‘I overstayed my US visa when it didn’t matter as much’
Marriage helped me stay. I was lucky, as recent arrests of undocumented immigrants show
Yvonne Watterson has been luckier than Guadalupe ‘Lupita’ García de Rayos.
Guadalupe ‘Lupita’ García de Rayos, who was deported from the United States after 21 years, with her daughter Jacqueline in Nogales, Mexico. Photograph: Caitlin O’Hara/The New York Times
I can barely remember a time when I did not harbour a desire to go to the United States, eager to take what American historian and political commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin calls that “spectacular risk”.
And, although I have spent more than half of my life in the United States, there are still unguarded moments of dislocation that bring a crushing loneliness and a guilt for having left my Northern Ireland.
My circumstances are different from those of my grandparents and so many Irish before me who were obliged to leave home because of famine, poverty, diminished possibilities or broken promises.
I sometimes wonder if the best thing would have been to stay and strive to see beyond the black-and-white images on our television screen at six o’clock every night. But I couldn’t. I fled as soon as I had the chance and became an immigrant in an America I do not recognise today, turning my back on the vulnerable, tiny place that shaped and scared me – my lovely, tragic Northern Ireland.
Doubt and suspicion
I spent most of the 1980s planning my escape from Northern Ireland. I was not much older than my American daughter is now, but it was a turbulent and traumatic time. We lived and worked, played and prayed within a national crucible of doubt and suspicion, a half-empty glass.
We anticipated the worst and were rarely disappointed. By the summer of 1984, I had grown weary of the bombings, the killings, the hatred and the sense of hopelessness that seemed to seep from every corner of the country.
Young and ardent, I seized the opportunity to come to America for one summer, believing then as I would like to believe today author Tom Wolfe’s assertion in Of Time and The River that “America . . . is a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the one place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time”.
I spent my first night in America in the YMCA on Times Square and 42nd Street. This was before the area was spruced up by the city’s mayor and transformed into the glittering intersection we know today.
I recall a hot summer night in 1984. I can still see myself standing in the doorway of a drug store with my bag held open, waiting expectantly for someone to search it for explosives, as was the habit of someone from Northern Ireland.
Between the jet lag and the scary characters in the street, I forgot I was on a New York city street rather than entering either end of Belfast’s Royal Avenue before it was transformed by the promise of peace and urban renewal projects.
For the first time in my life, I was both apart from and a part of a rich tapestry of human diversity and experience. Having spent my entire life in a rainy and relatively homogenised country – on the surface – where almost everyone was pale and under 5ft 8in, this was sensory overload.
Nonetheless, the shock of it would soon give way to an enchantment that stayed with me for many years. And for many years, the feeling was mutual. I’m Irish, the immigrant lots of people want to be on St Patrick’s Day, “Kiss me, I’m Irish” emblazoned on their T-shirts. Tell me the colour of my skin doesn’t matter when people in power are deciding who should be walled out and who should be allowed to stay.
So I overstayed my visa at a time when it didn’t matter as much. An American man fell in love with me and married me, enabling me to stay here as a permanent resident, eligible to work and pay taxes and pursue the American Dream that I thought belonged to everyone. I got lucky.
Guadalupe ‘Lupita’ García de Rayos does not share my good fortune. Her parents brought her to the United States when she was just 14, seeking the kinds of opportunities that would not be available in Guanajuato, Mexico. She remained in Arizona, became an adult here, fell in love, married and had two children, Jacqueline and Angel. Arizona became her home for more than 20 years. But there was no line in which Lupita could stand, no way for her to acquire the social security number that would enable her to work to support her family. There was no hope.
For undocumented immigrants who have been here since childhood, with no path to citizenship, there is little recourse. Either hide or make up a number to fill in the blank space on a job application. They do what they must in order to feed and clothe their children.
Ultimately, she became a victim of the US’s failed immigration policies and Arizona’s employer sanctions law, resulting in her arrest in 2008, when she was swept up in an unconstitutional raid.
Criminalised, Lupita pleaded guilty and spent six months in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention before being released back to her family. Subsequently, in 2013, an immigration court ordered her deportation, but the federal government did not enforce it. Because she was a non-violent offender, posing no threat to public safety or national security, Lupita was shielded from deportation under the Obama administration. Until last week.
For the past eight years, she has checked in with immigration officials to complete an annual review of her case. Warned that 2017 might be different, she went to Mass and said a prayer before going to her regular meeting.
She took a spectacular risk, in light of the president of the United States’s executive order which stipulates that undocumented immigrants convicted of any criminal offence – and even those who have not been charged but are believed to have committed “acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offence” – are now a priority for deportation.
And so they arrested her and deported her in front of her family. Less than 24 hours later, she was in Nogales, Mexico, far away from the only home she has known for 21 years. Lupita risked it all. Why? Now a stranger in a strange land, she offers the reason any of us might provide were we in her shoes:
“The truth is I was there [in the United States] for my children. For a better future. To work for them. And I don’t regret it, because I did it for love. I’m going to keep fighting so that they continue to study in their country, and so that their dreams become a reality.”
Reflecting on the fate of this woman and the dreams of her children, it occurs to me that it is only a month since the US celebrated the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King, a man who put his life on the line in pursuit of an America that would provide “a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child” – a fabulous place where miracles happen every day. Let’s make one happen for this family.
Originally from Co Antrim, Yvonne Watterson emigrated to the United States in 1988 and settled in Arizona where she works in education. She is director of education innovation at the Arizona Charter Schools Association. She has been recognised for her work in school reform and her activism on immigration. She blogs at Considering the Lilies . . . and Lessons from the Field where a version of this article originally appeared.