Return to Sender: The Feds, Fueled by Local Anti-Immigration Hostility, Are Draining Talented Undocumented Youth into Mexico

Twice a week, Teresa has a nightmare.

It is almost always the same. She and her husband, Michael, are driving home in their gray Chevy pickup, sleepy and content after a long day with family. It is a cool, clear night. Their chatty 2-year-old daughter, Adrianna, is buckled snugly into her car seat. Teresa's husband speeds up as they approach the highway on-ramp, narrowly cutting off another car. There is the wailing of a siren, the flashing of red and blue lights. Her heart begins to thump as her husband pulls over onto the gravelly shoulder.

A police officer ambles up to the car window. He is the tallest man she has ever seen — pale, with dark hair, and opaque aviator glasses. She cannot see his eyes, just her own frightened expression, and her husband's boyish face reflected back at her. Her husband rolls down the window, and the officer asks him for his driver's license in a flat, uninflected voice. Then he asks for her identification.

She does not have it, of course, though she frantically searches through her daughter's diaper bag. She tries to explain her situation: "I've lived here my entire life. I don't even remember Mexico!" But he acts as if he cannot hear her. The police officer puts her in the backseat of the patrol car, gets into the driver's side, and starts the engine. She can hear her daughter crying for her as the police cruiser begins to pull away. The last thing she sees is her husband, looking angry and helpless. A terrifying thought snakes through her mind and sticks: What if I never see them again?

Teresa wakes up, sobbing. She reflexively reaches out — there's her small daughter curled up beside her. Her husband is stretched out on the other side of the king-size bed, breathing deeply. She's safe in the roomy four-bedroom South Phoenix home they share with her husband's parents and brother. She stares at the ceiling, willing herself to go back to sleep.

Teresa and her husband do not talk much about her nightmares. They are much too possible. Teresa is an illegal immigrant, brought to the United States by her mother when she was a baby. Teresa did not even know she was here illegally until she was 13 years old — she found out when an application to volunteer at a hospital required a Social Security number. Until then, she thought of herself as a normal American kid — an honor roll student who preferred American football to soccer and dreamed of becoming a nurse.

South Phoenix is the only home the young mother has ever known. Her American husband doesn't speak Spanish. If she were deported to Mexico — where she has no friends or family — she does not know what she would do. So she refuses to take risks. She does not drive, cannot legally work. Mostly, she stays home with her daughter. She would still love to become a nurse, but for now it is just a dream. Even if she found a way to pay for school, no one would want to hire her.

"It's like you're not from Mexico, but you're not from here, either," Teresa says while sitting at her family's kitchen table.

"If I go back to Mexico, what am I going back to?" Her glance lingers on her daughter, who is intent on fishing a brightly wrapped piece of hard candy out of a bowl sitting on the marbled kitchen counter, and she smiles tightly. "I have no family there. It's like you're country-less. You're not from over there. You're not from here. You're stuck somewhere in the middle, and you don't belong anywhere."

There are thousands of people in Arizona with stories like Teresa's.

Arizona is the toughest state in the country for kids who are illegal immigrants.

The past four years have been particularly brutal for undocumented immigrants in Arizona — voters passed Proposition 300 in 2006, prohibiting undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition. A year later, the Legal Arizona Worker's Act cracked down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Undocumented workers cannot get driver's licenses. In Phoenix, many — like Teresa — do not like to leave their homes, afraid they will be targeted in an immigration sweep by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Just a few months ago, the Arizona Legislature passed House Bill 2008, requiring government agencies to turn over the names of illegal immigrants who apply for state benefits to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. Now, many undocumented parents are too scared to apply for the benefits to which their American-citizen children are entitled.

There is a story Teresa read in a newspaper a few months ago that she thinks about often: A distraught man walks into a 7-Eleven with his two sons, a 4-year-old and a toddler. He holds the baby in one arm and a gun in his other hand. With no explanation, he shoots the clerk dead.

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Malia Politzer
Contact: Malia Politzer