On Februrary 15, Ithaca, NY resident Gloria Lemus-Sanchez, who was born in Mexico, shared her story with CUSLAR students. Lemus-Sanchez works at Cornell University, is enrolled the university’s employee degree program, and is a mother of four. CUSLAR’s Evelyn Sanchez transcribed her talk.
When I was 17 my father was already working in the United States – he had a contract with [Louis Rich] in South Carolina. I stayed behind in Mexico with my mom and siblings and I met this boyfriend who was really amazing and great. And so, we dated for a while and within the same time, my father was getting to be sent a visa and passport for my mom and my brothers. I was supposed to come but Juan proposed and I was sure it was the right thing to do. And because of that my dad didn’t process my visa and my passport because it’s also money that we’re speaking, right?
Within the timeframe where all that was happening, Juan got offered a job he said that he was going to go for a week or 2. He called every day to check on me and he was really good. Within that time, I also learned that I was expecting a baby. We had been dating for 8, 9 months already He would say “our little family.” So that time he called, I told him I was with a baby and so he got excited, but he never called again. And I never heard back from him. it took me 6 months before I realized- or before I convinced myself, or got, it that he wasn’t coming back.
So it was during that time that I turned 18 so my dad couldn’t get me a passport or a visa anymore, because I was considered an adult. So, I would have to prove that I was coming back and that I have a business. It took about a month before he could bring me to the United States. And I had no other choice, right? I didn’t have a house, I didn’t have a job, I was doing tortas calientes for eating, my stomach was showing, it was getting hard walking to work and back, and I had this baby that I had to be responsible for.
I was really happy where I was at the time. I was going to the Instituto de Bellas Artes, I was doing painting. I had my life together, I was going to school, I was happy with my friends, I wasn’t looking to come to the United States. I didn’t want to come. I was good where I was.
Why do I say that I came because I needed and not because I wanted? There is this misconception that mothers from other countries come and have their babies here so that they can be born in the United States, it’s not necessarily true for everyone. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen for some, but we’re not utilitarian. We’re not just seeking opportunistic things to do. I assure you a lot of people in Mexico don’t want to come. Some of them want to but not all of them, not all of us. Now, I don’t regret it and I don’t regret the blessings and the opportunities I have and my kids and everything, but it wasn’t in my plans. It wasn’t what I wanted.
So, I arrived in South Carolina and because I was 18 in small Newberry, South Carolina, I couldn’t go back to school. First I needed to learn English a little bit, so I could go to school. So, it was a whole year of doing the English as a Second Language high school. I had a baby, I had to provide for my baby, and so I didn’t go back to high school then, I had to do my GED. I think in South Carolina, if I’m not mistaken, the age limit for high schoolers is 19. Here in Ithaca, it’s 21.
I met my now-ex-husband in Newberry. I think we got married because he was the only other young-looking person who spoke Spanish and that felt familiar, but we were absolutely from opposite places. We made it work for some years. We had three more kids, I have four kids and one grandkid. We moved to Ithaca because his cousin owns the Garcia’s Mexican restaurant. There used to be one in Ithaca and he had this grandiose plan that he wanted to own a restaurant.
The very first time my ex said lets got to New York, it was in spring break and it was still snowing and still dark and I said, no. That was all good with that and he suggested that again about 8 years ago and I said let’s go and this is why. The local police in Newberry started doing retenes, like block stops where mothers like myself would drive to drop their kids off at school and what they would do is stop people and take them to jail, have somebody pick up the car and then you have to pay the fee which is not small, it’s like $1,000, $1,500 and then they will release you, and it’s not even on your record, and they’re stuck with you because you don’t have a driver’s license, so it’s just to get the money.
A lot of people live in fear and this is ongoing, you know this is still happening, to the point where there is an app so people know where the retenes are going on. And then the treatment people give you going to the DMV and being Hispanic, it’s like almost like you’re going to jail and begging for bread.
So, when I initially said yes, let’s go to Ithaca, it was because I didn’t want to suffer with that stress, that fear. That’s a constant anxiety that I don’t think people realize we all live with, a constant anxiety and fear.
My experience here is, I’m in Ithaca. It’s full of activists and protesters and so, I am very empowered but it doesn’t mean that I’m not fearful. Last December, I had my immigration court, my first hearing in immigration court in Buffalo, and we had been working with a lawyer in Florida, with the yearly permit and now they closed the case in December, I didn’t know what was going to happen.
I made the mistake of watching some videos where people that had been forever here are sent back and the laws are not consistent and so I was really fearful. I’m thankful that I have a good group of friends and community. So, Ian, the guy that is running for Congress, and his campaign manager and another guy that is the communication director, they went with me, which meant a lot, just so that I wouldn’t be alone. But, we had all this fear. I told them, I have to give you my fifteen-year-old son’s number and my parent’s information so that if I’m taken, will you please call them and let them know what happened. If I come out I’ll call them myself but if I don’t come out then I will need you to please do it, and there’s a plan I have. I can’t just go into court without a plan because I have kids.
And I remember for students, like high schoolers, middle schoolers in Ithaca district you have to have your shots and your doctor physical yearly and we’re in the restaurant business and we have no insurance. So I went to DSS to get Medicaid for them, and I remember entering into the office here and the treatment, the dignified treatment of being seen as a human rather than being seen as ‘how dare you enter here?’ and ‘get out.’ It was…I cried a little, silently you know. I was so thankful.
I’m going back in June, to court, to see the residency, to see if I get my residency and after that it’s a ten year period, but I can apply for citizenship by four years, I think, which I’m looking forward to. I haven’t been able to get out of the country because even with my permit, you can’t get out. I mean you can, but you can’t come back. So it’s almost like I haven’t been able to go back to Mexico and I miss it and I miss my friends, I miss the culture.
My dad was a very intellectual person that pushed books into our very early education. So I always knew that education was important. I did my GED, then I got a diploma in Fitness & Nutrition, then I did some paralegal studies, then when I moved to Ithaca and I learned about Cornell. Within that time, we were able to apply for a permit to work and live in the United States, just because my 17-year-old is high-functioning autistic. So, it’s a permit that comes under the asylum, but- because we have a child that has medical needs, its more probable that we can get a visa easy hopefully.
We got the permit and I was able to start working at Cornell with that. You know, now I have a social security number, I’m legally in the country, which is not permanent. So I started working at Cornell. During all of those years, I have done a lot of volunteer work. I’d work in schools, I’d work in all sorts of things, and I have done a lot of community things, so I always have an opportunity to have good personal recommendations. And I knew somebody from church that worked at Cornell that got me into some temporary work which turned into permanent work which is where I work now. I knew I needed to come to Cornell because of the employee degree program. So, I’m also doing a Bachelor’s in Arts and Sciences, majoring in social and cultural anthropology and the other is social psychology. It’s going to take a long time but I’m going to continue to get older anyway.
One of the things my mom and dad would say when I arrived to South Carolina because they are very religious, as many Hispanic parents are, they would say, ‘Ora para que seas invisible,’. So ‘just pray so that you remain invisible.’ I guess that worked for some years for me, but I don’t want to be invisible because being invisible means that I will always do a second-hand job – cleaning somebody’s house, being treated like I have no intellect to do something else, and being ok with whatever I’m given and I just refuse to do that. No, I don’t want to pray to be invisible.
My kids are U.S. citizens born in the United States. Why do I have to be invisible? How do I advocate for my seventeen-year-old who is an autistic, high functioning autistic? How do I get those rights?
At this point, I’m not fearful. There’s a lot of people that are fearful because they don’t have the tools, the connections, the capacity, the understanding, that it’s going to take some fight. Before I get comfortable, I have to be very uncomfortable. I’ve learned to do that, so I’m willing to advocate for those that can’t. I have heard that apathy is a cycle, if people have apathy, bad things continue to happen and it’s not until you push back with greater force that things change.
And I realize that in my case I’m being extremely selfish because I have a 9 year old boy…for court this past December, my lawyer suggested that I should ask my children to write a letter of why it would be disastrous if they sent me back to Mexico, and my 15,17, and 20 year old kids understood it better. I don’t think my 9 year old ever realized that I wasn’t here to stay if I didn’t do something about it. I was telling him and he looked down and this is the kid that never cries, he’s so confident, and as soon as I told him, he looked like he had seen a monster and at the same time I had died. It broke me, and all the confidence I had, it left me. That’s what gives me strength, I have a responsibility to another person.
Update: June 6, 2018
For all of you beautiful people who so kindly have shown support through this painful immigration trajectory; I had a long and exhausting hearing of 3+ hrs where a lot of questions where asked, and a lot of evidence was given. The case is closed (meaning that no more paperwork or court appointments will be needed for now), and my attorney will meet with the judge overseeing the case, along with the federal prosecutor on 07/11/18 to go over the records once more.
After that it could take up to two more years before I hear the judge’s verdict. Ugh…
However, I’m feeling pretty light after hearing that the federal prosecutor had no objections or concerns on my case, and after having a very positive review from my lawyer.
I can’t sing victory yet, but can almost start to smell it!
Thanks again, everyone!