Sitting at an outdoor café in the shadow of a Los Angeles high-rise, Alex leaned back in his chair, his eyes cool and aloof.
I had been greeted with this air of nonchalance before, and so I nodded in his direction, and sat down to talk with his mother, Marisa.
It was a chilly day in March 2013 and the Pershing Square neighborhood where we sat was bustling with workers rushing by, briefcases in hand and messenger bags slung over shoulders as they hustled into the towering office buildings.
Marisa, a single mother of five from Tustin, nervously tapped her cell phone with her nails. In a few hours, she and Alex would stand before an immigration court judge for a hearing to determine whether her son would be deported to Mexico.
Since he is a minor in the juvenile justice system, Voice of OC is using the pseudonym of Alex, for the minor, and Marisa for his mother to protect the minor’s privacy.
Alex, then 15, had appeared in immigration court several times already, but this was Marisa’s first time, and since she too was undocumented, she confessed she was apprehensive. Would immigration authorities take her into custody? Would the judge deport her son today?
Despite her misgivings, Marisa showed up at the Los Angeles offices of the Executive Office for Immigration Review resolute about one thing: She wanted to get to the bottom of how her son had been placed in deportation proceedings in the first place.
Alex had landed in Orange County’s juvenile hall after bringing a pocket knife to school in 2012, and was subsequently referred to immigration authorities by the Orange County Probation Department.
In the months leading up to this immigration court hearing, Alex seemed unfazed by the possibility that he would end up in Mexico.
“No one’s getting rid of me that easy. I’m hard to get rid of,” he said, full of bravado one evening as I spoke to him and Marisa in the Santa Ana motel room where the family was staying temporarily.
The first thing the world sees with Alex is his tough-guy act. He swears when his temper flares – in English or Spanish or both. He scowls a lot – mostly at his mom – and barks orders like an Army sergeant at his younger siblings, who mostly seem to annoy him.
With his black hair gelled into defiant spikes and a prickly attitude to match, he comes across as a punk, just as likely to make you laugh with his clever sense of humor as he is to make you cringe with his foul language.
In the nearly three years that I’ve followed Alex’s case, his family has moved half a dozen times in the aftermath of his mother’s divorce from his stepfather. Lugging his clothes, paperwork, and bedding in black, plastic trash bags, he’s moved from Tustin to Santa Ana and back, sharing one-room rentals, sleeping on the floor of motel rooms or crashing on the living room couch in apartments shared with other families.
At one point in 2012, after Marisa separated from her ex-husband and couldn’t make the rent, the family landed in a homeless shelter as the New Year approached.
Yet everywhere Alex goes he quickly adapts.
In his family’s motel room, he propped a pull-up bar on the bathroom doorframe and exercised with the methodic precision of a boot-camp trainee.
The family’s constant search for shelter sometimes placed him three bus rides away from his high school, but even waking at 5:30 a.m., which he loathed, didn’t deter him. The school secretary complimented Marisa for Alex’s punctuality every morning,
And despite the uncertainty of his fate in the United States due to his deportation proceedings, he had already mapped out what he would do after graduating from high school: join the U.S. Marines, a goal he has dreamed of since early childhood when he would play with his toy soldiers at night.
But trouble has had a way of finding Alex.
When another student picked a fight with Alex at school, the campus resource officer who looked into the matter offered to help Alex stay on track.
“He told him, just don’t get into trouble and I will help you join the Marines,” said Marisa in Spanish. “But his anger gets out of control, and that’s something that’s happened since he was a boy.”
But he was well behaved that spring day as he and Marisa waited in line to take the elevator to the 17th floor of the building where the Executive Office for Immigration Review holds its hearings.
In the building’s lobby, Alex leaned up against a wall, one foot propped casually behind the other, and texted a friend about the pulled-pork sandwich he had just eaten for lunch.
Marisa, however, was still anxious and as she stepped into the elevator, she repeatedly pushed the 17th floor button.
At the security station, Alex knew the drill, and pulled off his belt then unzipped his backpack for inspection before the guard asked. But a few minutes later, as they waited in the hallway outside the courtroom for the hearing to begin, he found a space to sit alone and leaned his back up against the wall, his knees to his chest.
With his backpack between his legs, he looked like a boy waiting for the school bell to ring.
The courtroom was packed with children and a few adults. Marisa and Alex squeezed onto one of the wooden benches and waited for the judge to enter. They watched as an attorney rearranged a group of unaccompanied children in their seats. Some looked disoriented, others looked fearful. One clutched a teddy bear.
When Alex’s case was called, Marisa took a seat at a table and remained composed as she answered the judge’s questions confirming that she was Alex’s guardian.
Alex’s attorney, Richard Camarena of Placentia, requested more time to prepare the case, and the judge set a date for Alex to return the following October.
Within a few minutes, it was over. For the time being.
“I’m feeling distressed,” said Marisa afterward as she placed her trembling hand to her chest. “I went in mentally prepared for the possibility that the judge could have said he’s deported, because he has the last word and makes that decision.”
Camarena tried to calm her. He said he planned to file a petition on Marisa’s behalf for legal residency through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), since she was a victim of domestic violence during her marriage here in the United States. The act allows victims of domestic violence who are abused by U.S. citizens or permanent residents to petition for legal residency.
Though Camarena believes Alex has a strong case for legal residency through his mother’s petition, his optimism was tempered. Camarena said he had seen an uptick in juvenile deportations in immigration court over the past several years, so nothing was guaranteed. He also cautioned Marisa that some immigration petitions can take as long as three years for approval.
Marisa sighed. She was exhausted, but for now, Alex was by her side, and that’s all that mattered to her.
“I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I’m also a realist, and right now this is in my hands. I have the ability to save my child through my VAWA case,” said Marisa. “Hopefully the immigration authorities will respond soon to our case. But it was terrifying to be in a situation like this, before an immigration court.”
She was especially haunted by the children who were in court alone.
“To see all those children there – those were really young children who were at risk of being deported,” said Marisa.
A Rough Start
Marisa said her goal was to make sure Alex stays out of trouble at school, something she had worked toward since Alex first started misbehaving at age 6.
At the time, Marisa immediately sought help for him. After an evaluation when Alex was in the first grade, the Santa Ana Unified School District classified him as a special education student. He was diagnosed with auditory processing difficulties that made it difficult for him to hear, remember and understand information.
In class he was disruptive and inattentive and got into fights with other students. At home he had angry outbursts, hitting his mother, setting fire to his siblings’ toys and, once, threatening to kill himself with a knife.
This was all by the time he was 7-years-old.
The drawings he made as a first-grader as part of the district’s special education testing process were illuminating. Asked to draw his family, he sketched his two aunts in Mexico having a physical fight and drew himself jumping off a bed and onto one of the aunts in order to intervene. He also drew his maternal grandmother cooking at a stove, as well as a picture of himself on the floor lighting papers on fire.
His assessment team said fire setting is sometimes associated with feelings of rage and experiences of trauma, suggesting that Alex felt significant anger and hostility toward himself and his family.
Alex was born in Mexico and came to the United States with Marisa when he was nearly 3-years-old after she ended a physically abusive relationship with Alex’s father.
His childhood was marked by a disjointed jumble of constant moves. His father, only a sporadic presence in his life, had beat Marisa severely, a common thread in her subsequent relationships with the two fathers of her other four children.
A few years later, Marisa left 5-year-old Alex with her mother in Mexico while she resettled in California. Marisa said she did it to protect Alex, but to him it felt like his mother had abandoned him.
There was more.
A probation file that’s more than an inch thick, as well as scores of psychological and mental health assessments, outline how Alex suffered physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his mother’s boyfriends, his stepfather, and his uncle.
Marisa told school and social services authorities that she believed he was the victim of sexual abuse as a 5-year-old in Mexico at the hands of an 11-year-old neighbor. Alex said he doesn’t recall the sexual abuse.
One of his psychiatrists described Alex’s upbringing as “complicated, chaotic and dysfunctional.” The lack of a consistent or reliable father figure, his intermittent stays in foster care, his unsettled upbringing and traumatic events have led to “affective instability, severe disruptive behaviors, and the requirement for juvenile justice, social and foster care services,” wrote his psychiatrist in a 2012 assessment.
Marisa always believed that if Alex received the appropriate treatment and services, he could get back on track. Court and school records show he received an array of services – from behavioral therapy to counseling – and his service providers consistently praised Marisa as an involved mother who sought what was best for her son.
The records also show that Alex received a multitude of diagnoses throughout his childhood, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, dysthymic disorder, bipolar disorder, conduct disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, as well as being emotionally disturbed and depressed.
Marisa worried over the years that he hadn’t been correctly diagnosed and wasn’t getting the appropriate treatment, but entrusted her son to the medical professionals with one caveat – that despite his troubles he always belonged at home with his family.
“I believe that if he had received the help and treatment he needed as a child, he would be stable,” said Marisa.
But his mental health issues and behavior at school led to more turmoil. Alex became caught up in a school system that dealt with his behavior through suspensions and expulsions despite his special education needs.
“He would have a crisis and they would expel him,” said Marisa.
For example, when Alex was in the fourth grade, he was suspended from an Anaheim school then expelled for throwing rocks at a teacher and fighting with another student. The school described it as attempted assault on a teacher and damage to school property.
Records provided by Marisa show a district psychologist recommended against expulsion and instead suggested the district assess Alex’s behavioral needs, establish appropriate goals and a special education plan that would support him. The report also notes that Alex’s disability made it hard for him to understand the impact and consequences of his behavior.
His social worker also recommended that he not be expelled, but school documents show that the rest of the team assessing the incident ultimately determined that Alex should not return to his school.
At the time, Alex was living in a foster home. Nine months earlier, Santa Ana police had taken him into custody after he began displaying psychotic behaviors, and probation records show he had hit his siblings, hurt his mom and climbed a roof.
He was 9-years-old, receiving mental health services and psychotropic medication. His probation file shows his family was receiving a multitude of services, but he was still too much to handle at home. He was setting fires and having auditory hallucinations.
His behavior worsened in foster care. One special education assessment noted that his behavior declined after he was removed from his home. He was defiant with teachers, provoked fellow students, and hit himself.
“[Alex] is having trouble being away from home, misses his family,” the report stated, while also noting that he liked his foster family.
Marisa said Alex needed to be home with his family, no matter how difficult the circumstances. It’s why the ICE referral by the Orange County Probation Department upset her so much.
“Aside from sadness, it makes me angry with the system because of the fact that he’s been here since he was a young boy, that he was a victim of domestic violence, that he was a victim of everything he’s been through,” said Marisa.
Knowing that history is why Marisa was determined to fight his deportation and protect Alex, who has spent most of his life in the United States.
“My son isn’t a criminal. He’s doing well in school,” said Marisa a few days after the immigration court hearing. “He speaks English, he was raised here. This is his country.”
Throughout junior high and high school his grades have fluctuated from a 3.36 grade point average in seventh grade to a 3.0 G.P.A. in ninth grade, and dropping below that last year.
Marisa said she decided to share Alex’s story because she knows that other undocumented parents with children in deportation proceedings might not speak out for fear of being deported. Maybe those other families will understand that they aren’t alone, she said.
“There are so many children out there – how sad that it’s so easy for the schools to just expel them, for the children to end up in juvenile hall and then deported,” said Marisa. “Then they’re gone; children who have been here since they were babies.”
Marisa understood that the complexities of Alex’s multiple diagnoses would require therapy, behavioral intervention, mentoring and many other services, which she accessed throughout his childhood. But she never imagined that members of the juvenile justice system working to rehabilitate her son would report him to immigration authorities.
A few weeks after Alex’s immigration hearing, he asked Marisa if she could take him to the beach, just the two of them. Marisa agreed, but money was tight and she couldn’t afford a babysitter for Alex’s four younger siblings: a 3-year-old sister, a 7-year-old brother, David, and 12-year-old twins.
So on a sunny weekday afternoon, after Alex finished a therapy session at a Santa Ana clinic, the family piled into Marisa’s minivan and they headed to Newport Beach.
But Alex was not happy about having to share the experience with his siblings, so as soon as his mom pulled into a parking spot he bolted out of the car toward the shore. Facing the sea, he sat in the sand, rested his arms on his knees and lowered his head as if he was trying to shut out the world.
David chased after him, ignoring his mom’s pleas to put on his sandals. When she finally caught up to David and rolled up his pants, Alex walked away with his hands in his pockets, kicking sand in the air along the shoreline.
It was sunny, spring afternoon, but the beach was largely deserted, giving the family space to roam. Marisa raced David at the water’s edge and she called out to Alex to join them, but he didn’t respond, and instead he took off running toward the sun on the horizon.
Marisa watched him, shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare, keeping an eye on his every move, despite his distance. Then slowly she headed toward him, collecting tiny bits of shells along the way until finally she was by his side.
In her outstretched hand, she showed him the shells and explained how in Manzanillo, the seaside resort town in Mexico where Alex was born, artisans make necklaces by stringing the shells together.
“A lot of them are broken,” she said, but pointed out that they too are valued and used to make jewelry.
The moment didn’t last long and soon Alex took off to scavenge through a pile of beach litter. Marisa sat down and watched as people ran and exercised near the shore.
“I want to bring them here more often,” said Marisa as her eyes took in the peaceful scene. “You can forget all of your troubles here.”
This is the story of one boy’s journey through the U.S. immigration system. Click here to read the larger series about juvenile deportations. Coming Wednesday: The trajectory that landed Alex in Orange County’s juvenile hall.
This project was made possible with the generous support of a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and through a H.F. Langeloth journalism fellowship with The John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.