By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
After months of beatings and rape, she discovered she was pregnant and promised her unborn child a better life than she'd had. It was 1983 and Erika's mother easily crossed into Texas where she met up with relatives living in Houston.
Then one morning, the phone rang. It was Erika's father. He said he was pointing a gun at all four of Erika's mother's children and was going to kill them if she did not return home at once.
Several weeks later, Erika was born at a hospital in San Luis Potosi, an official citizen of Mexico.
"Another few weeks and I'd have been a citizen of the U.S. and my life would've been completely different," Erika says in sort of a sad chuckle. "Darn it all."
Over the next two years, Erika's father continued to abuse Erika and her mother. He wanted a son and was furious that his hostage could not provide one.
Erika's mother became pregnant again, and this time he kept a tight watch so she could not run away. Erika remembers driving to the hospital while her mother was in labor, a gun pointed at their heads. When they arrived, the father threatened the doctor that he was going to kill Erika's mother and the unborn child if it was not a boy. Luckily, it was. But Erika's mother had had enough.
Thirteen days after delivering Erika's brother, their mother packed a small bag of clothes and set out for Texas by herself. It was now 1988, two years after President Ronald Reagan had authorized a one-time blanket amnesty for immigrants who had been living in America since the early 1980s. Erika's mother had missed the window, but she found a priest in Houston who falsified documents for her, allowing her to receive a green card.
The following year, she returned to Mexico to collect her children whom she had left with relatives.
Erika remembers crossing the Rio Grande in January 1989. She was five years old, and for the first time in memory temperatures were near freezing along the border. Erika, along with her five brothers and sisters, saw chunks of ice bobbing in the river as they struggled against the cold. Erika developed a case of hypothermia, and once they reached the U.S. side her mother tried to flag down cars to get help. But the only one who stopped was a Border Patrol agent, who sent them home.
Erika's mother tried several more times to get her family into the States, but each time Mexican bandits robbed them of their shoes, clothes and money, forcing the family to turn back and try again. Finally, in late 1989, they all made it into the United States and have been living in Houston ever since.
Right from the start, Erika was seduced by the American Dream and would lie awake nights fantasizing about graduating from college. She adored school, was exclusively in advanced placement classes, and more than anything wanted to be a teacher. Even as a child, Erika knew that college was expensive, far more than her mother could possibly save as a housekeeper, so Erika worked diligently babysitting and in restaurants to save enough money.
"I mean, nobody else was thinking about college," says Erika, "and here I was afraid I wouldn't be able to go. I guess it was kinda weird."
A straight-A student, Erika graduated from Jersey Village High in 2001 near the top of her class. She scored so well on her AP tests that she'd earned a full year's worth of college credit and could enter as a sophomore. But she still couldn't afford to pay for university because at that time in Texas, undocumented immigrants had to pay a costlier international student rate.
"At that point the idea of college was pretty much gone for me," says Erika. "I would still go to the college fairs and I of course took the SAT, but going to school really wasn't an option. It was just so heartbreaking. I was completely devastated."
Erika enrolled in a community college. Then, about halfway through the year the Texas legislature enacted a law allowing undocumented students who'd lived in Texas for five years and graduated from a state high school to pay in-state college tuition. This was the answer to Erika's prayers.
The following fall, she enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where she graduated summa cum laude in only one and a half years with a double-major in history and Islamic studies. Her dream of being a teacher was within reach.
But once again, her immigration status got in the way. With no social security number, Erika could not participate in the paid teacher-training programs at UT and none of the school districts could hire her.
"It was yet another heartbreak," says Erika. "I had this wonderful plan in my head, but it wasn't going to happen because of my immigration status. I think I cried for a month."
Still, Erika found a way to work around the system. After working as a secretary for several months, Erika used a false identity to create a business which she now runs. It's not a perfect solution and Erika's not doing what she wants, but she's able to earn money and save up for graduate school in hopes that when she gets out, U.S. immigration law will have changed.