Passport to Nowhere

Benjamin Flores wants to box in the Olympics. But he isn't a U.S. citizen, and he can't risk returning to Mexico.

"I've tried everything," says Maribel Munoz. "I've called immigration, I've gone to immigration. I says, 'Can he go on a boxing team, something?' And they says no."

Although he came over illegally, Benjamin now has a work permit to reside in the United States and travel freely within its borders. His citizenship was contingent on his father first becoming a U.S. citizen. Since the accident, however, that has become difficult, if not impossible, for Miguel. Munoz says that she petitioned to get a disability exemption from the test, but that her efforts to submit medical proof of his condition haven't panned out.

As Benjamin steps into the ring, he leaves behind the 
amateur ranks.
Daniel Perlacky
As Benjamin steps into the ring, he leaves behind the amateur ranks.
At 12, Benjamin poses with former champ Raul 
Courtesy of Benjamin Flores
At 12, Benjamin poses with former champ Raul Marquez.

What's more, when Benjamin turned 18, he became less likely to benefit from a more automatic citizenship should his father be able to pass the test. Benjamin's hopes for applying on his own don't look promising, either. Munoz's most recent visit to immigration offices turned up a waiting period of two to four years before he can achieve permanent residence status -- which is a step shy of full citizenship anyway. Immigration bureaucracy has all the clarity and precision of stereo instructions, and even though she's sought legal counsel for help, Munoz says the family could not afford the attorney fees that might grease the wheels and speed up the process.

"We got to the point where I says, 'Look, I'll find someone to marry you to -- just as long as we can fix your papers,' " she says. "But then we're risking it also."

His second option was to try to compete for a spot on the Mexican Olympic team. Hailey, his coach who had previously been president of the USA Boxing Gulf Association, brokered a fight last August that brought some of the top amateur Mexican boxers to Houston. Ostensibly it was a team match, but Hailey says the point was to get Benjamin duking it out against their No. 1 guy, Juan Castaneda.

"Supposedly, if they did that then and he beat him here, it wouldn't be hard to bring him over there to fight in their national championships. They would be real interested," says Hailey. "So he beat the guy." But Benjamin's papers do not allow for re-entry. In fact, if Benjamin had left the United States to compete in Mexico's qualifying tournament in November, he would have risked being barred from the country for up to ten years. What's more, a week before the fight, Hailey says, he was informed the tourney would take place in Mexico City, not in Mexicali as he had first been informed.

"I think they pulled a fast one on us," says Navarro, the trainer, who suspects that grudge politics were involved -- that because he lives up here, he's not a "real Mexican." Hailey thinks there might be some truth to that. "If they live in Mexico, then they're Mexican. But if they live here, then he's one of us, he's not one of them."

But he's not one of us -- not yet.

"He's caught in the middle," says Munoz. She adds, "He's not a bad kid. He's not asking the government to support him or anything. He just wants to go fight and come back. I mean, they should at least let him do that. But they won't. They won't."

"You got a young kid who wants to do something with his life and yet this is what stops him," she says. "Immigration. Mmm-mmm." She shakes her head and takes a pull on her cigarette.

For a young boxer with Olympic aspirations, the decision to turn pro is much more of a crossroads than a basketball or hockey player with comparable talents. Unlike several other Olympic sports, boxing remains closed off to the professional ranks. According to Julie Goldsticker, director of media relations for USA Boxing, the Amateur International Boxing Association sets that rule.

"Allowing pros to box in the Olympics would completely destroy the amateur program," says Robert Voy, president of USA Boxing and a member of the AIBA executive committee. "Our goals are different." He argues that it would dilute the purity of the youth program and endanger the safety of participants. Although the issue has been debated, Voy says he cannot foresee the AIBA position changing.

Thus, Benjamin took his time before deciding to turn pro.

"That's a once-in-a-lifetime deal," Navarro says, talking about the Olympics. "You can win a pro championship when you're 45 years old and you can retire and come back. You can only fight in the Olympics as a one-time thing.

"Once you turn pro, you can never come back."

It is the forbidden fruit in the garden of amateurism. And in the end, Benjamin Flores had to go forward.

"I want to go to Mexico, but I want to go to Mexico with papers, something that guarantees me that coming back. Because I don't go to Mexico just, like, coming back crossing the river and everything. I don't think I'm going to do that," he says. "I think that I was more Mexican before than I am now. Because the Mexican, they work for everything, they fight for everything.

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