Too high to jump, the fence looked insurmountable from where 11-year-old Valentin Lopez stood. His companions called it “La Liñea” and it scarred the border between Mexico and the United States.
It separated Lopez’s life of poverty in the south from a life of uncertainty in the north. Whatever was ahead, he needed to get there to meet his father, who had already made the move.
The child found out it was possible to escape the border patrol agents who chased him as he scrambled through a hole dug in the dirt beneath the fence. It was also possible to run longer than he ever thought possible as his uncle grabbed his hand and urged him onward.
He could, in fact, scurry along a ditch without slipping and drowning as water rushed below. He was small but discovered he was balanced enough, fit enough.
Much to his relief, the boy endured the scrapes and rashes he sustained on both his arms after running through the mountains in the dark of several nights. He doesn’t remember how many exactly, because they blurred together. He only found the injuries when the light came on after he squeezed into a car packed with too many other people. Then he saw the redness spread across his skin.
It’s possible that Lopez got that far because he took someone’s advice to dress all in black, even on top of his head, so that border helicopters overhead would not spot him.
But it probably had more to do with his determination.
Lopez made it to the other side. Now 17 and a senior at Pescadero High School, Lopez has the documentation to prove it.
Safe, for now
Over the summer, President Barack Obama issued an executive order for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival as immigration regulations are in reform.
So far, Lopez is one of at least 10 young immigrants on the Coastside who have been granted temporary relief from fear of facing removal proceedings for being undocumented.
It won’t provide a path to permanent legal residency, but they are now eligible for work permits, Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses for two years. After their DACA protection expires, they may re-apply.
They applied with the help of community resource center Puente de la Costa Sur, which coordinated with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto and private attorney David Pasternak.
Last week, two more Coastside applicants completed the paperwork to submit the DACA application with the local agencies’ help. Three permits are on the way. One permit was returned to sender because the applicant wasn’t at home to receive it, and two cases have been delayed for four more months.
The Pew Research Center estimated that more than 1.7 million out of 4.4 million undocumented youth could qualify for DACA.
Out of more than 300,000 applications submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, more than 50,000 undocumented people had been approved as of mid-November, and 100,000 more were expected to apply before the end of the year across the nation.
In the meantime, other applicants wait for their applications to be processed and politicians look to address the larger immigration issues.
DACA is no dream
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors bill — commonly known as the DREAM Act — would grant permanent residency to some people who had graduated from U.S. high schools. DACA has no such goal.
DACA is a work in progress, said Pasternak.
“It’s kind of silly. They can get a driver’s license. They can get a work permit … for two to four years, and then what? You kick them out? They’re just kicking (the issue) down the road again.”
For the moment, however, Pasternak is pleased that so many local youth have qualified.
“I’m delighted because Half Moon Bay runs on undocumented labor. Everybody knows it, and everyone turns a blind eye to it,” said Pasternak. “A lot of really good people have gone through our schools and contribute to our economy.”
Government determines who qualifies
When the program was first announced, it seemed risky to some immigrants. That is because applicants had to identify themselves as undocumented to government authorities.
Applicants must provide details as to whether they are under 31 years old and were 16 or younger when they arrived to the United States. They also must prove that they were physically present here prior to June 15, and that they have been enrolled in school or in the military, without a criminal record.
What if something doesn’t check out?
If an application is rejected, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services report the applicant to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that then issues the applicant a notice to appear for an immigration hearing.
Applicants are not necessarily reported to ICE for the purpose of removal proceedings so long as there’s no history of crime, fraud or anything that threatens public safety or national security. USCIS officials say that is the case, “except in exceptional circumstances.”
Many people, including Lopez’s father, thought applying to DACA was a chance worth taking.
“My dad was kind of freaking out, but he said, ‘No. I’m going to risk it … I want you to set a good record for yourself in this country,’” said Lopez, sitting in a Puente classroom after finishing class at Pescadero.
Lopez family plants new roots
From Santiago Apóstol in Oaxaca, Mexico, Lopez’s father started working in the fields when he was 7 or 8 years old. Instead of payment, he received daily rations of a tortilla, a rock of salt and a chili pepper.
That’s where Lopez was later born.
“People are nice, but when it’s dark, people are not nice,” said Lopez of his birthplace. “It was really poor. Houses were made of carton.”
A real metal door, he explained, was the difference between a wealthy person and a poor person.
Stomachs weren’t full enough. When Lopez was 10, he went foraging for food with a group of other people. If the hunger wasn’t going to kill him, a swarm of bees that attacked him nearly did.
Feet were tough from treading dirt shoeless, or from wearing huaraches, sandals made of leather or old tire rubber.
“I don’t want to go back to that poverty that I came from. I want to see myself as somebody different – someone that can achieve success,” said Lopez who aspires to pursue engineering and business in the future.
The ability to be clean and look polished is a luxury that gives him confidence that he never had in Mexico. Clothes help.
Today, he sports cool shoes and a sleek black V-neck T-shirt. With his hair meticulously styled in a faux-hawk, he looks as though he’s emerged from a GQ shoot. Once, he bought a pair of jeans that cost $108. Still marveling over the fact that they have a house to live in with a stove and a refrigerator, it’s an expense that neither he nor his father takes lightly.
It’s only a faint reflection of what Lopez thought his school attire would be before he reached the United States. He used to think he would go to school in a suit and tie, carrying a portfolio.
“I always imagined myself going to school like that. I think that’s something that motivated me,” he admitted.
With his father’s encouragement, he’s taken his academics seriously. Lopez dedicated himself to learning English, a language that was completely foreign to him when he first arrived.
Freshman year of high school was hard and he struggled to keep up with the other students, he said.
“But then I’d tell myself, ‘They haven’t been through what you have,’” he said.
He worked to get his grades up so much so that he was accepted at a program at Stanford University last summer. With straight A’s in college-level courses, he was given an award for academic excellence.
Some of his high school classmates party, but Lopez said he’s never been involved with drugs or alcohol, and he’s become a master of saying no. The possibility of being educated and working in the United States has kept Lopez on the straight and narrow, he said.
How does he spend his free time instead?
Sports, for starters, and he’s recently rekindled a love for reading.
“Have you read ‘The Glass Castle’?” Lopez asked, taking a paperback memoir by Jeanette Walls out of his backpack. He also carried a memoir by Luis Rodriguez about life as a reformed Chicano gang member called, “Always Running.”
“Oh. And I’m reading this,” he added. He placed Plato’s “The Last Day of Socrates” on the table.
Lopez’s father is illiterate, but after school he pushed his son to read and write essays about the books he read, first in English, and then translated in to Spanish, though Lopez’s mother tongue is Zapotec, a Mayan language. He never knew what his son was writing, but assessed his work nevertheless. If it met his approval, he’d give Lopez the OK to watch T.V.
Recently Lopez wrapped up applications to California State and University of California schools, the fees for which were paid for by scholarships he earned. He’s currently working on the Common Application for admission to private schools.
His dream school is Santa Clara University on the Peninsula. The Jesuit university is in line with his religious beliefs, as well as his academic interests in engineering and business.
Next, he wants to transfer to Stanford to pursue a master’s program.
“I’m dreaming too much, maybe. But I do want to go,” said Lopez.
Just seeing his son get a college diploma would be satisfaction enough for Lopez’s father. That would make all his sacrifices worthwhile, he tells Lopez. Lopez is also determined to earn enough money to take care of his father when he can no longer work.
“I want to give back what (my family) has given me,” said Lopez.
As they move forward, Lopez and his father, who works at a Half Moon Bay nursery, often revert to the familiar ways of their old Mexican life together. Working the earth on the Highway 1 ranch they now call home, they pass hours chatting about life and cultivating tomatoes and other fresh foods for themselves.
“That’s like his hobby, right? He got it back in Mexico where he’s from,” said Lopez. “He did it too much — he grew in love with it.”
Free in the garden, it now looks as though Lopez will find a way around whatever fence stands in his way. The border fence feels like a lifetime away.
“Yeah. Stuff changed,” said Lopez. “I changed.”
However, Lopez said he’ll go back to Mexico if there’s a time to show his people that there’s a world beyond the borders that they know, and that they, too, can achieve more than what they thought possible.