As Claudia Amaro waited with her son, Yamil, on Wednesday at Wichita Eisenhower National Airport, several friends showed up to wait with her.
Amaro and her husband, Hector Yaujar, had requested asylum in the U.S. in 2013. But while she had been released in weeks, Yaujar was locked up in a detention facility in Eloy, Ariz., for 2 1/2 years. She had seen him for a total of four hours during that time.
But Yaujar was finally released on bond Tuesday, boarded a plane Wednesday and would be home just in time for Christmas.
Or that was how it was supposed to go.
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It had been such a long journey, with so many false promises of his return, that even when Amaro learned that Yaujar had received a temporary passport, she could not yet celebrate.
Maybe his flight would be canceled. After all the disappointments she had faced, nothing seemed too out of the question.
All she could do Tuesday was focus on the next thing she had to do: the laundry. Get her hair done. And avoid her son.
She doesn’t like to keep secrets, but her husband had asked her to keep his return home a surprise. Yaujar had missed his son’s teenage years when he grew from a chubby child into a tall, 15-year-old goalkeeper, just like his dad.
As passenger after passenger departed the plane Wednesday in Wichita, mother and son stood next to each other and waited.
The call, Part I
In 2005, after 17 years of living in the U.S. – including 11 years in Wichita – Amaro received the call that every immigrant without legal status knows could, in an instant, upend their lives.
Yaujar had been pulled over in a traffic stop in Wichita and detained. Yaujar had been advised by a legal adviser years before to make up a Social Security number, Amaro said. Falsely using a Social Security number is a felony.
There are only a few lawyers who are able and willing to fight an immigration case involving a felony, according to several local immigration lawyers. Instead of fighting the charge, Yaujar was told it would be easier if he just let himself get deported.
All of Amaro’s sisters lived in Wichita, as well as her mom. But Amaro, who had been brought to the country legally at age 12 but was no longer here legally, didn’t want her family to be separated. So she took Yamil, then 5, and moved back to Mexico, a place Amaro hadn’t lived since elementary school.
Life was difficult for Amaro’s husband and son in Mexico, she said. Yamil was teased because of his American accent. Yaujar tried to start his life over again. So he opened a small hamburger shop.
But this was a time of increasing drug violence and police corruption, according to an expert in Mexico City who later testified on his behalf. The police told Yaujar that his vehicle had not been registered properly, according to Amaro, and took him in for questioning.
But instead of questioning, the police demanded thousands of dollars, she said, and in the end accepted the $1,000 she cobbled together.
She started writing to politicians and immigration groups back home in Wichita and across the U.S. But she was getting more and more anxious.
Almost every plan being considered by Congress in 2012 and 2013 required that Amaro still reside in the U.S. to be eligible for a work permit, a driver’s license or even a path to citizenship. She felt like she was being punished for following her husband to Mexico to keep her family together.
If she didn’t act soon, she worried, she would miss her opportunity to return to Wichita.
And then on July 18, 2013, the phone rang.
The call, Part II
Amaro had just arrived home for dinner in Torreon, Mexico. A stranger called to ask whether Amaro would be willing to fly 800 miles to Nogales, Mexico – along the U.S. border – in just two days and then turn herself in to authorities in protest of U.S. immigration law, where she would be detained without any certainty of being released.
Amaro had to decide that night. If she said yes, she would fly to Nogales on Saturday and enter the U.S. on Monday. Amaro knew her friends would call her crazy, but as soon as she heard the offer, she wanted to go.
“This is the only chance we have to go back (to the U.S),” she told her husband that night.
Yaujar was weary of risking so much on the word of strangers. But he told Amaro that, if she thought it was right, “I’m going to support you. And then we’ll find a way for me to go, too.”
Yamil, then 13, was playing video games with a friend when his mom broke the news that he would be traveling with her back to the U.S.
“I told her that I was scared,” he later recounted. He didn’t want to leave behind his dad. Yaujar told his son that he had to stay behind to sell their things.
Amaro arrived in Nogales near the border on July 20, and by 4 a.m., she was already worried that she had made a mistake. She and the other activists were undergoing intense training to prepare for their detention.
Yamil was in an unfamiliar house far away from home, so instead of going to sleep in an empty room, he stayed by her side and tried to stay awake.
“I just felt guilty and horrible,” Amaro said.
The next morning, when they were told men and women had to eat separately, Amaro objected.
“Let my son stay with me,” she asked. But she was told no.
“I’m OK,” Yamil told her, letting go of her hand.
Amaro watched from across the room as Yamil ate breakfast with Mexican men who had been separated from their families. She felt proud of him for showing the courage to be by himself. And proud that, as a U.S. citizen, she thought, he would never have to go through what those men did.
The next day, Yamil’s grandmother took him back to the U.S. while Amaro and eight other “Dreamers,” as they called themselves, dressed in graduation caps and gowns, crossed the border into Arizona. They were taken by immigration officers in the back of trucks with the air conditioning turned on so high that, even though they had put on extra layers for the trip, Amaro said she was shivering.
She received letters of support from across the country over the next couple of weeks as the media descended on the detention facility in Eloy, Ariz. Amaro and her eight fellow protesters would come to be referred to by the national media as “The Dream 9” – symbolic of immigrants who arrived as children and grew up in the U.S. but did not have legal status. After less than three weeks, they were released.
Claudia Amaro was one of the “The Dream 9” – a group of immigrants symbolic of those who arrived as children and grew up in the U.S. but did not have legal status.
She said she grew stronger from the ordeal by listening to some advice she had received before the protest.
“If you are focused on your own pain, it’s going to hurt more and it’s going to be more difficult. So listen to the stories of others.”
Missing and waiting
On Sept. 16, Amaro watched Yamil make what turned out to be a game-winning save for his soccer team at Southeast High School. When they returned to their apartment, Yamil put an ice pack on his knee, an injury that Amaro said normally her husband would know exactly how to treat, having played goalie semi-professionally himself.
By the time Yaujar tried to cross the border two months after Amaro, the national media had left. Immigration law does not require the same kind of speedy trials seen in criminal courts.
Amaro cooked camarones diablos that night, a spicy shrimp dish. Dinnertime is one of the times she misses him the most, she said, because she misses his cooking. Their living room was sparse except for a wedding picture on the wall.
Amaro tries to be home for dinner every night with Yamil, she said, even though she often has to leave right away. Without her husband, she has to work two jobs: as a parent coordinator at a school in Derby and as an assistant at a dentist office in Wichita. She had to save thousands of dollars for her husband’s bond.
Yaujar’s family sometimes criticized Amaro for not appearing to be more sad. But she said, the three of them had made a pact that they would stay strong for each other. So when Yaujar called her two or three times a week, he would always tell her that everything was OK, no matter how bleak things might be.
We love each other so much, the three of us.
Claudia Amaro on her family
“We love each other so much, the three of us,” she said. “So we decided if we really love each other, we have to start taking care of our own.”
That meant that Yaujar had to be strong in detention, Yamil had to do well in school and not cause any trouble, and Amaro would keep working and fighting.
“That just makes it easier,” Amaro said. “It’s still hard, but it makes it a little bit easier.”
In addition to her two jobs, in the past few months, Amaro has flown to cities like San Antonio, Austin and Phoenix in order to promote “Los Otros Dreamers,” a book about immigrants like Amaro who had come to the country as children.
In the chapter of the book that she wrote, Amaro referred to herself as a “little Frankenstein” because of how she felt patched together by a loyalty between two countries: her birth country and the country she felt at home in.
After a series of setbacks, Yaujar won an appeal in August that would allow him to come to his family. But then they heard nothing until October. Amaro’s lawyer told her then that her husband’s papers finally showed up at the end of October, months after the original appeal. His bond hearing was set for Nov. 19.
Amaro said she had been throwing up at home as the date grew closer. She went to all her friends asking for letters of support for her husband’s hearing.
“The question is going to be do I have the money that day?” Amaro said.
She started fundraising in earnest again. She had saved and raised around $5,000, but she expected the bond to be at least $10,000.
The night before Yaujar’s hearing, Amaro and 30 friends and a few strangers who had heard her story kneeled at a local church and prayed for his return.
Frequently, an immigration judge will set a bond at the hearing, but the next day, the judge decided to think it over, which meant Yaujar would miss his third straight Thanksgiving, and the chances that he would be separated from his family again at Christmas increased.
The beginning and the end
On Monday, Amaro learned that her husband’s bond had been set for $8,000, she said.
She rushed from work to get a cashier’s check and then to the immigration office in Wichita. But the office couldn’t find Yaujar’s name in the system.
No matter, she told the clerk, she would be back the first thing the next day. And, though it took several hours to find his records, she said, Amaro managed to pay his bond Tuesday.
After being released, Amaro tried to find her husband one of the last plane tickets home the next day. But immigration wouldn’t give Yaujar his passport right away, only a copy, so he had to run to the Mexican consulate, just as it was closing, while Amaro e-mailed a copy of the plane ticket.
Less than 24 hours before his flight was set to take off, she finally received word that he had been given a temporary passport.
Since they had been separated, Amaro’s fight for her husband had expanded into a fight for all immigrant families like hers. In addition to traveling across the country for book signings and appearing on TV, she has invited immigration lawyers to Wichita, registered voters and even discussed immigration issues on a weekly radio show she started with a friend on Monday nights.
As Yaujar made the final turn behind airport security to where his son, nearly a foot taller now, was waiting, he clutched an envelope with his immigration papers in one hand and, with his glasses dangling from his other, he wiped away the last tear he would have to shed alone.
Yaujar grabbed Yamil close, pressing his hand against his back repeatedly, as Amaro brushed a small fleck off the back of her son’s shirt.
The odds are low that Amaro and her husband will win their requests for asylum when it comes to court in 2019. Only 1 percent of Mexicans do, Amaro was told. So if no immigration reform laws are passed by then, Amaro and her family could find themselves back in Mexico.
But now that she knows how the immigration system works and which lawyers to reach out to, and after all they have been through, she said they will somehow find a way to stay.
Yaujar and Amaro kissed.
“My love,” Amaro whispered to him in Spanish as they pulled close, a smile on her face, tears running down his, “you’re finally home.”