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Divided by death and the border

Illegal immigrant families are torn apart when a loved one goes home for burial. Some say that's the price to be paid for a crime.

April 02, 2008|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Alberta Trujillo felt the baby coming. She woke her fiance, Margarito Garcia, and told him they needed to get to a hospital.

Neither had a car or a driver's license. So they bundled up and started walking to East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital a block away.

Trujillo had to stop across the street from the emergency room as Garcia ran to get help. He returned with a wheelchair and an attendant, and the couple headed into the hospital.

They knew they were having a girl and had already chosen a name: Nicole.

But now the baby's heartbeat was dropping, so as soon as the doctor arrived, Trujillo started pushing.

"I was worried," Garcia said. "I didn't know what was going to happen."

Nicole was born at 4:22 a.m on Jan. 25. But she wasn't breathing, and her heart had stopped. Doctors were unable to save her.

Garcia was holding Trujillo's hand a few minutes later, trying to comfort her, when she started throwing up blood.

"Don't let what happened to our baby happen to me," Trujillo begged, crying.

The doctor took Trujillo into surgery to try to stop the bleeding. But by 1 p.m., she was dead.

"I wanted to die too," Garcia said.

His troubles were not over. As he mourned the deaths of his fiancee and daughter, Garcia soon found that his decision to sneak across the border four years earlier was about to backfire.

At a time when most families come together to grieve, families like Trujillo's are separated -- by their initial decision to illegally cross the border, by their desire to bury relatives back home, and by their fear of never being able to return if they travel to Mexico.

The Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles pays for an immigrant's final journey home if the family is unable to do so. In the last four years, the consulate has shipped more than 1,000 bodies to Mexico for burial. Consul General Juan Marcos Gutierrez-Gonzalez said the situation for undocumented relatives who cannot travel with the bodies "is the worst of the worst."

"It is the most direct experience of human suffering," he said.

But Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said that is the price illegal immigrants pay for breaking the law.

"We have borders and we have immigration laws," he said. "People who choose to jump the line have to deal with the consequences of that."

Garcia wanted to bury Trujillo and their baby in Los Angeles. Trujillo's family -- both in the U.S. and Mexico -- wanted her to be buried in the town where she was born and where her parents still lived. Three of her children from a previous marriage also lived in Mexico.

"My sister always fought to have a better life here," said Elizabeth Trujillo, who lives in Los Angeles. "But we are Mexicans and we want to return to where we were born."

Alberta Trujillo left her village of Pericotepec when she was 11, quitting school to go with her older sister to Mexico City. She wed as a teenager and had four children. Her marriage was strained for many years and ended badly, her family said.

In 1999, Trujillo decided to head north, leaving her children behind and crossing illegally into the U.S. She lived in East Los Angeles, supporting herself by cooking in a lunch truck and by selling beauty products and Tupperware. Trujillo sent money home to her family to buy some land and build a home just outside Mexico City. Trujillo returned in 2001 to see her children and her home and to finalize her divorce. Her eldest son, Miguel Ramos, came to live with her. She talked of building a second story on the house and opening a small store nearby.

But after four years, Trujillo decided to go back to the U.S. to earn more money. She wanted to bring her children, but only her two daughters made the journey with her. One returned to Mexico not long after.

Ramos, now 22 and still in Mexico, supported his mother's decision to leave, even when she missed his graduation from college and even when she missed the birth of his first child.

"More than anything, I wanted her to be happy more than I wanted her to be with me," he said.

On Christmas Eve 2006 in Los Angeles, Trujillo met Garcia, who was working in construction and living with friends. She was 37 and he was 26, and they started dating despite the age difference. On Valentine's Day, he told her he was in love with her. He didn't have much to offer, but he promised to take care of her.

"I wanted her to have a life of kings and queens," Garcia said.

For the first time in many years, her siblings said, Trujillo seemed happy. Garcia, who had lost both his parents, also hoped for a new beginning. They moved in together and Trujillo learned she was pregnant in the spring.

"We were expecting this baby with such excitement," Garcia said.

The coroner determined that Trujillo died when amniotic fluid got into her bloodstream. Her baby died after an abruption of the placenta caused her to lose oxygen and blood supply. Emergency Medi-Cal paid for their time in the hospital.

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