Luis Luna anxiously watches a U.S.-bound freight train move slowly through… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Nogales, Mexico — The freight train slowed through downtown and screeched to a stop in front of Luis Luna. He scrambled under a boxcar and climbed onto narrow beams that crisscrossed the undercarriage.
He lay on his back, suspended 12 inches off the tracks. His nose almost touched the bottom of the boxcar.
Seconds later, the train lurched forward and rolled across the border into the U.S. It accelerated and the undercarriage began to sway. Luna tightened his grip and braced his legs against a beam to keep his balance. He had tucked his sweatshirt into his pants and his shoelaces inside his boots; the tiniest shred of clothing could get snagged and yank him under the wheels.
PHOTOS: Adrift between two countries
It had been nine months since Luna was deported from the U.S., where he had lived since his mother smuggled him from Mexico when he was a toddler. In America, he played point guard on an intramural basketball team, grilled burgers at a McDonald's and looked forward to the senior prom. In Mexico, he had no family. He was a stranger sleeping on the streets, scruffy and destitute.
He felt hopeless — until he figured out how to stow away on this Union Pacific train headed to Tucson, 70 miles away.
The train had covered 10 miles through the high desert when it stopped at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint. An inspector and his canine walked by on the gravel path. Luna stifled his breath and prayed. Then he felt a sharp tug and a dog's hot breath.
FULL COVERAGE: Without a country
A German shepherd sank its teeth through Luna's two shirts, locked onto his ribs and dragged him out from under the train. He clutched his side.
A few hours later, he was taken back to the border by U.S. agents. He walked into Mexico and eventually made his way to the garbage-strewn lot where he slept with other penniless migrants looking to sneak into America. Unlike the others, Luna didn't consider the U.S. a mythic land of opportunity. It was simply home.
There would be another train. He would try again.
"The wheels start moving. It starts picking up speed. It gets bumpy. You have nothing to hold on. But the hunger that you have to get to the United States just to be with your family, that's all that's in your head," said Luna, 20. "I'm going to make it."
'A model student'
Luna was on his way to work in January 2010 when a police officer in Pasco, Wash., pulled him over because of a broken headlight on his Honda Accord. He was arrested for driving without a license and taken to the county jail, where the next day an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent arrived on his rounds.
The agent was part of a rapidly expanding program to scour the country's jails for illegal immigrants. Those with serious criminal histories were priority targets, but thousands of people charged with relatively minor infractions, like Luna, were also being swept up in the federal agency's largest ever deportation effort.
The agent discovered that Luna was in the country illegally and started deportation proceedings against him. A few days later, he was sent to a detention center in Tacoma, handcuffed and still wearing his Pizza Hut uniform. His badge read: "Hablo Espanol."
The smelly bunks, rude guards, prison uniforms and other indignities of confinement bewildered Luna. The threat of being deported had always seemed to him the stuff of breathlessly reported Spanish-language television news. Violent people were the ones he thought were targeted. Not someone like him, who, aside from driving without a license, had no criminal record and no say in coming to this country in the first place.
He felt that he had earned his place in America. Now the country wanted to kick him out.
Later that year at an immigration court hearing in Seattle, Luna presented school records in a bid to stop the deportation. He wanted to establish that he had lived in the country for at least 10 years, had been a person of good moral character, and that his absence would cause undue hardship for his family — factors that could allow the judge to cancel the deportation.
Friends, relatives and court records backed up the account Luna presented to the immigration judge.
Luna's mother, Demi, a native of Monterrey, brought Luna into the country illegally when he was 3. He started working in downtown Los Angeles, peddling Helen Grace chocolates and flowers at intersections and garment district sweatshops. He was 5 years old.
"He became a great salesman, and he helped me pay the rent," Demi said.
When money was tight, Luna, his older brother and his mother would sleep on the streets or under the trees at South Gate Park, their belongings piled into shopping carts. Luna remembers rummaging through trash cans looking for food scraps.