Stories of Hope

Each of the persons whose stories are presented below were taken advantage of along the way, often by an unethical attorney or expeditor. Also, each owes their arrival to the ‘kindness of strangers’ and they are grateful for that help. Through the Land of Opportunity Fund and related initiatives, our goal is to provide educational materials as well as access to legal services from providers who have been vetted.

We want to be in the column with the kindness of strangers.

Born in Cuba, Antonio has worked hard his entire life. He achieved a Bachelor Degree from the University of Havana, concentrating in computer science and electrician training. Once he decided to migrate to the US, it took him 11 years of saving and planning.

He built a boat and loaded it with minimal supplies and as much fuel as possible for his single stroke diesel engine and set out from the south side of Cuba heading east about 600 miles to Mexico. After 6 days at sea, exhausted, hungry and frightened he and his mates approached a fishing trawler. Good news: they towed the boat to an island off Mexico; bad news: they took what little they had – watches, GPS, compass.

The island was a rustic fishing island where locals came for a week of fishing – no water or electricity. They got a ride to the mainland at the end of the week with some local. Once on mainland Mexico, they were almost immediately apprehended and placed in a detention center for a week and then in a prison in the most deplorable conditions for 93 days.

Once released, Antonio called his brother and sister-in-law in Ft Myers. They sent him bus fare and he took a bus to Brownsville, Texas, where he entered the US and established his legal residency.

He spent his first year teaching himself the nuances of the English language, got a job, and then another and now is the Head Building Maintenance Supervisor at a Country Club in Ft Myers.

It took another 5 years to bring his family over. His wife and 14 year old son have now joined him and – at great legal expense – in September 2016 he became a US citizen at the first such ceremony in Ft Myers.

As ever, he endured a herculean effort, overcoming many obstacles, and is now a very happy, grateful citizen. Antonio “wants to be a better person each and every day.”

Jules came to Florida 17 years ago, in 1998, from Haiti, after his mother got her citizenship here, and before Haitians had special status.

He is a success and, also, is representative of those who are underemployed. Jules was an organic chemistry teacher in Haiti. He works in the hospitality industry here in Ft Myers.
Married with a small child, Jules saw the opportunity to come to the US. With his mother fully documented, he applied for a green card under her status. Once documented himself, he returned to Haiti to bring his wife and baby to America.

Remarkably, the rules changed literally while they were in Haiti. The attorney helping him with that process let him down badly. When they got to the airport, Jules and his wife were permitted to board; but, not their baby girl. Thankfully, his mother-in-law was on hand and Jules and his wife handed their baby over to her.

A year later they returned to bring their baby home with them to Florida.

Now it was time to apply for citizenship. He hired a paralegal and Jules completed the petition for the most part himself. He is a citizen as is his wife, as well as his brother and sister.

It is too much at this point in his life to return to college and be certified as a teacher. Instead, he is an overqualified, beloved by all, server in a gated community.

Leo’s story is all about education and is representative of an entire generation of “dreamers” who are coming of age now. He is a success story for sure, a fully employed, highly educated professional; but, getting there was no small task.

Leo’s family was doing just fine in Lima, Peru. They ran a small business – a custom shoe factory employing 40 people on the second floor of their home. They also owned land well outside of town. Leo and his sister were enrolled in separate private Catholic schools, getting an excellent education.

Two things changed. NAFTA brought large volume, low cost manufacturers to town who made this family business non-competitive. Second, the area became less safe. The children needed to be escorted to school; the parents were robbed at gunpoint, and Leo’s sister was trapped in her school immediately adjacent to the Japanese Embassy which was taken over (with hostages) in a month-long stand-off in 1996. It was time to go.

The family moved to SW Florida. Dad took a job with a maintenance firm and this proud man was now cleaning bathrooms at Motel 6. Mom started her own housecleaning business. The children were enrolled in good schools and every penny went to their living expenses. Saving for tuition was out of the question.

Everything was going relatively well until mid-way through high school. As an undocumented immigrant Leo could not go with his friends on school trips that involved a plane, train or bus. You need an ID to board.

He could not participate in any event that might lead to any sort of trouble. A scholar athlete, Leo was offered a college scholarship his junior year. He couldn’t accept it, as he had no social security number. He was disheartened, feeling increasingly distant from his friends, and fearing for his future.

Out of nowhere his “pink card” arrived, popping out of the system. A pink card is a one year for young persons. The card enabled him to go to a special program at Edison, now South West Florida University. Graduating at the top of his class he continued his education in a similar program at Florida Gulf Coast University, graduating with a degree in Finance and a minor in Economics and then getting his Masters in Accounting from Florida Atlantic University.

Then it was time to apply for his green card. With a lawyer along he went to Tampa. The agents were clearly trying to eliminate rather than welcome. One agent asked a woman in the waiting room, whose English language skills were not the best, a compound question, something like “how did you get here today, by car or train, by driving yourself? She could not grasp all of that and was at a loss to answer the question.

Expecting to be deported on the spot, he had a bag in the car – just in case.

The interview started badly. Then the agent turned the page in his file, raised his eyebrows and said “Is this a diploma from Edison that I see here?” “Yes, sir”, said Leo. “Oh, well that changes everything.”

His green card was granted. It is not a permanent residency, despite what many of us think. Instead it has an expiration date – 5 years, 10 years depending on the circumstance.
Leo went on to get his citizenship in 2015 and is grateful for all of those who helped him along the way.

This story is closer to what we all think of when we envision the arrival of an illegal family. The persistence of this woman is so admirable and number of horrific things that befell her along the way (and even after establishing herself in the US) are remarkable. This one is a book and the story below is a short summary.

It was 1985 in Managua, Nicaragua in the days of the Sandinistas.

Martha had a successful career as a senior level administrator. She had a company car and traveled about Nicaragua. She had two children and life was good; until it wasn’t.

Jealous of her career, money and power, her husband tried to kill her, threatened her family when she left him and moved in with them, and stalked her. It was time to take her two children and go to Florida where her brother had emigrated.

She got a visa and went to Honduras, where an aunt placed her in a hotel and introduced her to an attorney. The attorney took $750 and left her high and dry. Eventually through the kindness of strangers she got some work and then went to a group house with another $250 attorney/expediter who abandoned her again. Through a serendipitous encounter, she met an old friend from Nicaragua and he gave her shelter for a while.

Somehow she worked her way north to Guatemala. She was taken in by a family, for whom she cleaned and watched the children in exchange for room and board. The head of household was an attorney and said he would help her get to America. Time went by. One day the child swallowed a coin, which stuck in his throat. Martha saved the child’s life and the wife used that opportunity to give her husband an ultimatum: “Get her to America or give her the $750 back.” He gave Martha the money back.

She started north with minimal documentation and was blessed with bus and train drivers who took pity on her and dropped her off before reaching a check point. Repeatedly she and the children had to work their way around the check points and then find trains or buses on the other side.

One train engineer actually brought her home for a few days to give her food and a rest.
They had to take a circuitous route up the west coast of Mexico to avoid the more heavily guarded cities.

As she approached a river in northern Mexico another expediter charged her to help her across a river. He took her younger son first, hid him, returned and refused to take Martha and her other son until she paid him with either more money or allowed him to “take it in trade.” She had no more money and refused the alternative. Her clever son literally left toilet tissue “bread crumbs” enabling her to find him.

She learned that the US was granting asylum to refugees from Nicaragua. So she headed for the US border. An American directed her to a Red Cross shelter for a while. They demanded $1,500 to stay and she proceeded on her way.

She boarded a train and finally arrived at Brownsville, Texas, the only center where they were granting asylum in 1989. She was given some temporary papers and applied for asylum. She was led to believe that she would now be OK.

She went to Los Angeles where there was a relative and then on to San Jose. She married and had one child with her new husband and was pregnant with her second, when she was approached by the INS. She had supplied her address change each time she moved and had hired a $3,500 attorney to pursue the asylum and citizenship process for herself and her two Nicaraguan children. Apparently, the address change never got through to her and so the court date for her asylum petition came and went without her.

One day she was accosted in a parking lot by several INS agents, one of whom she had been working with on this asylum issue. They arrested her and took her to a deportation center. She explained that she was married to a citizen and was 8 months pregnant. They said they had a quota to fill and it was her day. Then they grabbed her two older children, who were also undocumented, and shipped all of them back to Managua.

Her husband hired a good attorney and was able to retrieve all of them after the baby was born in Nicaragua.

By now it was 1997. She got her green card and had one US citizen child and three Nicaraguan children.

She applied for citizenship and it was granted in 2001, 16 years after her saga began.
Her daughter is in college in Miami. Her three sons are challenged by their status. They are employed, underemployed for the most part, and looking forward to their 21st birthdays when they too can apply for citizenship.

At about 4:30 one morning in August 2011 a joint task force of ICE (= INS) and Local Law enforcement ripped Oihane (which means ‘from the forest’ in Spanish) from his wife and baby and took him away.

They were conducting a sweep for the MS13, a Latino criminal gang that was active in our neighboring community. Regrettably, they scooped up every Latino that they could find and tragically got more like Oihane than gang members.

A week or so later, with the help of an attorney, Oihane’s devoted employer located him at a Deportation Center in another state.

In the meantime, Oihane had told his story.

He had been beaten, robbed, and threatened with death by a gang in El Salvador. He hastily came to the US on a tourist visa and then a work visa and – yes, he overstayed. Wouldn’t you?

For ten years he worked hard, full time, established himself, built a family, paid taxes and had a clean arrest record. (All of this makes him eligible to apply for naturalized citizen status, at least on paper. Regrettably, in practice, you often must prove “extreme, exceptional, unusual hardship.”)

Back at the deportation Center, they interviewed him for three days and allowed Oihane to contact his mom who forwarded the Police Report from his assault in El Salvador.
The agents believed him and were very sympathetic with his situation. They told him, however, that his case did not rise to the level of asylum. There was a time when just being from El Salvador would have made asylum a possibility. This was no longer true as other hot spots (Syria, Yemen etc.) have leap frogged El Salvador.

The agents invoked “prosecutorial discretion” and told Oihane to go home and stay out of trouble.

Now he waits and his employer continues to fund an immigration attorney to help him establish at least legal residency and ultimately citizenship for him and his family. So far, he has been trying for 15 years.