The Invisible Girl

Ever since that day in 1981 when she rode a grimy bus into Houston, a 12-year-old dispatched to support her family back in Guatemala, Maria has been almost invisible. Granted, Maria, who asks not to reveal her full name, sought at least part of her anonymity. She was illegal, and for someone without papers, a low profile can be helpful. Too, disappearing into the shadows allowed her respite from the political violence that had killed her father in Guatemala, and gave her the opportunity to work undisturbed as a nanny for her young cousins.

Sometimes, though, she wished someone would notice her: specifically, her uncle and aunt. The tios, as Maria refers to them in her timid, babyish voice, paid her $50 a week as a live-in babysitter for their children. But they never sent Maria to school, seldom allowed her contact with the outside world and, worst of all, didn't tell her about a one-time amnesty program that, in 1986, could have made her a legal resident of the United States. It wasn't that they didn't know about it -- her aunt and uncle successfully gained amnesty for both themselves and their children. But somehow, for some reason, they didn't include Maria in their petition.

Now, a decade and a half after she arrived in America, a figure of authority is finally paying Maria some heed. It's the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which wants to deport her. If Maria goes, they say, she'll have the option of taking her American-born children back to the village where her father was murdered or leaving them here with her husband.

Maria's story is one that causes those who work with undocumented immigrants to wince, both because it's so extreme and because it touches on immigration problems that aren't extreme at all. It's not simply a tale of one person's missed opportunities; it's also a reminder of how easily those opportunities can be lost. After a lifetime of violence in one country and exploitation in another, it seems pretty clear who's the victim in this hard-luck immigration saga. What's harder to identify is the villain.

"My aunt says that when kids have been born in the United States, they're different," Maria says, proudly watching her two preschoolers scale the furniture and offer each other high fives in their southwest Houston apartment. "They're bold, they're active, they love to talk. And they're so intelligent!"

What she doesn't say is how different she was as a girl. Intelligent she might have been, but growing up in a Guatemalan town on the border of El Salvador, Maria's main concerns were keeping her head down and avoiding the massacres, bombings and rapes that defined life in her region. The town where Maria grew up was one of the most notorious zones of conflict between the Guatemalan army and local guerrillas. Maria had learned to detest both sides even before she was six, and the army forcibly recruited her father.

By the time his one-year term was over, the bloodshed in their village began to paralyze daily life, so Maria's father moved his impoverished family to Guatemala City. There, everybody worked: the five children sold hot dogs from little carts, and Maria, who was in third grade, also bought and cooked corn on the cob to sell between classes. Then, when she was 12, Maria's father went back to their village to deliver some farming equipment. A few days later, the family received news: Maria's father had been murdered by guerrillas. To this day, Maria doesn't know, or won't tell, the details.

But she and her family were terrified. "I'd seen so many terrible things in my childhood. I'd seen so many killings," she says. "A panic came over me, a fear of being in Guatemala." To this day, that fear seems to have marked her character. She talks in a hushed voice, as if always afraid of being overheard. Her movements are timid and unassuming. "When there's a massacre, the guerrillas find the oldest person in the family to find out what they know," she remembers. "Everyone in the pueblo was afraid."

She also came to fear starvation. For a few months, her family lived off the stock that had been bought for their business. Then they became destitute. It was around that time that Maria's aunt, the sister of her father, called from Houston.

We are going to help you, she said. She and her husband had been in the United States seven months, and although they were illegal, they had already found work doing menial labor. Maria's father had always asked them to look out for her, her aunt said, and they would. They would wire bus fare to Maria in Guatemala, and Maria could come live with them in Houston, where it was safe. And she could even earn money to send home.

In a way, Maria says now, her aunt and uncle did their best by her. After all, she couldn't expect them to treat her like a daughter. She was just a niece. And though she was only 12, and maybe in need of some parental affection, well, life was tough for everybody at the apartment on Briar Grove Road. Working as a laborer, Maria's uncle could only manage a one-bedroom apartment; her aunt's salary as a domestic helped only a little. At night, her uncle and aunt shared the bedroom with their two sons. Maria slept in the living room.

No one beat her, they fed her well and every once in a while, when her aunt wasn't tired, she would braid Maria's hair for her the way her mother had. But such attentions were rare. Today, a slight woman with long brown hair and soft, timid eyes, Maria still wears her hair in the style she taught herself as an elementary school girl, neatly combed back with a big pink ribbon fixed at the crown of her head.

Although her first years in Houston are now just a blur of work and depression, Maria still paints her uncle and aunt in a rosy light, perhaps because they were all she had. That may be why Maria never questioned some odd household rules. For example, the one that said Maria was not to be sent to school. To be sure, Maria, in shock after her father's death and her transplant to Houston, didn't show much interest in school. She was worried that her uncle and aunt couldn't pay for her supplies. And anyway, her mother and four young siblings in Guatemala were waiting desperately for her earnings.

Once, Maria recalls, her aunt, never the affectionate type, said, "But Maria, you should think of yourself sometimes!" But when Maria pointed out the dire situation in Guatemala, her aunt didn't argue. Maybe it was better, she reasoned, for Maria to earn money in the apartment and stay out of trouble. After all, her aunt could hardly read herself.

Maybe it was also in her best interest, Maria says, for her to live in a state of near isolation. True, when her uncle and aunt went to the store, or the zoo with the kids, they always took Maria along. But until she was married, she went nowhere -- except to church -- without them.

"You're our responsibility," Maria says they told her. "If you go out and something happens, we'd have to tell your mother." So in the decade she lived with her relatives, Maria never had a friend. Never went to a dance, never went on a date, never went to anyone else's house. "I feel good that my aunt raised me that way," she ventures now. "Because I don't have problems. Many girls who have friends get together, and they join gangs. They rob people, they go out and they kill people."

Inside the house, she was lonely, but her two little cousins were affectionate and tolerant of her depressions. Also, when she wasn't cooking for them or getting them ready for school, they were good company. Together they did puzzles, or if they turned on the television, it was to watch cartoons.

In retrospect, the cartoons turned out to be part of Maria's undoing. Because in 1986 something was going on in the apartment that her uncle and aunt didn't discuss with the children -- Maria, it seems, among them. On the radio, in newspapers and on TV, grassroots organizations and the INS were blitzing Latino immigrants with information about a one-time opportunity -- the chance to trade in their illegal status for residency if they'd arrived in the United States before January 1, 1982. Maria, obliviously playing with her cousins, was eligible, but didn't know it.

In what has become the nagging mystery of Maria's adult life, her aunt and uncle, who had applied for amnesty for themselves and their children, made no attempt to inform Maria or include her in their plans. Today, they don't want to talk to outsiders about her. What good can come of it? Maria says her aunt told her. It wasn't until the filing deadline had passed that a friend of her relatives, alone in the room with Maria for a few moments, told her what she had missed.

"He said, 'Your uncle and aunt submitted papers, you know. Why didn't you?' " Maria says. "I felt sad and hurt. Why didn't they do anything? Why didn't they tell me? We didn't talk much in that household. I think they kept it a secret. That's what I don't understand."

For years, she never asked her aunt and uncle for an explanation. "I was afraid that if I asked them, maybe they would say they just didn't feel like it, and that would hurt me even more," Maria says. Four years later, after she had tried to apply for amnesty on her own, Maria did pose the question. But her aunt, taciturn as ever, simply replied that it was in the past.

It could be, Maria speculates, that her tios were as scared and uninformed as she was. After all, they were semiliterate and had lived in Houston only a few months longer than she had. Maybe they thought that a minor was ineligible for amnesty, or that they would be punished if it were discovered that they'd kept Maria out of school. But to a third party, only once, on a day when her emotions are less in rein, Maria speaks a little more bluntly. Maybe, she says, they were just evil.

By 1990, Maria had somewhat come into her own. A few years earlier, a neighbor woman had noticed Maria and said to her aunt, "What a pretty girl! Why doesn't she come to our church?" To Maria's surprise, her aunt agreed, and Maria became a member of the Canal Church in Spring Branch, a strict Protestant church whose services are entirely in Spanish. Born a Catholic, Maria took quickly to Protestantism. She loved how she was encouraged to read the Bible and think about its contents for herself. And the church provided fellowship, even if nobody during her years at the church took an interest in whether she was attending school, or what her home life was like.

Also by 1990, Maria had a suitor, although she had never exactly been out on a date. A Guatemalan from her old village who attended her church, Juan was a solid looking, intelligent man who always addressed Maria with the respectful usted. He was shocked, she says, when he found out that Maria had never addressed her legal status. Around the same time, a woman in the church told Maria she knew someone who knew just how to help her apply for a work permit.

What she didn't know then, Maria says, was that the woman was filling out a form that was soliciting not just work, but residency. The form was the result of a lawsuit filed by Catholic Social Services on behalf of immigrants who didn't get the 1986 amnesty because they had left the United States at some point before applying. Maria was patently ineligible for this new amnesty: not only had she not left the United States in eight years, she had barely left her apartment. Equally important, she'd never been turned down for the first amnesty; she'd simply never applied.

But, Maria says, she wasn't really clear what the application involved. She gave her name and address to the friend of the churchwoman, but the written product is a hodgepodge of errors. Maria's name is listed both as the applicant and as her own aunt, for example. And more problematically, the English text, which Maria claims her acquaintance didn't translate for her, includes the bald fiction that Maria had left the United States in 1986 to attend her grandfather's funeral. With a creative flourish, the friend had even added that Maria's grandfather, in reality alive and well in Guatemala, had succumbed to diabetes.

A few weeks after the form was completed, a work permit, one of the INS' initial responses to applicants whose amnesty papers looked plausible, came in the mail for Maria. For once, Maria could work outside the house. Within a year she married Juan, got a job as a housekeeper and had at least a partial existence in the eyes of the law. The new visibility seemed to have a particular appeal after so many years of anonymity. So as soon as her work permit expired, Maria went back to the INS and applied for a renewal. But this time, the INS people, who had earlier been very friendly, simply gave her a paper to sign and told her to go home. The renewal never came.

Juan told her to be patient, that immigration was swamped with such requests. But three years passed, and still nothing came in the mail. So Maria went back and applied again. "The man said to me, 'Here is your application, but you are not in the computer,' " Maria says. "He told me to go home and wait some more. He told me no one was trying to kick me out of Houston. He said don't worry." Then she heard nothing more for two years.

Finally, in 1995, Maria, now with two babies, got desperate. Juan made only $6.50 an hour as a driver for a pasta company, and the cheapest apartment they could find cost them $575 a month. More than anything, Maria wanted to get work, but she was afraid to apply for a job without papers. So she paid a notario to fill out a new application for legalization. And finally, she got her coveted letter from the INS.

Only it didn't say what she'd hoped it would. Instead, it said that it had come to the INS' attention that an application she'd filed some years earlier had contained fraudulent data about her activities. Something about leaving the country for her grandfather's funeral.

And as Maria's luck had it, fraudulent legalization forms are one of the best ways to expedite an immigration case, straight to court for deportation.

Almost every time someone who works on immigration issues hears Maria's story, they react with a strange stifled yelp, a mix of recognition and disgusted frustration. Ignorance and misunderstanding of the constantly evolving immigration laws is common, they say. Some of the programs -- for example, the one allowing applicants who were denied amnesty for leaving the country to reapply for legalization -- are still being argued in court. There are thousands of other immigrants who, like Maria, have slipped through the cracks of the INS' various legalization programs. What's uncommon in Maria's case, though, depends on how you look at it: it's either her unending bad luck ... or her persistent breaks.

Because it looks like immigration has temporarily lost track of Maria once again. Ever obedient to authority, she appeared at deportation court twice this winter, and both times was turned away. Once, the judge didn't show up, and a court official told Maria to come back for a new appointment with an attorney. A retired lawyer agreed to take Maria on as a pro bono client, but when they arrived at court together in February, her name was nowhere on the list of appointments. Her file was nowhere to be found in the computer.

"The official there said it was very strange," Maria says on a cool spring evening, frying eggs in her darkening apartment. Juan is due home soon, and her two preschool children are agitating for dinner. They haven't been out all day, because Maria's apartment manager has told her they will root up the decorative plants on the well-tended lawns. So Maria keeps them inside and waits for her call from the INS.

Meanwhile, experts say, Maria's case is a hard one to predict. After all, despite her blown chances for amnesty, despite botched applications for asylum, there are still several ways she could stay in the U.S., says INS spokeswoman Mariela Melero. Now that she's lived here more than seven years, Maria might argue that it would cause her extreme hardship to return to Guatemala. Maybe she could successfully claim that it's still dangerous for her to return home. Or maybe, given all the delays in processing in her case, Maria's American-born children could grow up before her case goes to trial and end up sponsoring her.

Then again, maybe not. Just as easily, says attorney Magali Candler of Associated Catholic Charities, the INS may throw out Maria's claims of endangerment and extreme hardship just as they have discounted thousands of others' claims, and send her back home.

"This case illustrates how hard it is to say who the good guys and who the bad guys are in this immigration thing," says former INS chief Leonel Castillo. "It's easy to blame her home government. But that wouldn't be right. Or her family. But that wouldn't be exactly right either. It's easy to blame the INS, but they haven't deported her. It's really an illustration of how hard it is to get through this system for everybody."

As for Maria, never adept at apportioning blame anyway, she doesn't apply the word to her own case at all. After all, this is a woman who still keeps in touch with her aunt and uncle, doggedly inviting them to dinner although they never call her and never ask about her family. Her main goal, Maria says, is simply to look out for her kids the way no one looked out for her.

No matter where she ends up living, Maria says, "My kids won't be shut up all the time like I was. And they need to have friends. Me, nobody ever remembered.


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