From Crossing Borders to Graduation Stages

One Man's Story of Migration

Editor's Note:

Adrian Avila came to this country at the age of five crossing the U.S. México border; he recalls the journey from border to graduating from a four-year university.

For 25 years I lived with the fear of deportation and separation of all that I know in this country. My loved ones, however, still live in this fear because they are not eligible for documentation at this current time and could fall as casualties under Trump’s orders.

                                            Adrian and his mother celebrating his first birthday in México City.

I received my green card last June; I have been blessed to return back to the homeland five times since then. I have entered the country on five different occasions, each with its own experience, none of which compared to the first time I entered the U.S. as a five year old child clinging to my mother's hand as we ran towards a better future.

The Crossing 

It takes a lot of courage to leave all that you know and love in exchange for a better future for your child. This thought guides me when I feel I am not striving as hard as I should in life. My mother and I embarked on a life-changing journey in March of 1990; our destination was the Good Ol’ US of A. On a Friday morning we boarded a plane at Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez in México City that was headed for Tijuana.

As a five year old, being on an airplane for the first time was an ecstatic experience, and nothing close to crossing the U.S.-México border on foot. My mother and I looked north, taking the first steps towards a future filled with more opportunities, nothing handed to us; only the chance to work hard and get ahead – to have upward mobility and stability – an opportunity that would be far more difficult to achieve in México.

A hand printed poster of Adrian and his mom being crossed over the border by a drone.

My mother traded in a decade-long office desk job that provided her a real living wage for labor jobs in the food industry.

The day we left México she wore all white, I see it now as a sign of her pure intentions, not causing harm to anyone in the process. My mother possibly knew she was losing more than she might gain, that she might never return to the place her heart knows as home.

On our first attempt at crossing the border we were apprehended by border patrol agents, detained overnight and released back into México. It was our version of “manifest destiny” that we would cross over and build a new life. On the second attempt, and what I have now dubbed “The Game” we ran right by border agents and like a football game, we rushed our way to an ultimate touchdown and safely made it into the US. We hid under cars, in bushes at various places in order to avoid detection from border agents before finally making our way up North.

Twenty-seven years later, I can still recall that night and the commitment that my mother and I made not only to ourselves, but also to this country. It was an unspoken understanding that we were going to do our best here. By entering the country we had made a decision to bring our best with us; one does not make the sacrifices we did only to throw them away with a life of crime or laziness. We would watch the evening news and hear how they portrayed undocumented immigrants like us, and my mother always reminded me of our true intentions.

My mother has let go of any fears, in a recent conversation she explained how she has decided to be in peace and not worry about what might happen to her, as far as her legal status or facing deportation. Her goal was for me to have a better future and that goal has become a reality. I live a blessed life. “If they don't want me and all I bring, then that is their loss. I haven't even gotten a parking ticket in the past 27 years here,” she smiles as she says this to me. She knows that she is a model citizen, or in her case, undocumented citizen.

She warrants no deportation, but you never know now, so if a day comes when she has to leave the country she has a full community that would rally for her. In the United States we would do anything possible on the legal side, and back in México she would have the support of our family as well.

The Wall

Having gone through the experience of crossing the border on foot, I can say that a wall is not the answer to the immigration problem; a wall was designed to divide two spaces, and this wall would only continue to be a visual representation of the anti-immigrant position this administration is standing by.

Screen printed codex on the crossing of the border as a five year old in Mayan style.

Trump is not addressing any of the real issues we face in the U.S. as immigrants. Instead, immigrants and non-immigrants alike get the message that the U.S. is a holy land that must be protected from the evil of the South.

A wall can’t stop anyone who truly wants to find a way in. I think back to my mother and I, and how unprepared we were for our journey. People seeking a better life are powered by a certain determination most US born Americans will never understand. It’s only when your back is up against the cage that you stop fearing the lion in the cage. Instead of focusing on the building of a wall that most likely will not stop new immigrants from crossing over, the focus should be in passing a comprehensive immigration policy that can begin to heal instead of covering up a bleeding wound. It has been over three decades since Republican Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) granting amnesty to roughly 2.7 immigrants. We have seen five presidents take office since then, and none on the verge of passing a comprehensive immigration policy.

 It is time to respect the hard work and effort being put in by the individuals that give up so much to help this country be great.

Getting documented 

My documentation came through a U-Visa, intended to grant temporary status to victims of crimes. When I was15 years old a 42 year old white male called me a wetback and physically confronted me outside my home. I literally felt the weight of being undocumented as a grown man full of rage attacked me because of where I was born. The man was convicted for harming a minor and jailed for a year. If I would have applied for the U-Visa during the six-year period after the attack happened or before the time I turned 21, my mother would have also been granted status, yet we were never made aware we had that protection. Ten years later I applied for a U-Visa. I was granted a four-year U-Visa that afforded me legal rights to work and feel safe from deportation with a path to legalization.

Adrian and his mother going to pick up his U.S. permanent residency/green card.

In the past 27 years in the U.S. I have been able to complete elementary, middle, high school, junior college and just graduated with my bachelors’ degree in design studies from San Jose State University. I have also been employed, started a small printing and design service, got married, visited over 22 states, and contrary to Trump’s views on immigrants I have never been locked up, hurt anyone or even missed a tax return – more than Trump can say.

Even being married to a U.S. born citizen didn't provide me with immigration relief, yet we were limited in our new life together as husband and wife. For one, we had no assurance that we could build a life in the U.S. due to the fear of being deported and separated from each other. She always made sure I knew she would be by my side no matter what. As a husband I never wanted for her to have that threat lingering over her head. Our marriage is strong and as a couple we love to travel and experience new places and people. Before being documented we were confined to the U.S., and because I wasn't able to obtain a driver's license, she had to do all the driving; any trip outside the country my wife would have to take on her own. Those moments of separation from my wife was because I was not allowed to travel outside the U.S..

I am glad that I am able to be there for her now in new ways, it might not seem like a lot but being able to drive my wife around means the world to me, it means that I can share responsibilities with my wife when we take road trips. It is really about the little things in life.

Not too long ago my mom sat me down and explained how glad she is that I was able to receive my documentation. For the first time, she spoke to me as if I was a victim. "You were only five years old; you did not ask to come here the way we did, you deserve all that you achieve." Those words were hard for me to hear, I never want my mother to think that the sacrifices we made were not both our decisions. She has put in a lot of hard, honest work to be where we are now, in my eyes she has earned the right to live in the U.S. in peace, free of fear of deportation.

Crossing back

The first time I left the U.S. after receiving my documentation, I returned to México City after 26 years. I was welcomed with a party thrown by my family, some who never got to say goodbye before I left at the age of five, some new members that I had never met before, but all full of love and emotions. It was truly a blessed experience with mariachis, amazing home cooked dishes, stories of my childhood, stories about my mom, and dancing. Family experiences I missed out on those past 25 years, the type of experiences that shape your life in ways only family could.

I remember some of my life in Mexico, like walking to school through my neighborhood, a walk I recently re-took on my last trip to Mexico. I also remember being in front of our home playing with my cousins. There are other small memories, but I when I first got to my old neighborhood it all felt so familiar, like I was there when they poured the cement into the ground or when the house to the right received a new paint job. I wasn’t physically there, but something in my DNA instinctually knew I was home. I know a lot had changed from when I was a kid, but the essence was all there. The people full of life, the food has connections to the past while looking forward to better times to come, the culture is vibrant and welcoming even through a 27 year absence.

My mother talks to our family back home almost daily, the phone has been a really big part to my family staying connected. I wish I could say the same; I have not always been in contact with my family as much as I would like to be. But I know my mom always updates them on what is happening both in my life and hers. She is very happy for me, and knows that one day she will also be able to return to her homeland, even if just to visit. She has told me that Mexico will always be a part of her soul, but the U.S. is where her body and mind reside. She has now also been able to see four of her sisters when they made a trip to the U.S. to visit her. After 27 years they finally got to hold one another even though not in Mexico it made her feel like she was home.

Adrian on top of the Pyramid of the Moon with the Pyramid of the Sun in the background at Teotihuacan.

It was so simple to get on a plane and be back in a place that is such a part of me, something that can be taken for granted by individuals that are free to enter and leave the U.S. at will.

Started from the border now I am here, is what I was thinking as I waited in line at customs to re-enter the U.S.. I couldn’t believe that I was going to be allowed back into the U.S. because I had a plastic card saying I was okay to. It was a card that took decades to posses. Contrary to my natural instinct to stay as far away from any agent, I handed the clean cut man my documents and answered some questions. In less than four minutes we're in the U.S.; I have waited for my bags at airports longer than that whole process took. How quick the process happened only strengthened my beliefs that at the end of the day we are all human beings who should be afforded the right to travel and connect with the places and people that make us whole. I came back from the trip a new and better person, I felt more complete with my culture and who my people are. I was happy to see where I get my characteristics from, where I get my appetite for life. I have a more open line of communication with my family back home because of my trips. 

Crossing stages

This month, my mother had the opportunity to see me make another important crossing in my life. The same five-year old that crossed the border on foot is now crossing a stage that some might have never thought possible. Fifteen years after graduating from high school and after a ten year break from school I was able to achieve my goal of completing something I had started. I received my B.A. in design studies, yet I feel like I am getting much more than a degree. For me crossing the stage means that I stayed true to the sacrifices that my mother took to get me there. Not only crossing the border but also all that we had to endure during the first years of us being in the U.S. with no legal status. Crossing that stage writes our perseverance into the narrative of anti immigrant sentiments. According to that narrative, I was not meant to be where I am in life. I don’t see it that way yet we have in office a President who sees our willingness to overcome as a threat to this nation, when in reality it is what has made this country what it is, immigrants coming to this land in search of opportunities not available where they are from.

This is the country where you can build something from nothing, make it your own – but also have it be a part of a bigger community – like all the tech in Silicon Valley. For my mom, she’s not making apps but she has literally built her little world – and that is the American dream. It was something achievable and it didn’t hurt her or anyone in the process. Back in Mexico the government could have taken her house like it happened to others. Here it is easier to find a way, it’s a building block type of nation and that’s what I like about her being here, she is not as limited as she would be in other places.

Adrian's graduation cap paying tribute to his roots and the path that led him here

At the end of the day I look back at the odyssey that I have taken from undocumented to now documented in more ways that one, and although the walk has been a long one and at times hard, I am truly grateful for the experiences that have shaped me. I try my best to see my documentation as a victory for all of us, even though I carry disappointment in the system for being the way it is and causing division.

Tags: gradcap immigrad immigration