A military family, divided: After deportation, a Marine veteran’s wife searches for a future
Stars and Stripes has covered Alejandra’s journey as she has fought for a hearing to reverse her deportation. Now she’s back in Mexico, struggling to start over. Read earlier articles at stripes.com/go/veteranwife
YUCATAN, Mexico – For a few days, things are almost routine.
Alejandra Juarez lies in bed at night and waits for sleep, listening to the monotonous whisper of the air conditioner and cuddling her 9-year-old, Estela, who has rejected her own bed in her new unfamiliar world.
Since moving into their apartment a week earlier, Alejandra rises at dawn to make Estela food, then wakes her shortly before 6 a.m. They walk to Estela’s new school.
These morning jaunts before the heat builds to insufferable are, well, happy. The two chat and sometimes Estela skips ahead, doing a little twirl as she tells a story. For a day or two, it seems like maybe they’ve started something.
As she returns from walking Estela one day, the phone rings and the harsh reality of what’s happened comes rushing back.
Pamela, her older daughter, is throwing up, the caller says. Can someone come pick her up from school and take her home?
Until three weeks prior, Alejandra would have been that someone. But now she is 2,560 miles by car from her 16-year old daughter in Davenport, Fla.
Alejandra, 39, was deported Aug. 3, leaving behind her home of 22 years, where she and her Iraq War veteran husband, Cuauhtemoc or “Temo,” had two American children and planted roots.
Now, they are a family divided.
She took Estela with her to Mexico, while Pamela, who is closest to her mother, stayed back with her father so he wouldn’t be left alone. He needs to continue to work and try to earn enough to support not one household but two.
On this Wednesday, Temo isn’t answering his phone. He has a flooring business. He must be at a job. Distraught, she calls around to friends searching for someone to pick up Pamela. Finally, Temo calls back. He puts work aside and goes to collect their daughter.
But who will hold her hair, make sure she drinks fluids? Who is going to kiss her forehead and make her tea? And how will he ever be able to make enough money for two homes when he was working crazy hours before all this?
She tells herself to hold it together. That someday, her faith in America — the country her husband served as a soldier, the place she chose all those years ago because it offered hope, the one that gave its identity to their two daughters – will be restored. That someday, her family will be reunited.
Alejandra wants the world to know this is what deportation looks like. “Maybe if I tell my story I can help someone else,” she says.
She prays that she will have the fortitude to show what hope looks like.
“I am just so angry,” she says in tears. “I just have to heal so I can get past that and make my life meaningful.”
The American dream
Temo and Alejandra met in 2000, two years after she arrived in the United States. Like her, he was from Mexico City.
But he was a Marine who had just completed his service and signed up for the National Guard. He was on a path to citizenship.
She was undocumented. She snuck across the border to escape death threats for reporting a robbery — her assailant, she says, had a relative on the police force.
The couple got married, had a baby and in 2002, after becoming a U.S. citizen, he deployed to Jordan then to Iraq, returning in 2004. She worked hard – learning to be a mom and giving him support.
Temo came back from war changed, she says, and she was patient. She had scrupulously socked away his combat pay and they built a house in Davenport that they both loved, had a second child and adopted a rescue dog named Spot.
Through it all, she always thought of Temo as the tougher one.
But Aug. 3, the day of her deportation, Temo locked himself in the bathroom for a long time. When she finally got him to open the door, she found her husband – her warrior – sobbing uncontrollably. Alejandra knew then that she was going to have to be strong.
“He was like, ‘I just can’t believe I am going to come home from dropping you off and you are not going to be here,’” she says.
“It’s so absurd. What are they benefiting from my deportation? The punishment does not fit the crime.”
Long list of banishment
Alejandra eventually lands in a place where she’s never been, with few resources. She needs to find somewhere to live and a school for Estela. She needs to find a job and maybe a psychiatrist for both of them. Being ripped from home and family like that is traumatic, she says.
She needs buy some furniture. But not a TV – she’s still hoping she won’t be here that long.
But mostly, she needs to figure out how she’s going to pay for all of this. She learns quickly that most jobs pay just a few hundred pesos — $40-$50 a week.
She worries that she, alone, brought this disaster on her family.
“My kids have never been away from me – not even for one day,” she says in a text message. “I hate Trump.”
It was Donald Trump’s first executive order as president in 2017 that led to her deportation. Until then, Alejandra – military wife with two American children – was of no interest to immigration authorities. After being flagged in 2013 as undocumented after a routine traffic stop, she checked in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement yearly and otherwise lived her life.
But the order equalized all immigration cases. Suddenly, Alejandra was a priority for deportation.
Alejandra tried to fight it. She and Temo consulted several lawyers, but her case turned out to be complicated. In 1998, when she sneaked across the border, it was her second attempt. The first time, after trying in vain to get a visa into the United States, she hired somebody to get her across the border and was captured after lying to the border agent about her status. Under duress, she said, she signed a document she didn’t understand. It was only after 2013 that she learned it barred her from the U.S. for life.
Through lawyers and appeals to lawmakers, Alejandra tried to get her removal order reversed. She was deported before she could get a hearing with a judge.
At home, as she waited for the day of her deportation to arrive, Alejandra couldn’t sleep. She just kept thinking about how one of these days, she wouldn’t be in her house, with her backyard, her kids, her husband. Instinctively, Spot would jump on her restless legs and calm her.
Now, she lies awake wondering how she’s going to build this new life and what this will do to her family, her marriage.
She hears a dog barking in the night. Spot does that. She starts thinking about home again. Her mind races anew.
When she does finally sleep, she often wakes up thinking she’s at home, that this is just a bad dream.
The days feel like months. They stay in an inexpensive hotel in the centro – the town center. But the air conditioning doesn’t work well and the heat — climbing well over 100 degrees with humidity like south Florida – is getting to Estela.
So they find an international hotel with good air conditioning, a pool and a discounted rate. Even so, she is quickly going through money raised on their behalf on a GoFundMe page started when the deportation began to look inevitable. She spends her days looking for an apartment with the help of the tour coordinator at the hotel – a single mother with a girl Estela’s age.
Landlords don’t want to rent to her because she has no rental history in Mexico, no job prospects, no local bank account.
“People see me as foreign,” she writes in a text. “I feel country-less.”
Temo and Pamela fly down the first week after Alejandra was deported. But his support for Trump – publicized in news reports — drew some harsh backlash in Mexico, where people are still stinging from Trump’s repeated insults.
She finally finds an apartment. It is taking more time to find a private school for Estela that teaches some English. She doesn’t have all of her daughter’s Mexican documentation and can’t travel hundreds of miles to Mexico City right now to get it.
Finally, an English-speaking school accepts Estela and agrees to let them produce the documentation later.
Alejandra realizes she has to stop hoping to go back to the U.S. or she won’t be able to get settled here.
“If my daughter keeps seeing me crying, it’s no good,” she says. “I need to move on. To build a life. I can’t keep waiting for the day I can come back.”
During his visit, Temo buys them a television.
‘I want to go back’
Estela, who is tiny for her age, is not eating much of her mother’s cooking. The vegetables don’t taste the same, the little girl says, and her mother worries that she can’t feed her fast-food forever.
On a recent afternoon, Alejandra picks up Estela from school and takes her to Chili’s for lunch. The girl is happy, biting into her chicken sandwich, chatting about the kids at school. She doesn’t speak Spanish, but growing up she has picked up a lot.
She’s made seven new friends, she says. They like the fact that she speaks English well, but after she aced her first Spanish test – “it was the easy one” — they wonder if she is faking it, she says, rolling her eyes in mock drama before offering up a smile.
Then, without skipping a beat, she says: “I miss my sister. I miss my dad. I miss my dog.”
She takes another bite of her sandwich.
“Every day she says, ‘I want to go back. Why couldn’t you stop at the border and say, ‘I want to go home?’” Alejandra says.
“She wants her pretty room, her school, her life. You know?”
Life inching forward
The apartment is a clean two-bedroom townhome with a modern kitchen and air conditioning units in each room. Alejandra does laundry by hand in a sink off a small terrace.
But it is sterile, cold. There are no pictures, no books or magazines or knickknacks – the things that declare a life being lived.
She and Estela walk 20 minutes to school every morning, but by the time classes are over, it’s too hot for that. Alejandra walks to pick her up then calls a taxi to take them home.
After she takes Estela to school, she waits in the long lines of Mexican bureaucracy. To get her ID card. To open a local bank account, which she couldn’t do until she had an ID.
She visits a private university in the area. She believes that if she can study law one day a week — maybe two — she could earn a real living and make something of herself.
She does the math: the cost of an apartment, bills, Estela’s school and supplies, groceries, transportation, the occasional doctor or dentist. School for herself. How will she and Temo ever pay for all this, she wonders.
“Sometimes I think I never should have gone there,” she says of the United States.
“But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t love Estela and Pamela. Or gotten a high school (equivalency) degree,” she says. “The best things I got in my life, I got there. My kids, my husband. I was never going to build a house like that.”
Alejandra likes to tell the girls this story: When Estela was born, Pamela, 7, came to see them in the hospital and said, “Now my world is complete.”
They’ve been devoted to each other ever since.
Pamela, who has always been shy, came out of her shell to help her mother fight deportation. When Alejandra brought the girls to Washington to pound on doors, Pamela spoke at a press conference with their congressman, Darren Soto, D-Fla., outside the Capitol, urging action to help keep her mother at home.
She spoke again at the Orlando, Fla., airport the day her mother was deported. And when Soto asked her to participate in a campaign rally ahead of his re-election in late August, she took the stage for the first time without her mother present.
“I have been 22 days without my mom,” Pamela told the gathering. “We were really close, so her departure has left a big hole in me.”
She then told her mother – who could not have been more proud – that she is no longer shy.
Two days later, Pamela is at home throwing up, her mother in Mexico wringing her hands with worry.
“Do you need a doctor?” She asks her daughter. “You have to drink liquids because when you throw up you lose a lot of liquids. You have crackers?”
“I love you Mom.”
“I know, I miss you a lot. I wish I was there.”
“I am sorry,” Alejandra adds.
Finding her voice
With her deportation looming, Alejandra’s instinct was to publicly fight back hard. The spotlight and the stigma, however, can be harsh.
Some friends she and Temo have known for years no longer talk to her. Even some relatives have been less than kind, judging her poorly and questioning her wisdom for being so vocal. The negative response weighs on her husband, who has taken heat for voting for Trump.
Now she is more private. Leery of backlash, she does not share the name of the city where she lives and has taken a different version of her name. People she meets offer help and connections. But she just thanks them. She’s not up for all that. She’s inclined to hunker down with Estela and figure things out one day at a time.
“I don’t want to make friends,” she says. “I need to grieve.”
Still, she won’t be silent.
In the months leading up to her departure – when she still believed it would not happen – she looked for books on how to deal with deportation. There were plenty on the bookstore shelves about fighting the process. But she could find none about how to cope with deportation.
She decided that if and when the time came, she would write about her ordeal.
She’s started a blog in Mexico, “Finding Hope after Deportation."
“I never thought I could survive being deported and being away from my oldest daughter,” she writes in the first entry. “It turns out you are stronger than you may think.”
In her latest entry, she writes about the many emails and social media posts she has received since her story went public. Some share similar stories; others fault her for fighting back.
“I know firsthand the feeling of despair and humiliation so as I was reading their stories I could not help but cry and cry,” she writes. “I know now what a deportation does to a human being, to our families, to our kids. It can steal your dignity and happiness, at least temporarily if you let it. And worse, it can steal your hope and faith.
“I refuse to let this situation take away my hope,” she declares. “For my girls. For me. For those who have and still reach out to me daily to share their story, share their pain.”
She says she doesn’t know how she will manage. She only knows that she has to believe she will.