The crisis of the illegal immigrant in America

Attendees cheer before President Donald Trump takes the stage for a rally in support of Texas senator Ted Cruz last month. Democrats hope Beto O’Rourke can unseat Cruz in the state in Tuesday’s elections. Picture: Loren Elliott/Getty Images

On the campaign trail in Texas, Joyce Fegan finds two young, undocumented Mexicans helping others and hoping to create a better life in Trump’s America.

In a small taco restaurant right on the US-Mexican border, two undocumented immigrants insist on buying me lunch.

We will likely never see each other again and they have absolutely nothing to gain from the gesture. These are the very people US President Donald Trump has labelled rapists, drug dealers, and criminals.

Except they’re not.

Seven Flores, 24, fled Mexico for the US when he was nine. He crossed the Rio Grande river which separates the two countries in the dead of night.

Seven Flores, 24, fled Mexico for the US when he was nine. He crossed the Rio Grande river which separates the two countries in the dead of night. Picture: Joyce Fegan

His dad swam, tugging the small inflatable craft that carried Seven, his mother, and his two brothers. “It was a bit like the Syrians you see coming across the Mediterranean into Europe,” he explains.

Like Seven, Isle Mendez, 31, has lived in the US since she was a child. She came here when she was two because her parents were accessing medical treatment for her younger sister, who was born without a femur bone.

While both live in the heavily patrolled border town of Laredo, Texas, just a minute’s walk from their homeland, neither Ilse nor Seven have ever been able to return to Mexico.

They have been reared and educated in the US and pay taxes here, but neither have any legal status — and in Trump’s America they live under the constant threat of deportation and family separation.

Not only this, but the anti-immigrant racism has become so bad here that Latinos are even turning on each other.

“I tell people that I have always felt so close yet so far from my country of origin, because it’s always just been just minutes away for me, but I don’t have a way to go to Mexico given my legal status,” says Seven.

“When my grandfather died, we wanted to see him so badly, and even before that because we knew he was sick, but as much as we wanted we couldn’t go to see him in Mexico, because if we did, we wouldn’t have been able to come back, we would have ruined our lives.”

Isle experienced the same thing when her grandmother died. But for her, not going home is a practical decision, as every day is just about “survival” in this border town.

Isle Mendez, 31, has lived in the US since she was a child. She went there when she was just two because her parents were accessing medical treatment for her younger sister. Picture: Joyce Fegan

Together, Ilse and Seven help other undocumented immigrants. A year ago they got a mobile phone to field emergency calls, and named themselves the Laredo Immigrant Alliance.

One case they helped out on was that of “Rosita”, Rosa María Hernández, a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who was held alone in a detention centre after border officers discovered she was undocumented.

She was stopped at a checkpoint in Texas as she travelled by ambulance, from Laredo to San Antonio, to have gallbladder surgery.

US border patrol officers waited outside 10-year-old Rosita’s hospital room as she recovered, ready to bring her to a juvenile detention centre. Rosita has been living in the US since she was three months old.

“That’s the fear that we live in right now. We never know what’s going to happen,” says Isle.

While immigration control has always been complex and controversial in the US, with deportations being a key part of it, things have become “far worse” under Trump. People are living in fear that they will be stopped at any moment and asked for their “papers”.

“We’re seeing people detained in their workplace, detained driving their kids to school, it’s very traumatic,” says Isle.

Can you just be randomly stopped on the street and asked to prove your legal status? Yes, explains Seven.

“They can ask you for your status. In Texas there’s a law, where you fail to identify and the police could actually charge you for that. So they can stop asking you for your status but then they’ll say, ‘OK I am going to charge you for failing to identify.’

“Traffic stops, if you break a light, if you’re speeding, even if you’re walking down the street with a bottle of coke, you can be stopped, and this is where we see a lot of the racial profiling. They have the right to ask you for your status,” he says.

As deportations rise and Trump’s racist rhetoric reverberates around the US, and the world, hate has a strong foothold in this border town which is 95% Latino. Things are so divisive that their advocacy group decided to take things offline and instead meet quietly in people’s homes.

“There’s a lot of hate now that social media is such a big tool [in]. Whenever we’re trying to do any safety training and are promoting it on Facebook, you see people saying stuff like, ‘We’re going to send border patrol to where you are,’” explains Isle.

Seven adds that some other hateful phrases are doing the rounds in Texas. “It’s this idea that ‘I’m better than you because I was born here and you’re less than me because you’re illegal.’ It happens all the time. We see it on social media. People are just horrible.

“Even Latinos say ‘go back to Mexico’, or ‘deport yourself.’ And sadly it’s not just a few people, it’s a lot of people. They’re the top comments and the most liked comments. People don’t really say these things in public, but on social media they take advantage of the anonymity.”

Later, they settle the bill, and we leave the small taco joint to take the short walk to the Rio Grande river, which, while thousands of kilometres long, is only a few metres wide.

Seven stands on the US riverbank looking towards his birthplace just feet away. Mexican fishermen stand on the opposite bank to him, casting their lines, from Mexico, into the shared water.

He says it’s surreal to stand here and that if he ever does get home, he “will most definitely, probably cry.”

But right now politics and policy reform are what’s on this 24-year-old’s mind as the US midterm elections approach.

Even though he doesn’t have a vote, he is working on the Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign. As part of his homework, Seven attended a Ted Cruz town hall meeting, the Republican O’Rourke is hoping to unseat.

And what was that like for an undocumented immigrant? “Oh my goodness, I got there, Ted Cruz wasn’t even there yet and I’m looking at the people and everyone has the ‘Make America Great’ caps, T-shirts saying very horrible things about Hillary Clinton, people are yelling ‘lock him up, lock her up,’ people are screaming ‘build a wall’,” recalls Seven.

And were they all white conservative Americans?

“The vast majority were Latinos,” he says.

In terms of the future, there is a tentative hope that the Democrats could win back power in Congress in Tuesday’s midterm elections and change the hateful attitudes spreading across the US.

“Most people have this idea that if the Democrats win, everything will get better.

“In some ways I will say yes but in many ways it’s going to be the same thing, not so much because they don’t want to fix things, just more in a practical way,” says Seven.

“We have become so divided that it’s hard to get together and get anything done and it’s getting worse and worse.”

We leave the riverbank and go back to our cars. He apologises for bringing me to a carpark where I had to pay, he thought it was free. He offers to drive me out of the border town and on to the highway that will take me back to Austin, the nearest big city, though it is about four hours away. I take him up on this second kind gesture.

Before getting into our cars, I ask him what his future holds. “After teaching I think maybe I’ll go into politics,” he says.

And he would be good at it.

More on this topic

US man gets life term for kidnapping girl after murdering her parents

Hunt for fugitive who vowed to surrender if he got 15,000 Facebook likes

US planning to send 1,500 troops to Middle East

Severe weather warning as ‘violent tornado’ touches down in Missouri

More in this Section

Theresa May resigns as British prime minister – here's where it all went wrong

Green energy and electoral areas hold key to Kerry elections

Communities fight back against the drugs trade

As ballot papers expand, is it time to reassess political nomination process?


All of the most opulent and OTT gowns from the Cannes Film Festival

H&M has announced its latest incredible designer collaboration – and it goes on sale tomorrow

Ask an expert: What’s the best way to quickly potty train my toddler?

Album review: Flying Lotus - Flamagra

More From The Irish Examiner