Angela Cortes

Black Panther is Undocumented

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Angela Cortes

Santa Cruz, CA

The humanitarian crisis with children on our border happens to come at a time when I have been doing a lot of reflecting on what has shaped me. I feel like I am at an age of growth and working on figuring out what is next for me. I see myself in those children and the more of the world I experience, the more I find myself asking why things are the way they are in my first-world culture, the good and the bad.

I was born with a social security number; my husband was not. I want to share my story about being married to an undocumented American and our path to legal residency. I also want to share a little of my opinion and feelings about the discrimination I have experienced. It hurts the most when it comes from my Christian family and friends.

At the age of sixteen, I started working as a caregiver to the developmentally disabled. It was there I met my husband Victor. He was working as a caregiver to a particularly difficult client. I could see his genuine kindness and good heart through his work. It was not long until we started dating. In the beginning, I didn’t even know what an illegal immigrant was. Thinking back on it now, I can’t even remember when, or how, Victor presented the information to me, because, at the time, it seemed so insignificant. I was in love and knew this was the man I wanted to build my family and life alongside. His father died when he was just a young teen. Unable to care for him, his mother put a backpack on him and sent him off to the United States to find his way.

I probably wouldn’t have married so young if not for the pressure from my conservative Pentecostal mother. At the age of eighteen, she couldn’t stand me living with him and not being married. She was probably trying to guilt me out of my relationship rather than push me further into it but obviously that did not workout for her. It wasn’t until 2003 when Victor and I were applying for our marriage license that I realized he did not have a social security number. Even then, I did not know what that would mean for our lives. I know how ignorant that must sound, but you have to understand through my eyes and the lens of love I could only see the essence of this beautiful soul. Blind to his legal status because it did not have importance to me. Also, it was not daily news back then. It seemed Americans were enjoying the low-cost labor and didn’t feel the need to make headlines we see today.

In the following months after our wedding, I became pregnant with our son Ethan. It was during my second trimester that we decided it was time to see an immigration attorney. There is something about the responsibility of parenting that feels like a big wake up slap in the face. We were nervous about seeing the attorney because we knew it was going to be expensive. We did not know he was going to deliver bad news. I will never forget sitting in his office, my belly swollen, hearing that Visas for Mexican immigrants were no longer available here in the United States. Our legal marriage would have no impact on Victor’s Visa qualifications. In order to get legal residency status, Victor would be required to return to Mexico and apply at the United States Consulate office there. After returning to Mexico, he would not be allowed back into the United States until a decision had been reached regarding his application. The application review period was on average two years and resulted in only 2-4% of applicants receiving a Visa. No Visa would mean he would not return to me and our son. The other 96% of applications being denied did not look any different than those few being approved. In other words, it’s the luck of the draw, and the odds are NOT in your favor. If we were part of the lucky 2-4% we still faced the dilemma of being separated for at least two years. I would be required to remain living and working in the United States. I didn’t understand; he had never been in trouble with the law. He worked in a meaningful job and paid all his taxes. His American wife and son needed him!

I left the office that day feeling defeated and scared. Part of me hoped he was a scammer out for our money, so I went to San Francisco to see a well known immigration attorney and heard the same thing. Some nonsense about extreme hardship…. he said maybe if my son was born with a major health problem or if I developed cancer we might be eligible to sponsor my husband with certainty. Great, my choices were to pray for cancer, gamble with 3-% odds, or do nothing and continue to live with my husband undocumented.

We choose to ride the line in the middle for many years hoping the odds would get better. We paid all our fees and submitted our application but kept postponing the face to face hearing until more Visas were being offered. Living undocumented would force me to do all the driving because my husband would not have a license. We would not be able to travel by plane or to my sisters home in San Diego, CA because of border check points. Victor would not be able to drive our son and his classmates on field trips he would chaperone. Constant explanation needed. We would have to pay our taxes with an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), and this meant we could not claim tax credits I would otherwise be eligible for. We tried to stop renting and buy a home, but the mortgage lender told us that we would not be able to count my husbands income, and I would have to qualify alone. Worse of all my husband could not travel to visit his family in his hometown. He could not take me and our son, show us where he went to school as a child. He could not take our son to meet his Grandmother or be by his Grandfather’s side when he died. After eight years of living this way, I began to feel guilty for being the anchor keeping him here in a place that did not fully welcome him. His immigration status was taking a toll on us both individually and as husband and wife. Something had to change. We were thankful when our attorney called the summer of 2011 explaining he was seeing many more of his clients applications being approved. Even though, it was still a big gamble we knew we needed to move past this roadblock in our lives. We assured ourselves it would all workout in the end, and we scheduled the face to face interview that would take my husband away from me and our son.

The day Ethan and I drove Victor to the airport was the scariest day of my life. My husband was leaving, and I did not know what was going to happen or if he would be allowed to return. Ethan and I held each other and cried for hours. Suddenly my partner, who had been by my side nine years would be gone, and he was counting on me to hold things together and bring him home. The interview would be held in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border city. A very violent place filled with gruesome crime. I knew someone as americanized as my husband would stand out, and I stayed scared for his life the week he was required to be there for various mandatory appointments. At least after those two weeks he could travel to his home town and be with relatives.

Victor and I had worked hard knowing this day would come. We worked with others and helped build a local business. Brightpath, a school for troubled and at risk youth. It allowed flexibility in my schedule and enough savings over several years to sustain us during this very trying time. The first few months Ethan and I traveled frequently to spend time with Victor. It was heart breaking and amazing all at once. I got to see other parts of the world for the first time and even more importantly I got to see my husband and son surrounded by a very important part of their makeup. My husband and son are part Mexican and having the opportunity to see them in that setting while different parts of them began to come alive made me whole in a way. As a sheltered American, I was not exposed to other ways of living growing up. For the first time, my eyes witnessed new and other ways of life. It changed my level of curiosity and tolerance. It also gave me a new measuring tool when forming my opinion about life and what I believe is right and wrong, good and bad, important and distracting. Spending time in Mexico outside of my comfort zone made me a better person. I think anytime you are forced outside of your comfort zone you will find progressive growth.

The initial glory wore off quickly, and time continued on. The two years began to drag on forever. My frequent travel became too expensive and taxing on my mind, body and soul. Life was an emotional rollercoaster. The excitement of finally being able to be with Victor quickly followed by the feeling of my heart being ripped out of my chest was too much to bear time and time again. My son and me hysterically crying when we had to leave. The pain rocked my son to his core. He became especially withdrawn at school, and his learning disabilities were no longer manageable and started to become a great struggle for him. I was alone to deal with it all. Any mother who has held her child and loved him through a broken heart knows that you would do anything, and I mean anything to prevent, mend or heal their hearts. This is the point where anger entered my soul because I knew that this was a preventable pain. It wasn’t some horrible accident. It wasn’t some terrible sickness or natural disaster. It was stupid political red tape, and it was breaking my family and tearing apart my American dream. I had spent my entire adult life protecting and nurturing my family unit. It was and is my most valuable asset in life. Marriage is hard enough as it is. How many young kids get married and manage to stick it out a full decade? Add immigration as an issue, and it feels like the deck was stacked against us. Victor and I began to grow apart. He was becoming more immersed in his Mexican culture, experiencing it as an adult for the first time and I was evolving simply by having to be much stronger than I ever wanted to be. Growth is always a good thing but when you are a unit, and there is too much growth independently and not enough growth together it becomes very dangerous. Plus A person can only be that sad for so long. Unknowingly, we slowly began to let go, not sure if things would work out after all for our marriage.

My husband left on his journey seeking out what some Americans seem to think is an acceptable process to go through on the path to legal immigration on Sunday August 28th, 2011 at 5:30pm. He did not return to me until Saturday June 1st 2013 at 2pm. Since his return, it has taken us nearly an additional year to transition into this new way of living with eachother. Although he has legal residency now, and we celebrate and value it greatly; I question if the price we paid was simply too high for the return. I hesitate communicating that particular feeling publicly because I know just how sacred our liberties are but I came close to losing my marriage and as I said before my family unit is my most valuable asset in life.

On any given Sunday, my back yard is full of twenty plus undocumented immigrants and their first-generation American children. They are my family. They are not criminals or bad people. I find the opposite to be true, good people always willing to help. They are not any different from you or I. They breath the same; they bleed the same; they bow their head in prayer the same. They work hard all week and party on the weekend just the same and YES most of them pay their taxes just the same. I know more white American people cheating and hiding income on their tax returns than undocumented people failing to file and believe me… I know many undocumented people. I wonder if my white conservative Christian friends realize just how many first and second generation Americans are growing up watching their parents and family members be discriminated against in the name of this great nation’s freedom. I think about how this will shape Americas future. These children are growing up to be our voters, teachers, police officers. They will be a big part of the United States future military. Will our nation still have the promise of freedom worthy of a solider life? We fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I do not recall that dream having an expiration date or being labeled as only applying to those adopting Americas values on or before September 11th, 2001. America was founded by immigrants looking for a place to be free from violence, religious and governmental persecution. I question if Americans even realize our government has taken away the path to legal immigration for people from certain countries. Unless you are living it how could you.

I shame Christians who speak out against immigration and specifically the boarder children. Their hate shakes my foundation because it is the church that taught me my self-importance and love for others. It is the church that taught me to generously extend a helping hand to those in need. Now children are knocking at our nations door asking for help and some of the very people I credit with instilling within me Christian morals and teaching me Gods love are spewing hate from their mouths. It seems that conservative republicans and Christians often go hand and hand. In Sunday school, I remember being taught that God commanded his people to obey all laws of the land unless those laws disobeyed his teachings. It is going to be a hard, selfish story you are going to have to sell me if I am to believe God wants our comfort over helping children flee violence and hunger. I am calling for all Christians to urge their Republican Congress Representatives to reform our immigration laws, putting Gods love and acceptance along with Americas founding spirit at its core.

I said earlier that I could see myself In the border children. I was born to lost American people. My father was of native American decent and an alcoholic. He beat my mother and went to prison for unthinkable crimes. In my early years, my mother was addicted to methamphetamines. Born to troubled parents it is no wonder I was broken in my youth. Like a lost child, I constantly looked all around me for influence and guidance. No doubt an old soul I believe, that even at a young age, I was able to discern wisdom and gravitate towards it. Thank God and good-hearted people who helped mold me into the young woman I am today. I doubt any of them felt very burdened with their service to me yet it was nonetheless very significant. I have a million flaws and then a few more but when I look in the mirror, I am proud of what I see. I work serving my community and raising a family in a very beautiful part of the world just a short walk to the waters edge. I went from being a welfare child to living successfully and traveling the world. Not all people with similar childhood stories get a happy ending. Good people made sure I didn’t fall through the cracks. I am a more productive member of society and a better person because the California welfare department and taxpayers fed me during the time between my father going to prison and my mother finding work. Now my husband and I pay income taxes on a respectable salary. I owe thanks not only to the system but to so many people. I hold their names close to my heart.

My aunt Sheila gave me my first bike, a hand-me-down from her daughter, but it was at a time when I didn’t even know to dream about something so cool. Aunt Mary took my mom shopping for a dress to wear to church for the first time. Sister Thompson anonymously gave my mother a Christmas card with $200.00 cash. It came right after my mom stopped receiving welfare, on a month where she knew her paycheck wasn’t going to feed us after she paid rent. Sister Magby and Sister Carpenter taught me Bible verses and how to stand at the pulpit and deliver my message. My favorite Bible teaching has always been 2nd Corinthians 9:7. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Miller read to me every day and made me want to make the world a better place just like Miss Rumphius. Now, I know how important it is to read to my son every day. The Bennett family sacrificed in order to show me a bigger, better, brighter world was out there. It made me dream for it. Watching the two of them as a team influenced me more than they know. Helen Brewer took a young girl into her pasta shop and taught me how to cook and work hard. My middle school Bible teacher Mr. Booth taught truths about marriage and commitment and the difference between that and love or lust. I don’t imagine it was easy trying to get through to preteens in a meaningful way, but he did, and I hold onto his words and teachings when life requires sacrifice of myself for the better of my marriage and husband. We just celebrated out eleventh-wedding anniversary.

My point is that so many people blessed me while I was growing up, and that made a difference. They passed through my life and improved it. Now I do what I can to go out and make my community better. It doesn’t take a lot, and most of us have more than enough and then some. These kids on the border are not the problem of someone else. They are knocking at our door desperately and asking for US for help. I was a desperate kid once and fortunate enough that those around me were willing and able. They didn’t close their eyes.

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