Above: Salvador Paredes Orozco of Long Beach was not able to visit his dying father before he passed away in Mexico last winter.
It’s that time of year when many people are just getting back into their routine after a holiday season spent sharing presents and food, and creating new memories with loved ones. But for many immigrants, the holidays are an unwelcome reminder of just how far away they are from family members on the other side of the border.
“I feel depressed at this time of year. I have the need to see my family, but I can’t because I don’t have papers,” said Long Beach resident Leticia Salazar*, who came to the U.S. about 17 years ago, leaving behind her parents and four siblings in Mexico City.
“I came here without anything, without knowing anyone,” she said in Spanish.
Salazar felt the pain of separation the most after each of her four children were born. “When I had my first girl, I wanted someone to come visit me at the hospital. I needed someone to be there with me in those moments, to tell them how I felt.”
While an estimated 5 million immigrants in the U.S. are expected to benefit from President Obama’s most recent executive order on immigration — it grants temporary protection from deportation for qualifying individuals, including undocumented parents living in the U.S. whose children are already citizens – the order will not bring relief to families that are already divided due to federal immigration policies.
“Part of the reason that families are separated is because our immigration system is broken,” said Cathleen Farrell, Director of Communications for National Immigration Forum. “We need a solution for that. Currently, there are an estimated 11 million people who are undocumented… many who have family members who are not with them.”
Salazar has siblings in Utah, but she believes that even visiting them for the holidays is too risky. “I’m afraid of raids, of immigration getting us. That’s our biggest fear,” Salazar said.
Many immigrants see the holidays as a harsh reminder of the border that divides them from their families. For some, the mere mention of the topic evokes tears.
“Every year, it’s depressing,” said Long Beach resident Maria Gomez*, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico. “I’m happy because I have my children here, but it’s sad because I don’t have my other family members close,” she said in Spanish.
The wait times and backlogs in processing for visa and permanent residency applications can be frustrating for immigrants hoping to be reunited with family members.
Gomez holds a U Visa, which means she is legally able to stay here but traveling outside of the U.S. would require a lengthy and risky process that could even result in her losing her U status. Twenty-five years ago she left behind her parents, sisters, nephews, and “many people that I love.”
“My family has grown,” Gomez said. “I have never met some of them.”
Video chat technology has eased some of the pain, she said, “But it’s not the same as giving them a hug, as feeling them close.”
The pain can drive some immigrants to great lengths to see their family members, especially when one of them is hurt. When Gomez’s father was assaulted and stabbed at his home in 1997, she debated whether to return to Mexico.
“I couldn’t (legally) go. It was a risk for me,” Gomez said. But it was also her younger sister’s fifteenth birthday – her Quinceañera, a big deal in Mexican culture — and it was her dream that Gomez would be there. So she crossed.
To get back into the U.S. she walked through the desert for days, a dangerous journey that has only become more so in the years since her crossing, due to heightened border enforcement and increased cartel-related violence.
“It’s impossible now. I wouldn’t risk it again,” Gomez said.
Not everyone takes the risk to visit ailing family members. When Salazar’s father was sick with cancer, he demanded that she not leave the U.S.
“He kept telling us that if something happened, not to come over there for any reason,” Salazar recalls. “He knows how much suffering there is in getting back into this country.”
To this day, Salazar struggles with the fact that she was not by her father’s side when he passed.
Another local immigrant, Salvador Paredes Orozco, from Tlaxcala, Mexico, is the only person from his family in the U.S. He hadn’t seen his father in two years, when last year they connected online to catch up during the holidays.
“I saw him online for Christmas. Then on January 18 (2014), he died. It was the last time I saw him,” said Orozco.
In addition to missing his family, Orozco said he misses the cultural traditions in his hometown of Aztama, “a small pueblo where everyone knows each other.”
Christmas there, he said, is celebrated fervently with Las Posadas: nine days of religious festivities, dancing, singing, food, and family. The topic lights up Orozco’s eyes.
“It’s incredible for such a small pueblo to have such a big celebration,” he said. “You decorate houses very nicely here but it doesn’t have the magic of our country, where you have Las Posadas, break piñatas, and collect peanuts.”
As for Gomez, she spent this Christmas with her children at their Long Beach home, where she made dinner.
Gomez had a message to tell her family back in Guadalajara: “That I love you all so much, I miss you all. Don’t lose hope that one day, I will be with you to give you that hug.”
*Name was changed at the request of the individual.
VoiceWaves is a youth-led community media website and print publication established by New America Media to serve residents of Long Beach, Calif.