GRANJENAL, Mexico — Victor Lopez worked hard for the good life he built in Santa Ana during the past four years--a family, a well-paying job, a mortgage, a car.
But it all came crashing down last February when, returning from his mother's funeral in Mexico, he was caught trying to cross the border with a counterfeit passport.
Ensnared in a crackdown on illegal immigration, Lopez spent two weeks in an INS holding facility and was deported with a stern warning: Try it again and you'll do time in prison.
Now, along with his wife and three daughters, who returned here from Santa Ana after his deportation, Lopez, 30, hopes for a miracle.
He says his employer, an Orange-based water equipment manufacturer, is trying to arrange for an employment-based visa, which allows immigrant workers to fill jobs when no citizens or legal residents are available.
But a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service said Lopez is out of luck--because of his deportation, he is ineligible for the visa for three years.
Inside the cool adobe walls of his father's home, Lopez and his wife, Rosie Zamora, wait and reflect on the abrupt turn their lives took when he bought fake documents from Tijuana smugglers and tried to walk past immigration agents at the San Ysidro border crossing.
"It was a stupid thing to do," Lopez concedes sheepishly. "I shouldn't have trusted them, but I had to get back to work."
His timing couldn't have been worse. In the last two years, the INS has stepped up inspections for fraudulent documents at the San Ysidro crossing and beefed up patrols along the border.
An illegal crossing that was once considered routine for Granjenal immigrants has become nearly impossible. Those caught trying to reenter after deportation face stiff penalties: At least two men from Granjenal are serving federal prison terms for tempting fate a second time. Lopez, like others in Granjenal who were turned back at the border, sees himself as a victim of poor timing and fickle immigration laws.
While he studied engineering at the University of Morelia, in the capital of Michoacan state, most of his friends chose the U.S. over school and crossed the border illegally to work construction in Santa Ana.
Many qualified for amnesty in 1986, became legal U.S. residents and are able to come and go freely.
Lopez says he intended to use his agronomy skills to help Mexican farmers increase their yields, but jobs were scarce and poorly paid. "Here in Mexico, things are getting worse and worse," he says. "You've got to have two jobs at a time just to survive."
Finally, he sneaked across the border to join three sisters and a brother in Orange County and found a $12-an-hour factory job. By then, the amnesty program was long over.
In Granjenal, one brother is a doctor, and a sister owns the town's largest market. They are relatively prosperous in this shrinking town, but Lopez says that after four years in the north, he no longer fits in.
To pass the time, he has planted a small garden on his father's property. He's trying different strains of corn, looking for ways to make Granjenal's land more productive.
But his heart isn't in it. He misses the stimulation of his job and the familiarity of his own home. His 5-year-old daughter misses her dog, Rocky.
"I'm not here or there," he says in fluent English. "I'm sort of between two worlds. That's the problem."