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Four stories of immigrant mothers who braved hard work, perilous journeys, even separation to raise their children as U.S. citizens

American Dreamers



On a sunny Saturday at Hillcrest United Methodist Church, smiling volunteers greet a teenage boy. His dad says something almost inaudible as he glances down at the folder in his hand, but one word is clear.

"Papeles," he says.

A volunteer directs the pair to the church gymnasium. They arrive to find tables full of parents and kids, while a young woman gives instructions in Spanish. The majority of the people assembled here are from Latin America, though a few are from Europe and Asia. What they all have in common is that they want to be Americans.

Most live in southeast Nashville and Antioch, though some have traveled from outlying counties like Coffee, Sumner, Bedford and Rutherford. The woman slides a page into a projector, and the image of a blank white form illuminates the dark gym. Together, the families begin filling in the blanks.

By the time the day is over, they will have filled out daunting amounts of paperwork. For the young people assembled, these papers hold a new world of potential — a ticket to U.S. residency, a green card ... a future. And for many of the immigrant parents who brought them, this bureaucratic gauntlet will be just the latest hardship they've braved in order to raise their children as American citizens.

Once a month, the Methodist-based nonprofit organization Justice for Our Neighbors of Tennessee holds a free legal clinic for Tennessee immigrants seeking a path to lawful residency in the United States. On these Saturdays, the organization's staff attorney and the lawyers who volunteer their expertise meet with prospective clients, many of whom have no idea how to navigate the legal labyrinth that awaits them. (See "First Steps," the final section of this story.)

Kathryn Spry, a retiree and volunteer, has run these Saturday clinics every month since the Tennessee JFON chapter started five years ago, one link in a national network. "There's usually nervousness," she says, recalling the mornings she's had to cajole families into the building, reassuring them that the clinic wasn't an Immigration and Customs Enforcement sting.

But as a grandmother herself, Spry says she admires the parents who exit the shadows and risk deportation to help secure their children's futures. Tennessee JFON volunteer board president Kaki Friskics-Warren seconds her thoughts.

"For these parents to say, 'We're going to take this risk with you,' " Friskics-Warren says, "it's an act of incredible love."

In the following pages, you'll find stories of both risk and incredible love. You'll find immigrant mothers who took horrific risks to improve their kids' lot in life, and raised those kids by doing hard jobs in a foreign land. You'll find mothers who gambled what little they'd won by carrying folders of documents to a JFON legal clinic, braving deportation so their own children would never know that threat.

A child's face, free from worry, is a Mother's Day gift no brunch or bouquet could equal. Meet four women — in person and in one tragic instance, in memory — who hope to obliterate a single participle that has defined their children's lives and narrowed their prospects: undocumented.

  • Photo: Eric England

Mother and Dreamer

Albina's daughter Naomi, doctors told her, was growing too fast.

In the part of Mexico where Naomi was born, doctors had never seen early-onset puberty before. The little girl was only 8 when she started showing the signs. Doctors told Albina that if she didn't get monthly injections to slow her daughter's development, she'd end up an adult in a stunted, childlike body.

The injections cost four times what Albina made every month.

Albina's sisters urged her to come to Nashville. She could do the same kind of child care work she did in Mexico, they said, but make enough money to pay for Naomi's medical treatments.

When Albina left to find work in the States, her husband told her, the girl would look at her mother's empty clothes and cry. Albina sent her daughter long-distance hugs on the telephone. But the separation, she says, "was really, really difficult." She hoped to save enough money to keep Naomi healthy, and then go home.

As Albina asked people she met about her daughter's diagnosis, she began to suspect that Naomi's doctors were wrong — that early puberty was common enough, and that she didn't need the expensive treatments. She was relieved, but she started thinking: What if the family came here? If Naomi learned English, so much the better for her future.

Naomi started school in Smyrna on her 11th birthday. Once she had a firm grasp of English, the family thought, they'd go home to Mexico. That time seemed to be nearing as she started high school — a guidance counselor told the teen that she shouldn't bother with the ACT or SAT because she wouldn't be able to go to college anyway.

"She kept telling me, 'You can't go to school here,' " recalls Naomi. " 'You are illegal.' "

Her quiet voice barely wavers as she recalls the moment, but her mom isn't fooled by her composure. She rubs Naomi's shoulder as her daughter talks about this and other disappointments — unkind words from peers about "illegals" (an epithet, to her mind) in a class debate; a dismissive counselor; a little girl's linguistic and cultural isolation. "That's when my journey began, of trying to find out what to do," Naomi says.

The family considered returning to Mexico, so Naomi could go to university there. But Albina's parents warned them that San Luis Potosí had become unsafe, lawless. Their home was raided twice by robbers, and a man for whom Albina once worked had been kidnapped. "It's too dangerous for her," Naomi's grandparents said.

Meanwhile, Naomi searched for alternate routes to the education she craved. She learned about a NASA program at TSU called SEMAA (Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy). Inspired, she started making the weekly two-hour bus ride to TSU to learn about science — and later, to Lipscomb as a robotics camp counselor. The language of numbers, gears and bolts, she says, is the same everywhere.

Todd Gary, who headed the SEMAA program for eight years, says Naomi stood out — for her determination to be there, and for her love of helping younger campers. "She has tremendous potential," Gary says.

Naomi dreamed of studying engineering. Things were falling into place: Lipscomb accepted her, and she won a national NASA Pioneer award for her mentorship at SEMAA. But after accepting the award in Washington, D.C., she got word that it (along with a scholarship) had been rescinded because she wasn't a U.S. citizen.

"It's just having some hope taken away,'" she says in that steady voice, her mom rubbing her shoulder. "And it took me several years to lift up my head and say, 'I am more than just an award.' "

Naomi, now 22, speaks formally and deliberately, as if she collects most of her words from books. She talks about the challenges of higher education for a first-generation immigrant: transportation, language, workload, money. After a few semesters at Lipscomb, she moved to Motlow State Community College to study mechatronics, a robotics-related field. And she's become a "dreamer," in a specific political sense: She's an advocate with "United We Dream," an organization that lobbies for the rights of undocumented students, and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

"She told me one day," recalls Albina, " 'Mama, if they arrest me for doing this activism, it doesn't matter. I accept it!' "

"If one of us dreamers could benefit from the Dream Act because of our direct actions, then I would be OK with being arrested," explains Naomi.

"I'm proud that my daughter is a 'dreamer,' " adds Albina, smiling at Naomi. "That's what I think of you. That you're not afraid. That you are braver than me ... a mirror to me."

For the moment, Naomi has stopped translating, and she and her mother are facing each other. "I learned it from her," she says, returning her mom's smile.

  • Photo: Eric England

María of Peace

When the Chinese restaurant where María de la Paz Chávez cooked chow mein and chop suey shut its doors, she knew it was time to leave El Salvador.

The single mom of two had seen her San Salvador neighborhood grow dangerous and crime-ridden. Gangs extracted protection money from business owners; many shops closed. She wondered whether her son, then 11, would one day fall in with the gangsters who lurked outside his school.

Chávez's own career hopes had dissolved — she dreamed of becoming a nurse — and she didn't want the same thing to happen to her kids.

"If you have children," says María, whose name means "Maria of Peace," "you want them to do better than you did." So she boarded a bus for Chiapas and paid a guide $7,000 to take her to Arizona.

"It was awful," she says, her eyes streaming. "We slept on a mountain ... walked three days and nights in the desert. There were snakes, coyotes, scorpions. We could hear people crying out at night. It sounded like they were about to die. We thought the same thing would happen to us."

Oddly, it was on her horrific odyssey through the rugged Mexican desert that Chávez's confidence took firm hold. The group waited in a safe house, exhausted and hungry. No one took action to get people fed. So she told the guide, "Let's go to the market." She cooked beef soup for the whole group, on Mother's Day of 2005.

That's when she realized that being able to do things gave her power and leverage. Even so, Chávez recalls, she didn't feel safe until she set eyes on her brothers in Nashville. She found a job at a Mexican restaurant, and another one cleaning buildings. With those, she started saving money to send for her kids. When her little girl's father joined her from Maryland and offered to help, she was overjoyed.

"But he wasn't the same person he used to be," she says. "I lost hope." They began to argue when he insisted she turn over her paychecks to him. And then one day, he hit her.

"I wasn't going to put up with that," she says firmly. She called the police and showed them the bruises. They promised to make an arrest.

When a domestic violence counselor at MNPD told Chávez that she might qualify for a U visa — available to victims of certain crimes who cooperate with police — she didn't believe it. "I thought, 'I'm undocumented,' " she recalls. " 'This won't work for me.' "

Chávez was lucky. She had two advantages: a domestic violence support group that assured her that yes, it would work; and a savvy brother who told her, "Keep your life in order." He advised her to always use her real name (so there'd be a record of her employment history, her cooperation with police, etc.); to keep a single job long term; and to pay her taxes every year.

Doing everything by the book helped Chávez immensely when she met with JFON attorneys and applied for the U visa. Even better, she learned that a U visa would extend legal status to her children too. She'd been away from them for more than seven years, saving money to bring them to the States safely — "not the way I came," she says, shaking her head.

When she picked up her 19-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter at the Nashville airport last fall, Chávez recalls, "it was beautiful." They hugged her and met their 4-year-old sister for the first time. And they begged her to take them out for pupusas, a Salvadoran specialty.

"I took them to Red Lobster instead," she grins. "I wanted to show them that it's different here."

These days, Chávez says she's thinking of opening her own restaurant in Nashville — a city that finally feels like home to her. She cooks scrambled eggs and beans for her husband and kids on Saturday mornings, and then they stroll the park with other moms and kids from her daughter's school. She loves hearing her little girls speak English with each other.

But she also wants them to remember where they came from. Some of her Salvadoran friends' kids, she says, act "superior" when they visit home, "like they're afraid to touch the dirt floor, because there's no carpet on it." She likes to remind her two oldest: "You were born there."

Chávez exudes a tranquil, gentle self-respect — evident in the way she called police at the first moment of violence at home, and in the way she raises her kids to see themselves as equal to everyone. She says it's a trait she learned from the grandmother who raised her.

"She taught me manners and how to cook," she smiles. "Knowing things gave me confidence. And she told me I didn't have to be afraid."

María de la Paz Chávez spoke through a translator.

  • Photo: Eric England

A Son Alone

The best moment in Kevin Alexander's life so far happened at an Alabama gas station when he was 11 years old. "When I saw my mom after so long," recalls Kevin, 17, "I was like, 'I know it was worth it. Because I'm here now.'

"That's when I felt better. I didn't have nothing else to worry about."

When Kevin climbed into his mother Maria's car that day in Alabama, he didn't recognize her. The air between them felt dense and awkward, but the two soon warmed to each other. Her voice at least was familiar to him — from the many phone calls to his grandparents' small rural home in Guatemala, the promise she'd made to him over the years: "When I save enough money, I'll send for you."

For someone who'd been alive only a decade, Kevin already had plenty of worries. His mom had left for the States six years earlier. He missed her terribly, and faced a future as the grandson of Guatemalan farmers and shopkeepers amid rampant poverty and escalating violence.

But when the call finally came — the one saying, "It's time" — Kevin remembers, "I felt excited. I felt like I wanted to go! I was ready. I was waiting for this."

What he wasn't ready for was the lonely and arduous journey. First came a long bus ride to Mexico. That led to an uncertain month of waiting, holed up in a tiny house. His travails culminated in a punishing five-day hike across severe borderlands. On a bitterly cold night in the mountains, the little boy wanted to turn back.

"I thought to myself, 'What am I doing? This is craaaazzzy!' " Kevin says. "And I told the guy, 'Just take me back. I can't do it no more.' "

"Go ahead," the guide told him. "You're on your own."

Kevin had become close to an older woman who was also making the journey, to Texas to join her son. Hungry and exhausted, she'd given up, begging her young companion to leave her in the wilderness. She reminded him of his mother. He refused to abandon her.

"The rest of the people kept on going until I screamed, I yelled at them to help the lady out," he says. "And they did."

At the Alabama filling station, when Kevin jumped out of the hired driver's car and into his mom's, he became a kid again. His new family — Maria, his stepfather, and two half-sisters — moved to Nashville, and he started school at Neely's Bend Middle School. Without much English, he felt apart from the school life swirling around him. But he was home, and safe. His stepdad worked construction, while his mom cooked tamales (his favorite), drove him to school, and cared for the little girls.

And then one morning almost four years ago, as Kevin was washing the dishes, Maria cried out to him, then collapsed. An ambulance took her. Later that day, his stepdad told him that his mother had died of a heart attack.

He was overcome, he recalls, by a feeling much like the one he'd had on his five-day journey. "But this time it was worse," he says. "Because I lost the person I loved most. And starting over, basically alone."

Kevin, a spiky-haired 17-year-old with a sweet, supernova smile, doesn't do bravado. He doesn't expect to recover from losing his mom. "She left an empty spot in my heart that nobody's gonna fill up," he says.

But his mother left him something else — an instinct for right and wrong, and a generosity he hopes to pass on someday to his own kids. He smiles when he recalls how people still speak of her kindnesses, whether she was offering rides to those without cars or a few dollars to those without jobs or money. One cousin told Kevin a story: He'd been shot, and Maria was the only person who helped care for him, driving him to therapy and doctor visits.

"She was really special," the cousin told him. "You should be proud of her being your mom."

This spring, Alexander will graduate from Hunter's Lane High School. With JFON's help, he now has a Social Security number and a driver's license, and he's a legal permanent resident. He lives with an uncle and works nights and weekends at Arby's. He hopes to study to become a computer technician or an auto mechanic — "a job where I will use my brain, not force my body, like my stepdad and uncle and all of them do," he says. "It's not fair. Because they don't have papers, they have to do the hard work."

Overall, though, he believes he has a good life.

"I have everything I need," he says. Then he pauses before adding, "Except my mom."

  • Photo: Eric England

Model Parent

Just call me Rocío," says Rocío Martínez, 36, spilling a golden laugh after spending about five seconds pronouncing her full name. In the poor area of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where Martínez was born, she says little girls were often given big names but denied big dreams.

The only daughter of six children, Martínez wanted to be a lawyer. "I knew that wasn't going to happen," she says, her voice quavering. With so many mouths to feed and an alcoholic husband, her mom pressed her to stay home and lend a hand.

When Martínez was 18, she started working in secret as a model and saving the money for college. But after her family found out, her mother gave her an ultimatum: If she kept modeling, she could never see her family again. "She considered me a really bad girl for my job," Martínez says.

She chose exile. Martínez made her way to the States to stay with some cousins, hoping her parents' anger would cool. The life her family led here shocked her — working extremely long hours, living in close quarters.

"My cousin talked to me really seriously," she recalls. "He said, 'We have to be here. We are helping our families. We come to work.' "

So she did. Martínez labored as an electrician's helper and cleaned hotel rooms, making less than she did as a model in Mexico. But when she started taking ESL classes, she says, "everything changed. ... I fell in love."

She was torn between her old and new lives. But she had a daughter, then a son. She knew she had to stay, to keep her family together. "I said, 'God help me,' " she recalls. "I don't know how it's gonna be, but my children are not responsible for the choices I have made."

For a while Martínez got by, between her boyfriend Norman's painting business and odd work she found, selling junk at the flea market and cooking for people. As with countless families, though, a medical emergency burst their bubble. When their daughter Julie was 6, the little girl fell ill. Her doctors suspected meningitis, then a stroke.

Eventually, doctors discovered that Julie had a rare malformation in her brain — "a little bomb waiting to explode," a nurse explained. The family agreed to a risky 16-hour surgery.

Martínez remembers her daughter's preternatural calm. "She told me, 'Mommy, everything is gonna be OK. Don't worry!' " she says, wiping away tears.

Miraculously, the girl was proved right. The crisis turned out to be the catalyst that brought the Martínez family closer. Her parents came to lend support as Julie recovered; the family reconciled. "I'm sorry for the way I treated you," her dad told her. "You grow stronger on your own." All, it seemed, was forgiven.

"Nobody teaches you how to be a father or a mother," says Martínez. "Now I understand them more."

But the surgery ushered in a new set of anxieties. Julie's surgery saved her life, but she still had seizures and required frequent ER visits and therapy sessions — all at a time when Davidson County sheriff's deputies had begun detaining thousands of undocumented immigrants through the 287(g) federal enforcement program. Deputies stopped many of Martínez's friends; whole families disappeared.

"You just went to get your kids from school, and you were stopped by the police and you will never see them again," she says. "I lived in fear."

That's when Martínez found JFON. Her first lesson in U.S. Law was marital in nature: She'd thought she couldn't legally marry Norman because he had legal status and she did not. But some countries permitted it, including America. "I said, 'Yay! I can have a dress,' " she recalls, laughing.

Then, a year and a half ago, JFON attorney Adrienne Kittos helped Martínez apply for a U visa — available to some crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. She'd been robbed a few years before, and she helped police find and prosecute her attacker. When Martinez's papers came, she says, "it was the happiest time. I was crying, screaming! I can go to the streets and be free! Now I am a person and a human being!"

Even so, old fears are hard to cast aside. As she got ready for her first workday as a legal, documented worker, her 7-year-old son Jordan started crying. "Mommy, they are gonna take you if they find you!" he told her.

"No, baby," she reassured him. "I have my papers now. I'm not gonna leave you."

First Steps

For undocumented families, routes to legal residency are available. First, lawyers can help determine which legal channel to pursue. Victims of certain crimes who cooperate with police can petition for a U visa, which offers temporary legal status. Kids under 18 with deceased or missing parents can seek permanent residence as unaccompanied minors. Meanwhile, young people who came to the U.S. as children before 2007 may qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, announced in June.

These are not minor distinctions. The U visa and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (i.e., unaccompanied minors) can lead to permanent legal status — and eventually to U.S. citizenship. And successful DACA applicants can obtain driver's licenses and the right to work legally.

Aiding with such processes is a service of Justice for Our Neighbors of Tennessee (2195 Nolensville Rd., 835-2512), the nonprofit that volunteer board president Kaki Friskics-Warren calls "a lean, mean machine." To keep costs low, the Tennessee chapter of JFON shares space with Conexión Americas — a support organization for Latino families — at the newly opened Casa Azafrán Community Center (2195 Nolensville Road, 320-5152; en español 269-6900). JFON and Conexión also share the salary of a paralegal and translator, who assists JFON's single full-time employee.

JFON of Tennessee was launched in 2008 by Katherine Dix Esquivel, an attorney and mother of three who'd worked with migrant farm workers and wanted to offer legal help to immigrant women and children who were victims of violence. Today, its staff attorney is Adrienne Kittos, who knew she'd be an immigration lawyer from her first semester at Vanderbilt Law School. She typically maintains around 130 active cases, more than half of which are U visa applications. (Approximately another fifth are DACA petitions.) The rest of her clients are seeking permanent residence out of U visa status, with a few petitions for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status or permanent residence for family members.

Kittos says working at JFON is her dream job. "It's really gratifying," she says. "Especially with those victims-of-crime visas, it's nice to be able to make something good come out of this terrible situation." Esquivel, meanwhile, now works at the public defender's office but still offers pro bono services to JFON.

"The immigrants and refugees I have met through JFON have stories that absolutely compel me," she says, "stories of tragedy, courage, desperation, hope, perseverance, and faith."

JFON volunteer Kathryn Spry says it's her job to welcome fearful clients as honored guests — to offer them food after their long drives, child care during fraught attorney meetings, or sometimes, just a reassuring hug.

"I think all people ought to be treated fairly," she explains. "This is an opportunity to help with that a little bit."



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