Family Ties

How changes to immigration legislation shape the lives of undocumented families

Lorena Ramirez worries new immigration policies could affect or revoke her residency.

This is an excerpt of a longer piece written by Emilly Prado that explores the impacts of immigration law on undocumented and mixed-status families in Eastern Oregon as part of Oregon Humanities’ Emerging Journalists, Community Stories fellowship program, funded in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Pulitzer Prizes. Click here to read the full article.

In 1990, after years of seasonal migration between Mexico and the United States, Manuel Ramirez moved his family to Nyssa, Oregon—the Thunderegg Capital of the World. All nine family members, including Ramirez, wife Maria Guadalupe Avila, and their seven children, were born in El Occidente de México and entered the US without documentation. They were a few years too late to qualify for Reagan Amnesty, otherwise known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which offered undocumented immigrants a pathway to permanent legal status and, eventually, citizenship. Without a viable pathway to citizenship, the Ramirezes and their legal status remained stuck. 

“[My husband] started coming to [the US] in 1983,” Avila says. “He was in Los Angeles his first year, but he didn’t like it much.” Because everything was so far, he spent too much of his day traveling to find work. Then a friend told him there was a place in Oregon that was calm and bursting with job prospects. 

An onion field in Malheur County

A distant cousin of Avila’s husband was working as a coyote and agreed to help the whole family cross together. Within a few weeks, they were more than 1,200 miles away from Nayarit, the small state in Western Mexico where they’d started. In the Sonoran Desert, they approached the United States in the back of a pickup truck with another coyote and group of people. The black night suddenly lit up as a US Border Patrol truck careened toward them. They stopped their vehicle and ran in all directions.

“I felt like a disaster,” Avila says. “I didn’t know where my youngest son [Mario] was. My [daughter] didn’t come out from hiding for a long time until after [the Border Patrol] left. I very much regretted having tried to come.”

“I remember a tree trunk saved me,” says Lorena Ramirez, Avila and Manuel Ramirez’s only daughter. “I stayed there, glued to the tree, because the [officers] were passing through with lamps.”

She studied the movement of the light and adjusted her body accordingly to stay in the shadows. “It was traumatic for all of us,” Avila adds.

After the officers left, everyone slowly emerged from hiding, one by one. The Ramirez family can’t remember if anyone was picked up by Border Patrol that day, but they immediately noticed Mario was still missing. The Ramirez coyote quickly called the other coyote. His inkling was correct—in the scramble, Mario had run to the wrong coyote. The whole family was safe, but it was too risky to continue. They turned back to the Mexican border town to spend another night.

It’s common for people to repeatedly attempt to cross into the United States before succeeding, but Avila was ready to quit. “I was no longer going to try it anymore because of what happened with my kids,” she says. “I did not want to! But what can you do when you’re almost there?”

They succeeded on their second attempt and were reunited with the youngest family member.

The Ramirez family's home in Nysssa

The Ramirez family spent the first two years in the United States living in a one-bedroom house in Nyssa with their seven children. Eventually, they saved up enough to buy a house on a crowded cul-de-sac located directly across the street from the Amalgamated Sugar Company. The dirt road was narrow, and the houses were packed tight. Neighbors had no option but to grow close.

The Ramirez family loved Nyssa, but they realized that being undocumented anywhere in the country was difficult. The Ramirezes were subjected to heavy workloads with low pay and a lack of employment options. In school, Lorena Ramirez felt she was lied to: when she graduated high school four years after arriving in the United States, the promise of college wasn’t attainable because she wasn’t eligible for a scholarship or student loans, and didn’t have money to pay out of pocket.

But then the Ramirezes learned about a woman offering services to undocumented immigrants seeking residency. The woman said she could get the family members temporary legal work permits and residency cards. “We didn’t really know what we were getting into,” Avila says. In retrospect, something felt off—wiring money and never setting foot in a court room. A work permit of sorts arrived, but Avila’s instincts told her it wasn’t legally sound.

At the same time, Avila’s eldest son was going through a similar process of his own. A year later, when he produced the work permit during an immigration interview, they said it wasn’t valid: it was a fraud.

“[The scammers] told him if [he] sent $2,000, his residency would appear,” Avila recalls. “It was lies. Nothing like that ever arrived.”

A friend recommended Avila get in touch with a lawyer in Los Angeles. She was weary after her and her son’s experiences, but she tried anyway, driven by the desire to live in compliance with the law.

This time, the Ramirez family—excluding Lorena—were properly admitted into the immigration court system where their case sat in limbo. “They didn’t protect us, and they didn’t give us [our residency cards].” Avila says. “They gave us time to see if the law would change to allow us to fix our papers. They weren’t bad judges.” 

After a few more years, the judge granted Avila and her husband residency. They appealed for the case to include residency for their children as well and won. But it was bittersweet. 

“When we began the process, [my husband and I] didn’t want to involve our daughter—our only woman—because we weren’t sure if it was safe,” Avila says. “We thought, ‘If they send us away, send us all, but not her.’ Then when they gave us residency, I regretted it. We were now in a situation, not sure what to do, with her stuck outside.” 

Avila Ramirez and her granddaughter, Kailey

Today Lorena Ramirez lives in the little beige house she grew up in with her own family. Her husband and their two daughters, six-year-old Jocelyn and ten-year-old Kailey, are all US citizens. On the day I visit, it’s their eldest daughter’s birthday. The girls wait patiently as we spend nearly two hours recounting the day their abuela and mami made the journey to the United States when Lorena was fourteen—not too much older than Kailey is now—and what life has been like since.

Lorena Ramirez spent nearly thirty years living in the United States without documentation and without a pathway towards legal status. When a legislation change in 2001 made it much more difficult for undocumented people to qualify for residency by marriage, she hadn’t met her husband yet. And when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was introduced by the Obama administration in 2012, she was ineligible because she was thirty-six—five years over the age cutoff.

She says the most difficult thing about being undocumented was seeing the many doors of opportunity close because of her status. She often felt deceived and left behind: “It’s awful to see your peers keep leaving [to college] but you can’t. You can’t get a good job and you can’t even drive—[not without] a social security card or residency.”

Seeing her own stress and trauma trickle down to her daughters was even more painful. The girls would cry every time the entire family left on trips to Mexico and their mami had to stay behind. Lorena Ramirez also found herself scolding her daughters if they sprinted to the door when there was a knock. 

“[One time], I took my daughters to McDonalds. People notify others [about Immigration and Customs Enforcement sightings] by cell phone—sometimes it’s a false alarm but sometimes it’s true. Well, they had said that in the McDonalds where I was, there had been a raid,” Ramirez says. “They weren’t there, but the fear had already taken over. I told my daughters we had to leave, and I wouldn’t even let them eat. Then I took them home and put an armchair behind the door because I was paranoid they were following me.”

With the mention of McDonald’s, Jocelyn perks up from the videos she’s watching on an iPhone. “Ya vamos?” she asks. She knows it’s her big sister’s birthday and McDonald’s would be the perfect place to celebrate. She settles back into the cartoon.

In 2017, more than a decade after marrying her husband and after spending approximately $20,000 on legal services and fees, Lorena Ramirez secured an appointment in Juárez, Mexico to determine the outcome of a waiver request that would allow her to stay in the United States with a permanent residency card. Current immigration laws established in 1996 require those applying for residency to do so abroad. But those who enter and remain in the United States unlawfully for more than a year are barred from reentry into the country for ten years, which poses a huge risk.

Ramirez passed the physical health portion of the consular exam and within months, she was at a hotel the night before the interview with her husband and Kailey. They were quizzing her on the questions that could be asked.

The next morning, they waited for her name to be called at the US Embassy and Consulate. Her lips swelled from the intense anxiety. 

While they waited, they overheard a young man morosely tell his mother he had been rejected because of his tattoos. They saw entire families clap when the person they were waiting for emerged from the building with a smile. They also saw entire families burst into tears when the person they awaited came out already crying.

“You can lose all your hope there,” Ramirez says. “It’s tragic. Only the person who lives through it knows what it’s like.”

Even though she entered the building as an undocumented immigrant and emerged with her paperwork finally in order, she says she was overwhelmed by a complex mix of emotions. On one hand she was thrilled, but on the other, she saw herself in every heartbroken family.

“[The process] was fine because they gave it to me, but for all the people who still don’t arrange their papers after that? It’s always been like that. That’s why I say [the US Consulate] is where they separate families,” she says.

Life has been much less stressful for the entire family. Ramirez still finds herself worrying about the future, though far less often. She no longer jumps at the sound of the doorbell and, perhaps best of all, she says, her children will no longer be afraid. “Now we’ll never have to run from McDonalds without eating again.”

When I ask the family if they feel comfortable posing for a picture, Lorena Ramirez prefers not to. Even though she has her residency card now, she worries about new policies, created at any moment, that may change or revoke what’s still in place. Even though Washington, DC is farther than her hometown in Nayarit, Mexico, decisions there ripple widely and affect her  family’s life in Oregon.

An irrigation ditch in Malheur County

“We’ve left the ranch where they were destined to do the same as their father,” Avila says. “We live day by day, and even though we work here every single day, our life is much, much better.”

“What we want is unity,” she continues, now smiling down at her nieta. “Not what’s happening right now where parents are being separated from—”

“—their children,” finishes Kailey.

I promise to leave a cupcake for the birthday girl as a thanks for being so patient on her day. She holds her grandma’s hand as they leave the house.

At the local mini mart, two blocks away, they are out of cupcakes. Instead, I pick a tiny chocolate cake with edges coated in sprinkles. The bakery attendant gladly pipes Kailey’s name and age in white icing. In less than ten minutes, I’m back at the Ramirez’s house, but this time all alone. They left the door unlocked so I could leave Kailey’s treat inside, safe from melting in the summer heat.

I clear a spot for the cake in the center of the coffee table. To the left of the kitchen archway, a dozen Ramirez photos are artfully arranged in a frame. The sunlight peeks through the butter yellow curtains to illuminate their smiles. The metal trim around the picture frame spells out the word “family.” 


Immigration, Place, Race, Public Policy


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Croppings: Enrique Chagoya, Reverse Anthropology