Written by Sydney Bouchat, a Campus Progress blogger
Hector Lopez is arrested before he knows his crime. At the age of twenty, the Portland State University sophomore discovers he is an undocumented immigrant while sitting in a federal holding cell in Portland, Oregon. After spending ten days at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, and before he could find a lawyer, he is deported to Mexico, knowing neither the people nor the language. This is only the beginning of what becomes a grueling four-month ordeal for Hector, away from his home, family, and friends.
You were arrested on August 23, 2010. What was that experience like? It must have been very difficult.
Absolutely, especially when youíre not expecting anything to happen, and with me not knowing anything about my legal status. At first, youíre kind of . . . you think itís not real. Like, ĎOh, you must have the wrong person.í But after you realize that it is you that [the authorities] are after, it quickly puts you into a panic.
So you were not aware at the time that you were an undocumented immigrant?
No. I have a Social [Security number] and a driverís license. And, you know, usually when you hear about people with immigration problems, you hear of them changing names or doing things to fit in, but I never had to do any of that. I figured if I was [illegal], my parents would have told me.
How exactly did the US immigration authorities go about taking you out of the country?
I thought that as soon as I talked to a judge, someone would come to their senses and realize that this shouldnít be happening and everything would be okay. And then, [immigration] just said, ĎHey you, youíre leaving today.í And I said, ĎWell, I donít know anyone. I donít speak the language. What do you want me to do?í They said, ĎWell, we canít give you legal advice.í At around 9 a.m. [September 1, 2010], I was taken from my cell. I was given my clothes back and then handcuffed at my waist, wrists, and ankles. Then I was put on a prison plane. It made three stops. It was a twelve-hour process. We landed in Brownsville, Texas, at about 9:30 p.m. that same day. From there, [the other deportees and I] were driven to the border and made to walk across.
You were made to transport yourself across international lines?
They kind of just drop you right off at the border. You canít go anywhere because youíre immigrant of a federal area, so you only have one way to walk, and thatís toward Mexico.
At this time, where was your father? Was he with you?
No, my dad was going to ask for asylum, but when I got deported before him for no reason, he gave up his right to fight for his case so he could be with me in Mexico. He was deported about two weeks after me because he gave up his case. But this whole situation when I was deported was by myself.
You were in Mexico for two-and-a-half weeks before your father gave up his right to asylum to be with you. Describe that experience.
That [first] night, I went to the bus station that was a little ways away from the border. There was a group of about 150 of us that had just been deported. My phone was dead, so I couldnít call anybody. I couldnít ask for a hotel. Three people had gotten murdered in that area a couple hours beforehand. I found a gentleman who spoke some English and he told me I probably shouldnít be leaving the bus station because it was dangerous. So I slept at the bus station that night. The next day, I called my mom, who told me to get a bus ticket to Mexico City, where a lady who was my momís old neighbor was going to take me in for a while. I took about a sixteen-hour bus ride from the border to Mexico City. The lady picked me up when I got to the bus station in Mexico City. I stayed there for almost two months.
What was it like living in Mexico?
I saw moms and children sleeping on the street. They were homeless. And I thought, ĎYou know, where I grew up, we donít let that happen.í I wasnít used to seeing things like that. I didnít want to be there, but I couldnít leave. The majority of the two months I spent in my room by myself. It was almost like I didnít even have a life. It was too much to handle, and you just kind of hide yourself and try to deal with it.
What brought about your returning to the border to seek asylum?
I canít go too in-depth with the reasons of what happened, but after multiple incidents, and you start realizing that youíre the one being targeted, you just lose patience. I know two months doesnít seem like that long, but every day I didnít know when I was coming home. Thatís what eats at you the most. Around the beginning of November, the panic started to sink in a little more and a little more, and I spoke to my lawyer. She said I could seek asylum. It was the thing I was trying to avoid in the first place, going back to jail, because I knew how horrible it was. But after we realized that [asylum] would probably be the quickest and safest way to get me back into the US, on November 17, I took a bus from Mexico City to Nogales, Sonora. I surrendered myself at the border at the walkthrough where people show their visas and passports. From there I was arrested and taken to the detention center, where I stayed for a little over a month.
What was the detention center like?
Itís not technically a prison, though I donít know what the difference is. Iíve never been to prison, but Iím pretty sure itís the same thing or almost the same thing. When I was detained in Seattle, I had my dad there. I had someone to talk to, someone who I knew, so it wasnít as bad. I went to Arizona by myself because I didnít really have a choice. I figured Iíd rather be here than scared for my life. You get acclimated after a while. You get used to spending your whole day doing nothing. For the first couple days it was rough, and definitely a shock, but you start getting used to it.
At one point, you were allowed to go home to Milwaukie, Oregon, for Christmas. Did they do that special for you?
Yes, the [immigration] let me go home on December 23. Itís not something that they do too often. My case was a higher profile case, and there was an 1,800-signature petition sent in. There were hundreds of phone calls made. They took a little better care of me, I guess. They let me go sooner than most people. I got out without paying a bail. They do it, but itís on a case-by-case situation, and itís not very common.
Now youíre back with your mom and your brother in Milwaukie. What is your current legal situation?
Iím waiting for a court date. I should be receiving it in the mail soon. But right now, Iím, I think itís called Ďout-of-status.í Iím not really legally here, but Iím not illegally here. Iím in the middle. But hopefully I can get another start. I start school in the spring, my work application is pending to get a work permit, and I can get my license soon.
How difficult has it been for you to re-establish your American life?
I thought that was going to be a problem. I have a gentleman from Dallas whoís an advocate and heís been helping me. His name is Ralph Isenberg. He and my mom and everyone were worried that I would suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or something along those lines because it was pretty traumatic, what I went through. But I hopped into my life pretty quick. The first few days were a little groggy and weird, but right now Iím fine. I know it sounds weird, but right now Iím just waiting to get back to work, and thatís probably going to be before I get back to school. And then Iíll just pick up where I left off. What I told everybody is that Iím not going anywhere. Iíve been guaranteed multiple times by some of the best attorneys in the country that Iím not going anywhere. Iím not going back to another country. And thatís always reassuring. Iím going to stay here, so I might as well start my life again.
How do you think this experience has changed your opinion about being an American and living in the United States?
I think Iím an American. I may not be an American citizen, but I think Iím as American as baseball and apple pie. I grew up here. I only know one pledge of allegiance. I only know one president. For all accounts, in my eyes, I am an American, and I think a lot of people feel the same way. The reason I came back is because I believe in the American system. I knew I wouldnít be in jail for years and years and years. I knew the right thing would be done, and the right thing was done. Iím not mad that I got arrested. A lot of people say, ĎYou should be mad at the system. You should be mad at your parents.í Well, Iím not mad at the system. They were doing their jobs. And now that things have been brought to light, they have done the right thing. They have been very helpful with everything, to release me and get me home. I guess it gives me even more admiration for the country and the American system and everything that it stands for.
Has this experience helped you grow at all, or has it only hindered you?
I donít think itís helped me too much, but itís definitely opened my eyes. I now realize that when youíre talking about immigration, you have one idea of it, like what we see on the Discovery Channel or the news. But, being in it, being in jail and in the country, itís a sad thing, and itís not all murders and drug cartels. I saw a little four-year-old kid in a jail because someone had tried to smuggle him over. Itís a really sad thing to see. This isnít right. So it definitely opened my eyes.
Photo from Noah Jaquemin via flickr creative commons