Years in the System But Still No Certainty

Alex, a teenager from Orange County, was referred to immigration authorities by the Orange County Probation Department while he was in juvenile hall in 2012. (Photo by Karen Tapia-Anderson)

Alex, a teenager from Orange County, was referred to immigration authorities by the Orange County Probation Department while he was in juvenile hall in 2012. (Photo by Karen Tapia-Anderson)

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When 14-year-old Alex was placed in deportation proceedings in 2012, his mother, Marisa, feared he would be immediately deported.

That didn’t happen.

As it turns out, because both mother and son had suffered years of domestic abuse and other trauma, he qualified to apply for deportation relief via a federal act for victims of violence.

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.

But Alex’s complicated childhood, coupled with his mental health issues, had led to a string of behavioral problems at home and at school.

For Marisa, this has meant that the past three years since Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents took Alex into custody from Orange County Juvenile Hall, have been filled with hazards.

By the fall of last year, she had put her family on firmer ground. She was granted a federal work permit through her immigration application. With the help of state aid she rented a two-bedroom apartment in Tustin and started job training.

But a month before his deportation hearing, which was originally scheduled for December, Alex landed back in juvenile hall for shoving his 13-year-old sister at home. School authorities noticed a bruise on his sister’s arm and reported the incident to police, said Marisa.

The district attorney’s office then filed a petition charging Alex with multiple counts including battery and a felony child abuse charge.

Alex and Marisa described the incident as a squabble between two siblings that was blown out of proportion by the juvenile justice system.

Alex said his sister entered the room and started making a mess, so he told her to get out. She threw an object at him, and he grabbed her arms, turned her around and pushed her out of the room.

“What worries me is, as much as I’ve worked with him, the message doesn’t seem to get through to him and he gets in all sorts of trouble,” Marisa said in Spanish.

She had a better understanding of the challenges Alex faces in controlling his behavior after completing a parenting class offered by Human Options, a countywide organization that serves domestic violence victims.

A portion of the class focused on mental health. Marisa said she was shocked to learn how trauma can affect the development of a child’s brain. She recalled the times when her son witnessed her partners physically abusing her, as well as the trauma he may have suffered when her boyfriend beat her while she was pregnant with Alex.

While Alex, now 17, was in juvenile hall, Marisa made sure to visit him, even when it meant having to forgo her own needs.  He told Marisa he worried because his public defender told him he could be sentenced to as long as six years in confinement.

During one of her visits to Alex at juvenile hall, he told her he had stopped asking God for help. “I’ve always asked him to help me, but I’m tired of asking for help,” he said.

Although she implored her son to keep his faith, inside, Marisa was asking the same questions.

“There was a moment when I asked: Does God exist or do I have to give the devil my soul so he can help me with this. I’m desperate,” said Marisa.

A few days later, the juvenile court found Alex delinquent for assaulting his sister and kept him in juvenile hall custody, then placed him in a residential group home. He also started attending a new public high school, and the court ordered him to take an anger management class and domestic violence counseling.

When I met with Alex in December 2014, shortly after he was placed in the group home, he seemed optimistic and was counting the credits he needed to graduate from high school. He remained steadfast in his goal of joining the U.S. Marine Corps, then heading to college to become an anesthesiologist.

But his immigration proceedings were plodding forward, and he admitted he was worried that he might be deported for shoving his sister.

“I just have to be prepared for anything,” he said.

On a sunny April day this year, Alex and Marisa headed to offices of the Executive Office for Immigration Review in downtown Los Angeles for Alex’s deportation hearing. It had been just over two years since mother and son first appeared in court together, but it seemed a lifetime to Marisa.

Sitting on the courtroom’s wooden benches, Alex, wearing blue jeans and a black jacket, stared at his cell phone, his head bowed down and his arm covering his forehead.

Gone were the defiant hair spikes, replaced by a buzz cut that made the high school junior look more mature.

Next to him, Marisa was dressed conservatively in a black cardigan sweater over a chiffon dress in purple hues. “I’m getting nervous, but hopefully today will be the day that the judge closes his case,” she said.

When the judge called Alex’s case, Marisa let out a deep breath as she walked to a table with his attorney. Alex sat next to her and adjusted his jacket then he signaled at her to place a set of headphones on her head so that she could understand the proceedings, which were interpreted for her into Spanish.

The Department of Homeland Security attorney informed the judge that the government needed more time to research the question of whether Alex can apply for an adjustment of status to become a legal resident and whether he can qualify to do so under his mother’s petition for legal residency.

The judge agreed to postpone the hearing until the fall to allow the government to research that matter.  As the judge set the new date for September, Alex sat quietly in his chair, his hands clasped together in front of his mouth.

Afterward, Alex’s attorney said he believes Alex has a strong case for prosecutorial discretion, which can be used by the government’s attorney to terminate a removal case or not move forward with deportation proceedings.

Despite the lawyer’s optimism, as far as Marisa is concerned, any chance that he’ll be deported means that her quest to save her son is not over.

In July, Marisa’s immigration attorney, Sabrina Rivera, said she was moving forward to petition the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to grant Marisa legal residency.

Although Rivera believes Marisa has a strong case for legal residency, the process of compiling her history will be laborious, requiring time and careful research to prove the history of domestic abuse she and Alex have endured. And as with all of these cases, nothing is guaranteed, said Rivera.

This month, the California Senate approved an Assembly bill that would strengthen the existing juvenile confidentiality law and clarify that juvenile court records should remain private regardless of the minor’s immigration status.

The bill is now making its way to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Leaders from Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, which submitted a letter to state legislators in support of the bill, hope the clarification in the law will eliminate any disputes as to what the state law allows regarding the sharing of juvenile files for undocumented youth.

“California is a state that sets precedence…” said Abraham Medina, the group’s youth engagement coordinator. “So if we were able to establish that any sharing of information with ICE was unlawful … then we would set a legal precedence that could help other states and other people in a similar situation in other parts of the nation.”

Alex, meanwhile, resigned himself to the likelihood that his immigration proceedings will extend far beyond his next hearing in September.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a resolution any time soon. I’m pretty sure that’s the way it’s going to be for now,” he said.

This fall, Alex will turn 18, but without a decision on his legal status, he’s in limbo. It’s the story of his life, the life of a boy who has lost his way many times in a country that’s his home, but not his homeland.

This month he started his senior year, the time when most teens start making plans to head to college or explore the world. For now, most of his plans will be on hold, but it doesn’t mean he’s stopped dreaming.

Alex, an Orange County teenager, was turned over to immigration authorities in 2012 while in Orange County’s juvenile hall. (Photo by Karen Tapia-Anderson)

Alex, an Orange County teenager, was turned over to immigration authorities in 2012 while in Orange County’s juvenile hall. (Photo by Karen Tapia-Anderson)

“Someday I want to have a family. I want to raise a family and I obviously need to work. I need to go to school. I need to fulfill my life, and I cannot do that if I’m down there [in Mexico],” said Alex, who has been in a steady relationship with a girlfriend for three years.

“I cannot go to Mexico, I was not raised there…,” said Alex. “I’m basically an American.”

“All this that’s happened – where has it gotten me,” he said during a visit home this month. “From now on, I go day by day. I don’t live in the past.”

His are the same dreams of immigrants past who have arrived on America’s shores, looked toward the horizon and seen no bounds.

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 yvettecabreraoc@gmail.com.