August 23, 2011
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 you’re not expecting anything to happen, and with me not knowing anything about my legal status. At first, you’re kind of . . . you think it’s not real. Like, ‘Oh, you must have the wrong person.’ 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 driver’s 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 shouldn’t be happening and everything would be okay. And then, [immigration] just said, ‘Hey you, you’re leaving today.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anyone. I don’t speak the language. What do you want me to do?’ They said, ‘Well, we can’t give you legal advice.’ 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 can’t go anywhere because you’re immigrant of a federal area, so you only have one way to walk, and that’s 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 couldn’t call anybody. I couldn’t 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 shouldn’t 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 mom’s 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, ‘You know, where I grew up, we don’t let that happen.’ I wasn’t used to seeing things like that. I didn’t want to be there, but I couldn’t leave. The majority of the two months I spent in my room by myself. It was almost like I didn’t 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 can’t go too in-depth with the reasons of what happened, but after multiple incidents, and you start realizing that you’re the one being targeted, you just lose patience. I know two months doesn’t seem like that long, but every day I didn’t know when I was coming home. That’s 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?
It’s not technically a prison, though I don’t know what the difference is. I’ve never been to prison, but I’m pretty sure it’s 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 wasn’t as bad. I went to Arizona by myself because I didn’t really have a choice. I figured I’d 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 Milwaukee, Oregon, for Christmas. Did they do that special for you?
Yes, the [immigration] let me go home on December 23. It’s 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 it’s on a case-by-case situation, and it’s not very common.
Now you’re back with your mom and your brother in Milwaukee. What is your current legal situation?
I’m waiting for a court date. I should be receiving it in the mail soon. But right now, I’m, I think it’s called ‘out-of-status.’ I’m not really legally here, but I’m not illegally here. I’m 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 who’s an advocate and he’s 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 I’m fine. I know it sounds weird, but right now I’m just waiting to get back to work, and that’s probably going to be before I get back to school. And then I’ll just pick up where I left off. What I told everybody is that I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been guaranteed multiple times by some of the best attorneys in the country that I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going back to another country. And that’s always reassuring. I’m 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 I’m an American. I may not be an American citizen, but I think I’m 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 wouldn’t be in jail for years and years and years. I knew the right thing would be done, and the right thing was done. I’m not mad that I got arrested. A lot of people say, ‘You should be mad at the system. You should be mad at your parents.’ Well, I’m 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 don’t think it’s helped me too much, but it’s definitely opened my eyes. I now realize that when you’re 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, it’s a sad thing, and it’s 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. It’s a really sad thing to see. This isn’t right. So it definitely opened my eyes.