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COLUMN ONE / Life in the Shadows

A family's borderline existence

Though married to a U.S. citizen, Evaristo Suarez can't leave Mexico till 2016. In Tijuana, they wait.

July 22, 2008|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer
  • Heather Suarez applies makeup while waiting in a line of cars on the Mexico side the Otay Mesa border crossing during her two-hour morning commute to work in San Diego, which starts each weekday at about 4:15.
Heather Suarez applies makeup while waiting in a line of cars on the Mexico… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Stuck in Tijuana traffic, Heather Suarez fixes her strawberry blond hair, applies her makeup and listens to country music on the car radio. This morning, she sings along.

Life ain't always beautiful You think you're on your way And it's just a dead end road at the end of the day. But the struggles make you

stronger And the changes make you

wise And happiness has its own

way of takin' its sweet time.

For Heather, 29, every day is a struggle. The native of rural Kentucky didn't know how drastically her life would change after she fell in love and married Evaristo Suarez, an illegal immigrant.

The couple assumed that Evaristo, 30, would be eligible for a green card once they got married and that they would raise their family near her hometown. But because he had crossed into the United States illegally more than once, he was denied a visa and must wait 10 years before reapplying to return legally.

So six months ago, Heather and their three young children moved from Kentucky to Tijuana to reunite with Evaristo, who had been living in Mexico since being denied his visa in 2006.

"Even though everybody said all these bad things about Tijuana, Tijuana was my dream to have my family back together again," she said.

But now, Heather said, 2016 seems a long time away.

During her two-hour commute across the border to work in San Diego, she passes women selling pan dulce and tamales. She smells the exhaust seeping through the windows. She checks the radio traffic report. But her thoughts always return to the family's decision to live south of the border. Was it the best choice for her children?

She fears the escalating drug wars and violence in Tijuana -- the kidnappings, slayings and shootouts. She wonders about the quality of education her children will receive in Mexican schools. She thinks about whether her family will have enough money to pay for rent, food and gas.

"Our lives have been completely flipped upside down," Heather said. "I am still torn, kind of living in limbo, not really knowing what is the right thing to do for my kids. I want them to be with their father, of course, but I want them to have a good education too."

It is "painfully common" for illegal immigrants to think they are going back to Mexico for a quick trip to get a visa but then realize they are stuck there for 10 years, said San Diego immigration attorney Kathrin Mautino. Sometimes, she said, they will cross illegally again and risk being caught and facing even harsher penalties.

But if immigrants want to follow the law, families -- often including U.S. spouses and children -- are left with two difficult choices: Live apart or move to Mexico. Mautino said she knows of a few U.S. citizen spouses who have made the same decision as Heather Suarez, but more choose not to move because of concerns about safety, education, medical care or finances.

"If they want to do things right under the law as it exists today, this is what they have to do," Mautino said. "If they do sneak back into the country and they are successful, they are sentenced to life in the shadows."


Heather and Evaristo met in Kentucky through a friend years ago. At the time, she spoke little Spanish and he spoke little English. Using a Spanish-English dictionary to help them communicate, he told her about growing up on a ranch in Mexico with eight siblings. She told him about her childhood, much of it clouded by an alcoholic father.

"I felt such a strong connection with him," she said. "He genuinely wanted to take care of me."

On Christmas Eve 2002, Evaristo asked Heather's parents for her hand. They married early the next year.

At first, Evaristo didn't want his wife to petition for his green card because he didn't want her family to think he was marrying her for immigration papers. But she insisted, saying that she wanted him to be able to earn better wages and more respect.

"I wanted it to be easier for him," she said. "I didn't want him to have to struggle and feel that he didn't have rights."

Once she learned they would have to travel to Ciudad Juarez for Evaristo's visa interview, she spent months planning and preparing. She consulted attorneys and researched what paperwork they would need. She packed a black rolling suitcase full of documents -- wedding photos, rent receipts, tax returns and letters of support.

Heather thought they would have to prove only that their marriage was legitimate.

"We can pass that easy, flying colors," she said. "Apparently that was not the case."

When the couple arrived at the consulate on June 1, 2006, Heather was turned away at the door and told to wait across the street with their children. She got scared. She overheard other spouses talk about cases being denied.

When Evaristo finally emerged, he was in a daze.

"I didn't get it," he said, handing her a paper with two check marks showing that his visa had been denied. "Why?" she asked, stunned.

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