorb them all," said Neil Clark, Seattle-based field-office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, pointing out the U.S. already admits about 1 million legal immigrants a year.

"People have got to demand changes in their home countries if they want to make things better," he said. "Coming to the U.S. is not the solution to Mexico's problems."

Neither, it seems, is deportation.

For Mexico, the return of illegal immigrants is a double punch: The economy loses the deportees' share of some $24 billion that Mexicans abroad send home each year. And back in the small towns they fled, deportees compete for what few low-paying jobs exist.

"Sometimes they leave with much fanfare and dreams of getting the family out of poverty — only to be sent back home, their deportation seen as a failure," said Erica Dahl-Bredine, country manager for Catholic Relief Services Mexico, based in Tucson, Ariz.

So many don't go back home but instead remain in border towns such as Tijuana and Juárez — sometimes because they don't have money for a bus ticket home but mostly because they're waiting for a chance to re-enter the U.S.

It's what Reyes might have done last July if she'd had the money to pay a smuggler to help her return to the U.S. Instead, she returned to her family in Mexico City, buying time while she figures out a way to get back to Seattle.

She'd first come to the attention of U.S. immigration authorities in 1998 when she got into a fight with another woman on a street in the Eastern Washington town of Sunnyside, violating a restraining order.

In 2003, an immigration judge granted her a chance to leave the U.S. voluntarily, saying her daughters were young enough that they could adjust to life in Mexico. She appealed and lost, but never left, she said, because she kept hoping changes in U.S. immigration laws would allow her to stay legally.

She was asleep the morning 10 months ago when a team of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers knocked on the door of her apartment, her name on their fugitive list for that day.

Among those inside, besides her two daughters, were her younger son, Carlos; her boyfriend and the father of her younger daughter, Arturo Hernandez; and her brother-in-law Luis Hernandez. The men were all returned to Mexico. Reyes' older son was living in Tacoma and deported several months later.

Later, Reyes would remark that if deported, she would not bring her daughters to Mexico because she would not be staying long.

She couldn't have known how bad things would get for her here.

Mexico City as home

The metropolitan area of Mexico City is the second-largest in the world — teeming with congestion, pollution and poverty. The divide between rich and poor is vast.

It is, in so many ways, removed from the green landscape and fresh air of Western Washington, where Reyes lived in an apartment complex and worked as a hotel maid for nearly half her years in the U.S. On good days, she earned about $70 a day, her boyfriend about twice that.

Much of what the family had was left behind in the Burien apartment: a microwave, beds, tables, other furniture. "Everything that I worked really hard for," Reyes said.

Now, in Mexico, home is sometimes her brother's third-floor, two-bedroom apartment near the historic center of the city, where drug dealers and prostitutes hug grimy street corners, conducting business in full view of the police.

Mostly, it's her sister Patricia Reyes' cramped two-bedroom house in Arboledas, a poor neighborhood that is part of the city's stubborn march toward the mountains surrounding it.

The house is like many others throughout the city, joined to those on either side, with the street as its front yard.

Her family lives like many in Mexico's large cities, doubling and sometimes tripling up under the same roof. Up to 10 family members sometimes share her sister's home. Reyes sleeps on a mattress on the floor, a wooden bar braced at the front door to keep rats from scurrying inside.

She is often depressed, her family said.

"We're been back and forth, back and forth," Reyes said. "It's the hardest thing because I had my own place up there, my own car, my own money. I have nothing here."

Looking for work

Reyes' age, long absence from Mexico and lack of a high-school diploma help explain why the hotels, restaurants and stores where she seeks work aren't calling her back.

"I tried the hotel jobs and even when I tell them how much experience I have, I still don't get called," she said. "They say that someone younger will produce more than me."

Susanna Noguez, who works in the protection department in the Mexican consulate office in Seattle, said, "If she has the intention of finding any kind of work, it's not easy, but it's not impossible."

In this city, getting work also depends on whom you know.

Reyes' 68-year-old father slowly shakes his head when asked if he can use his position as a former government worker to help.

"Before, when I was younger, there was lots of work here — enough for everybody," Luis Reyes said. "Now everything has gotten more corrupt ... ."

"The people I can call, they're all retired, like me. They can't help."

So five evenings a week, Reyes does what many of her generation here do to make a living — she peddles on the street.

She and sister Patricia roll a food cart up a dusty street to sell quesadillas for 70 cents, gorditas for 90 cents. On a good night they can clear $20. On this particular one, they had three customers.

One was 28-year-old Santo Lopez, who had been deported from the U.S. only a few months earlier. He had lived for four years in Hope, Ark., he said, holding down jobs in a mechanic shop and at a warehouse.

He's found a food-processing job here that pays $80 for a six-day week but says he could make that same amount in two or three hours in the states.

"I hear they are now jailing people they catch trying to cross the border," he said. "If things get much worse for me here, I might consider just that. Life in detention in the states might be better than it is here."

Lopez bought three quesadillas.

On evenings like these, unsold inventory becomes the family's meal. At the end of every day, everyone in the family pools what money they made that day.

"And that's how we survive," Reyes said. "It's not the life I imagined for my kids."

But many who oppose the presence of illegal immigrants in the U.S. say it's right to deport them and that the hard realities of life across the border are Mexico's to resolve.

"Maybe if the Mexican government was half as concerned about its people in Mexico, so many of them would not be trying to get out," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform.

How it began

Reyes grew up in a relatively poor neighborhood near central Mexico City, one of four children.

She didn't finish high school but attended a trade school, where she was trained as a secretary and later got work with the government.

She married young and had her first child at 18 and her second child four years later.

In the late 1980s, her husband followed the wave of Mexicans going north for jobs in the fruit farms in Washington and California.

He crossed illegally and settled in Eastern Washington; she followed in 1990, walking three hours with a smuggler whom her husband had paid $1,000.

She said she was apprehended by U.S. border authorities and promised a work permit, Social Security number and legal status if she would testify against the coyote.

But the smuggler ended up admitting to the charges and the deal for the green card was off, though Reyes was granted what most illegal immigrants covet — a valid Social Security number and a work permit, which would expire a few months later.

The couple settled outside Yakima in Sunnyside, where they worked in the hops fields, then picked apples and cherries.

About a year later, they sent for their boys, 7 and 3 at the time, paying a coyote to guide the children through the desert.

But authorities stopped the boys and the smuggler. The children, now grown, speak of spending days in foster homes, separated from one other and afraid, before their father came from Washington and all three crossed with a coyote.

Reyes' relationship with her husband grew strained, and in the winter of 1998, he moved without the family to Western Washington.

With no money, she and her children were evicted from their Sunnyside apartment. They moved in with Arturo Hernandez, who was renting a small trailer in the same town.

Together, in 2001, they followed other Mexican fruit pickers to the construction, restaurant and hotel jobs in and around Seattle. Reyes landed a job at SeaTac Crest Motor Inn, where Manager Karl Singh calls her a "really hard and honest worker."

"We still miss her," he said.

Plotting their return

Soon after she was deported, Reyes, the girls and her younger son went to live with Hernandez and his family in a small town outside Aguascalientes, some 300 miles northwest of Mexico City.

It is here they sometimes return when they need to give her brother and sister some space. When they arrive, the two-bedroom house Hernandez shares with his extended family comes alive. Reyes and the kids say they feel safer here. There are other children for the girls to play with and they can walk the few blocks to the neighborhood store.

Hernandez, who had been employed by a Tacoma boat builder for $20 an hour, now starts his days tending his father's horses and goats. He's not found a job because all seem to require the high-school diploma he doesn't have.

He had gone to the U.S. when he was 16, making enough to send money back to his aging parents every two weeks.

"Now I'm back and there's nothing here," he said. "My parents have to help me because I have no money."

His mother said she was apprehensive when he left. "He was still a boy," Maria Pilar said. "I prayed that he would be fine."

When his mother first learned he was being deported, she was at once happy because she would be seeing him again and devastated by what she knew were dim prospects.

So he and Reyes, along with her grown sons, haven't stopped plotting ways to get back to Seattle.

She thinks her only chance of doing that legally is years away and hinges on daughter Julie, whom she thinks can petition for her when she turns 21.

But it's not that simple: Because Reyes lived illegally in the states for 17 years, she faces a 10-year bar to legal entry. So Julie would have to be 23 and have a home established in the U.S. before she could petition for her mother to join her.

Reyes and Hernandez are considering an offer from an Edmonds real-estate investor who learned of their circumstances and has offered to help them relocate to Juárez. The girls could stay with a family in El Paso, Texas, and attend school there during the week. But the idea of seeing her mother only on weekends worries Julie.

A few months ago, it was a different plan — to cross illegally with a group of people who had been deported from Phoenix.

Then they heard that a cold front had passed through the desert, leaving four people dead of exposure. And they found out that U.S. immigration authorities are now jailing — not just catching and releasing — those caught sneaking across the border.

So that plan, at least for now, is on hold.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or

Christian Quiroz, Ana Reyes' son, leaves the two-bedroom house he and his extended family call home. Up to 10 family members sometimes share the home. (DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Ana Reyes, in red, her niece, left, and daughter Julie, right, spend the evening hours at their roadside stand in Mexico City, waiting for customers willing to pay a few pesos for quesadillas and gorditas they make in an effort to make ends meet. The unsold inventory becomes the family's meal. (DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES)