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Heartland Love Story: This Is What Your Government Would Tear Asunder

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The McGroarty-Torres family

The McGroarty-Torres family

By Lisa Applegate

When she stood behind the podium and began reading from her one-page speech, Kathy McGroarty-Torres felt more than just her usual jitters about speaking in public. The paper she held quivered in her hands. Her voice choked and she blinked away tears. She had written this speech late the previous night in her hotel room, anxious to include the most compelling details of her family’s struggle with a largely unknown immigration law. It was a story she had yearned to tell for a decade, ever since she and Ines Torres were newlyweds and learned of the law while waiting at the border in Ciudad Juarez. Now here she was, standing before a television camera and several reporters in a U. S. Congress meeting room.

“We have lived everyday with the fear that our lives could be destroyed by a deportation order. We have two boys, Esteban and Diego, who have no idea that their father’s immigration status could ultimately bring unbelievable heartache to our home.” As Kathy spoke her boys’ names, a thought flashed in her mind: “Oh, there it is. We’re all out now.” She had been encouraged to use their names, to add a human dimension to the law passed by Congress seventeen years ago in an attempt to deter undocumented immigrants. Now she wondered, could this be dangerous for us?

She continued: “I simply could not wrap my head around the fact that my own government would force me to choose between my husband and my country.” A day before, Kathy didn’t know she would be speaking to reporters at a press conference organized by Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez. Three weeks before, she had never even heard of the non-profit organization American Families United, let alone imagine herself flying from her home in Evanston to Washington D.C. to lobby on the group’s behalf. Six weeks before, she and Ines celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary by going dancing. They avoided discussing the other ten-year milestone coming up this fall: the day in September, 2003, when Ines was barred from legally entering the country even though he had recently married an American citizen.

“I would beg any legislator engaged in the conversation about reform to not forget families like ours.” Kathy sat down, relieved her part was over and then excited when two reporters asked her follow-up questions after the press conference. By the following day, Kathy could Google her name and find a few news hits.

Though it happened quickly, Kathy felt she couldn’t miss the chance to speak, not when immigration reform is under consideration even by conservative Republicans. Back at home, Ines worried that Kathy might be crushed if Congress fails to enact legislation that would provide undocumented immigrants like him the chance to argue his case in court. Even if they do, Ines wonders whether a judge would decide in favor of a man who crossed the border from Mexico four times, starting when he was eighteen, and has lived in the U.S. for two decades. Still, he believes sharing their story may help the thousands of families in which only one spouse is legally allowed to live in the United States.

Kathy works full-time at Northwestern University as a project coordinator. Ines walks their boys to school and sells tamales in several farmer’s markets. They spend Sunday mornings at the YMCA and summer weekends camping in Michigan. In many ways, theirs is a typical love story: two people meet, fall in love, have babies, work hard and do good things in their community. They are typical, except that they understand how drastically their story could change.

El Machito, Mexico is a village of fifty homes nestled in a curving fold of the lush Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. Halfway between Acapulco on the Pacific coast and Mexico City in the middle of the country, El Machito has one road that carries increasing numbers of young people away from subsistence farming and toward the North.

It is January, 2000. Kathy walks unsteadily down a river path, her ankles wobbling on the uneven rocks. A native of Michigan, Kathy isn’t used to such mountainous terrain, so Ines offers his hand. She is taller than he by an inch or so. She is twenty-four years old with a modern dancer’s curve to her hips. At twenty-nine, Ines is wide and muscular, his black hair cropped short, a slender gap between his two front teeth. She is laughing, as she often does, in a light, self-deprecating way that harmonizes with his deep chuckle. It is swelteringly sticky, but Kathy is a Chicago resident away for the winter and Ines is a native; they are happy to sweat. On this day, they have already tended to the cattle. There is no need to hurry. The day is theirs.

For two months, Kathy and Ines explored the mountainside, swam in the river, ate his mother’s fresh tortillas and talked about life. The place where a couple falls in love is often significant, but for Kathy and Ines, it was essential.

They had met two years before while working at the Rogers Park landmark Heartland Cafe. Kathy was waiting tables, trying to decide what to do with her recent history degree from the University of Michigan. Ines, who had worked his way up from mopping the restaurant’s floors over the past decade, was Heartland’s kitchen manager. He took his job seriously.

“I was probably the meanest one there,” he said. “I wanted to get things done as quick as possible. If I saw the servers just talking when it was busy, I’d say, ‘Why are you not doing anything?’”

Ines lightened up a bit after hours, talking with Kathy at the bar. She seemed genuinely interested in his life, how he grew up, what his hometown was like. Having recently returned from her year abroad in Spain, Kathy wanted to continue exploring other cultures. She was curious, energized by new experiences, and Ines offered a perspective on the world she’d never known.

Even though Ines enjoyed Kathy’s company, “I felt that she wasn’t someone I could approach. She was too beautiful to be with someone from my background.”

Ines’ cousin was dating one of Kathy’s friends, and when Ines returned to El Machito to care for his sick father, his cousin returned too. The cousin’s girlfriend, together with Kathy, decided to visit the town they had heard so much about.

Ines was a more relaxed version of himself in his hometown. When he was a boy the village lacked electricity, so after working the pumpkin fields or lemon tree groves, everyone gravitated toward the river. Children would splash, women would chatter while scrubbing clothes, men would sit nearby playing cards.

“We would help each other to weed crops and things like that. If someone got behind, we would just go for one or two days and help. It was like a party afterward because we would get together and eat and drink and have fun.”

But as Ines grew up, he understood two things. First, his village—and Mexico in general—provided few jobs and limited income, just enough to get by. Ines would not be able to save money, and this mattered because of reason two: his father.

“My dad used to drink and yell a lot at my mom and, well, to everybody. That was the main reason I chose to leave. I wanted to make some money and maybe take her away from him.”

His older brother, who lived in Chicago as an undocumented immigrant, sent photographs to Ines of people standing in front of solid homes wearing shoes not sandals. When Ines arrived, crossing the border with the help of a smuggler, he cleaned the Heartland Cafe at night, studied English during the day, and lived twelve people to a two-bedroom Rogers Park apartment, sending most of his income home. That money helped soften his father. He stopped drinking as much but he did continue to pressure Ines to live up to the family’s expectations.

“In my culture, the youngest son is the one who takes care of the family,” Ines said. “I’ve had that responsibility in my mind since I left.”

This obligation to his family, paired with the frustration he feels toward his father, has significantly shaped Ines’ life and his choices. After moving to the U.S., Ines went back to Mexico three times, always to help his ailing father. He returned to the U.S. each time because, in large part, Ines had such a hard time living in such close proximity to his father.

In her first visit to El Machito, Kathy perceived the tension. But she also got to know Ines in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had they stayed in Chicago. Kathy saw a stoicism, but also a grace, in the way Ines cared for his father, gently gliding a razor along the old man’s cheek and chin. She witnessed his gentle nature and playful spirit when Ines invited his young cousins along to care for the cattle or soothed a crying baby.

“I had this premonition that we’d be good parents together. That we’d feel pride in similar things and love our children well,” Kathy said.

Still, at the end of her visit, Kathy insisted he was not to cross the border and risk his life for her. Ines nodded his head, but really: Why would he wish to stay with a father who couldn’t be pleased in a town with little opportunity, when he could instead be with Kathy? It was too late. The second familial obligation in Ines’ life had already taken hold.

 

Family circa 2009

Photo: Anna Marie Panlilio

Ciudad Juarez, the border city that shares its jutting hills with New Mexico, is cramped with maquiladores manufacturing U.S. goods with cheap labor, smugglers transporting human cargo across the border just a few kilometers away, and drug lords who infect the city with murders and kidnappings. Dubbed as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Juarez is also the destination for many Mexicans who wait in line at the Consulate General of the United States, praying for a legal welcome.

In September 2003, Ines and Kathy arrived in Juarez with four over-stuffed suitcases and a new plan. They had married in El Machito nine months before and tried to make a life for themselves there, but the family tension was too much for both of them. Instead, Ines would receive his visa, they would cross the border and settle in Chicago for a while. With his legal status, Ines could travel back to Mexico for short trips, fulfilling his responsibilities without having to endure his father for long periods.

Kathy and Ines sat in the consulate’s large, crowded waiting room. They expected a long wait for his visa, but Ines was called relatively quickly to a counter. After the clerk behind the window looked over Ines’ paperwork, she asked him to raise his right hand in promise: Yes, everything there is true and accurate. Kathy and Ines decided to be honest about the number of times Ines entered the country and how long he stayed. Kathy had met with a consultant months before who said that such truthfulness would benefit them. It wasn’t until later, curled into a fetal position in a Juarez hostel, that Kathy remembered the sign hanging on the consultant’s office wall: We Are Not Attorneys.

Every couple makes impulsive decisions, their logic fuzzy with optimism. Kathy had also sought advice from an attorney who predicted problems, but she chose to believe the consultant instead. Her error involved believing with her heart that the consultant’s advice was correct; that true love could triumph over legal status.

“Part of it was a sort of romantic notion. But also, I really could not believe I would be told that I could marry this person, I could imagine having a family with him, but I would have to choose between being with him or being in my country.”

For generations of people, marriage would have been the simplest step toward legal status. But in 1996, Congress quietly approved punitive laws as a means to try and deter illegal immigration by focusing on those who entered the country illegally. Now, when undocumented spouses try to apply for legal residency—like Ines was doing in Juarez—they face mandatory terms of exile known as “bars.” Staying in the country more than six months illegally, for example, results in a ten-year bar. Those who have ever been caught at the border and lied about their legal status (something smugglers often tell people to say, Ines noted) receive a lifetime bar for making a false claim to citizenship. Congress provided the opportunity to apply for a hardship waiver, but it was only for those who had entered the country once.

After Ines swore his information was true in Juarez, the clerk checked off some boxes on a photocopied form. More than one entry, check. More than six months in the country, check.

“And she was like, ‘All right, you’re banned for ten years,’” Kathy recalled. “It was surreal.”

While Kathy lay in their hostel room paralyzed with panic, Ines was downstairs arranging payment to cross the border illegally that night. It wasn’t that he took the crossing lightly. He once had to walk for four days without water or food because their smuggler got lost. Another time, he was robbed by gunpoint.

“I knew she was going to be miserable, and I thought, well, I can go in the way I’ve been going in for so many years. There’s nothing that’s going to change,” Ines said.

They could have stayed in Mexico; some couples decide to wait out the bar in the undocumented spouses’ home country. But they had already tried that. A few months before they were married in December, 2002, Ines and Kathy packed up a truck with their dishes, clothes and other essentials and drove to El Machito, ready to spend at least several years there, if not longer. They even brought a tiller along in hopes the ground might yield to organic coffee beans which could be marketed back in Chicago.

But the pressure to serve two families only increased for Ines, whose parents’ demands for his time lasted from morning until night. Ines tended the cattle, repaired the truck, even massaged his father’s aching back, but nothing seemed to please the aging man.

It was hard for Ines, who had grown accustomed to American grocery stores, public transportation and the ability to earn enough money to live relatively comfortably, but he could have endured it for a few years had he been single. But Kathy felt lost, unsure of how to meld her life as an educated, working American woman with the Mexican expectation of a wife who stayed close to home. The crops she planted failed, she was clumsy with the lemon harvest, she kept burning her fingers cooking lopsided tortillas. One day, when Ines returned home for lunch and was furious to find that Kathy hadn’t prepared anything, they realized neither of them wanted to live this way.

Later, in Juarez, their young marriage was being tested again. When it comes to temperament, Ines and Kathy can be like two ends of a scale. As he gave a smuggler money that night, Ines remained calm, almost resigned, focusing on the practical details of the next twenty-four hours. Upstairs, Kathy was furious and frantic, emailing friends for advice and begging Ines at the last moment not to cross. He agreed, shrugging and they returned to the consulate the following morning. Kathy was certain this was all a misunderstanding.

 

On a recent afternoon, sunlight streams into the wide windows of Ines and Kathy’s home on the second floor of a brick two-flat. Esteban, who is eight, lays on the floor playing with a colorful geometric puzzle. Diego, five, lunges toward the couch, clambers up behind his papa, and climbs over his broad shoulder. Ines, patiently grinning, holds Diego upside down and gives him an anticipated tickle.

Spanish and English flow into one language here:

“Your backpack is here.”

“Donde?”

“Esta en la cocina, by the pantry.”

On the shelf of the built-in bookcase stands one of just two photographs ever taken of Ines as a boy. He stands, dark eyes wide, next to his siblings in the plaza of a large town. His mother is there, shorter than two of her six children and almost as fresh-faced. Next to this is a recent shot of Esteban and Diego, two smiling dark-eyed boys hugging Kathy’s parents. They love to visit their grandparents in Michigan, enjoying sugary treats and movies their parents discourage. When Kathy began dating Ines, he was the first undocumented immigrant her parents had ever met. When they announced their wedding plans, Kathy’s parents pretended not to hear. Kathy understands now they were concerned about Ines’ intentions, but once they traveled to El Machito and saw how Ines interacted with his family, the fears dissipated. The two families bonded over hand motions to compensate for limited language skills, coupled with plenty of cerveza. Lately, her parents have encouraged Kathy to speak out for immigration reform so that their son-in-law can remain a close part of the family.

If there was one thing Kathy and Ines learned from their disappointment in Juarez, it is that life, no matter the circumstances, is unpredictable. Better to live fully today than worry about tomorrow. Once Ines crossed the border again and reunited with Kathy in Chicago as a married couple, they decided to no longer live in limbo. They became pregnant with Esteban, they bought a condominium, Kathy started full-time work at Northwestern and Ines became a stay-at-home dad.

The eighteen-year-old Ines would perhaps not recognize the current forty-two-year-old version. He is a Mexican man who stays at home with his children, shops at Target, and works part-time cooking tamales, a meal prepared in his hometown only by women. Ines sometimes loses his patience over small things, his anger escalating quickly like his father’s, but he has learned from Kathy how to keep his temper in check and not be so afraid to express his feelings.

For Kathy, Ines has provided the stability and sound judgment she craved when she first met him fourteen years ago. Kathy enjoys her work at Northwestern University, knowing that Ines is caring for the boys, arranging playdates, teaching Esteban and Diego self-discipline and compassion. Like any couple, their respective roles can be a source of tension as well. Kathy feels pressure to make decisions for the family, such as when they bought a condo just before the housing market tanked. Ines feels inadequate because he is not supporting the family financially. When Diego begins kindergarten this fall, Ines hopes to continue his college classes, studying anything that would allow him to earn more money, even under the confines of his undocumented status.

Still, Kathy and Ines say their blessings far outweigh their concerns. They live in a liberal area that has little interest in cracking down on undocumented immigrants. Their kids are healthy and getting a solid education. They know how fortunate they are compared to other families in their same situation who don’t even join their child’s school PTA for fear of being caught. Some couples are separated by entire countries, and others have chosen to live in exile until U.S. law changes.

If officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement knock on their door tomorrow, the McGroarty-Torres family would likely leave together, but likely not back to Mexico. Ines’ father died recently, and while there are other family members for Ines to help, El Machito is no longer safe. Last year, while walking to his teaching job, the brother closest to Ines in age was kidnapped by gunpoint. Ines and Kathy were able to raise the ransom and his brother was returned safely, but they can’t imagine raising Esteban and Diego in that kind of fear. Kathy is pursuing a Master of Science in Education, in large part because she could teach in American schools abroad. Still, her greatest fear is uprooting her children in such a drastic way.

“I keep telling Kathy, ‘I don’t think it’s healthy to be worried too much about what’s coming because what do you get?’” said Ines. “You get sleepless nights, headaches, depression.”

When she stumbled upon the AFU’s website in January, Kathy found an outlet for her worry. Since she returned from Washington, she has organized meetings with members of Congress like Representative Jan Schakowsky and Senator Dick Durbin. She has sent emails to other key legislators, and used Facebook to find and encourage other Illinois families to join American Families United. She and Ines raised $1,500 by hosting a tamale party just before Easter. Ines isn’t thrilled how distracted Kathy is lately, but they both know this is their best shot at reform. Legislators have paid more attention to the AFU this year than anytime since it was formed in 2006, according to its president, Randall Emery. He is quick to emphasize that the AFU is not asking for amnesty, but for the same due process that other people receive, in which a judge considers mitigating circumstances when deciding whether an undocumented immigrant should be deported.

It appears that some legislators listened. The “Gang of Eight,” a group of bipartisan senators who met secretly for months, proposed their immigration reform legislation in April. The 844-page legislation includes three sections that allows an immigration judge the discretion to cancel a deportation order if that deportation was “against the public interest” or “would result in hardship” to the spouse or child who is a U.S. citizen. Kathy is ecstatic about those sections; Ines is waiting to see whether the bill actually gets approved.

Ines doesn’t deny he broke the law by entering the United States, but he is pragmatic about the solution to the immigration debate. With roughly twelve million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., most of whom hold jobs and are enmeshed in their communities, he says, the only logical solution is to allow them to stay.

Kathy agrees, but as an American, she feels this is also about those unalienable rights set up by the country’s founders. Yes, Ines made a mistake, but no, families should not be torn apart because some legislators want to appear tough on immigration.  Like many Americans, she believes she has the right to influence the debate.

“Someday we’re going to have to tell our kids the story about this time, and I want to be part of it,” said Kathy. “If, by telling our story and telling it to the right person at the right time, we actually do something, then this will all make sense.”

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