It is that time of year. Many gather their family to share presents and food and build new memories. But for many immigrants, the holidays aren’t so bright and happy. When family members are across the border and there’s no way of seeing each other, this time of the year can be a low point.
“I feel depressed at this time of year. I have the need to see my family, but I can’t because I don’t have papers,” said Long Beach resident Leticia Salazar*. Salazar came to the U.S. about 17 years ago, leaving behind her parents and four siblings in Mexico City. It was the last time she has seen some of them in person.
“I came here without anything, without knowing anyone,” Salazar said in Spanish. She said that Christmas is the hardest time of year. The solitude also hurt when her four children were born. “When I had my first girl, I wanted someone to go see me at the hospital. I needed someone to be there with me in those moments to tell them how I felt.”
While thousands of immigrants may be able to see their families again thanks to Pres. Obama’s recent executive action on immigration, which expands temporary deportation relief and work permits to more immigrants, and will also provide them to those who have citizen children, millions more people will still be left with broken families.
“Part of the reason that families are separated is because our immigration system is broken,” said Cathleen Farrell, Director of Communications for National Immigration Forum. “We need a solution for that. Currently, there are an estimated 11 million people who are undocumented…many who have family members who are not with them.”
Salazar has siblings in Utah, but she believes that even visiting them for the holidays is too risky. “I’m afraid of raids, of immigration getting us. That’s our biggest fear,” Salazar said.
Many immigrants see the holidays as a harsh reminder of the border that divides them from their families. For some, the mere topic bursts them into tears.
“Cada año is triste (Every year is depressing),” said Long Beach resident Maria Gomez*, who is from Guadalajara, Mexico. “I’m happy because I have my children here, but it’s sad because I don’t have my other family close.”
From visa applications to permanent residency, the wait times and backlogs in processing make it difficult for immigrants waiting to be reunited with family members.
Gomez has a U Visa or nonimmigrant status, meaning she is legally able to stay, but cannot travel outside the U.S. Twenty-five years ago, she left behind her parents, sisters, nephews, “muchas personas que yo quiero (many people that I love).”
“My family has grown,” Gomez said. “I have never met some of them.” Technology has eased some of the pain. “Now, it is a little easier with Skype and camera phones for I can see them. It alleviates the pain of missing them a bit, but it’s not the same as giving them a hug, of feeling them close.”
The pain can drive some immigrants to great lengths to see their family, especially when one of them is hurt. When Gomez’s father was assaulted and stabbed at his home in 1997, she considered returning to Mexico.
“I couldn’t (legally) go. It was a risk for me,” Gomez said. But it was also her sister’s 15th birthday, a big deal in Mexican culture, and it was her sister’s dream that Gomez would be there. So she crossed.
To come back into the states, she walked the desert for days, something too dangerous to do now with the spread of cartels and heightened surveillance.
“It’s impossible now. I wouldn’t risk it again,” Gomez said.
Not everyone takes the risk to visit ailing family members. When Salazar’s father was sick with cancer, he demanded her not to leave the U.S.
“He kept telling us that if something happened, not to come over there for any reason,” Salazar recalls. “He knows how much suffering there is in getting back into this country.”
To this day, Salazar struggles with knowing her father passed while she was in the U.S.
It’s not just about family either, many immigrants miss the Mexican holiday culture too.
Salvador Paredes Orozco, a local migrant from Tlaxcala, Mexico, is the only person from his family in the U.S.
“It’s been two years since I have seen my dad through the internet,” Orozco said in Spanish. “I saw him online for Christmas. Then the 18th of January, he died. It was the last time I saw him.” Besides missing family, Orozco said he misses the culture of his pueblo, Aztama.
“I come from a place that has many traditions,” Orozco said. Each Christmas season over there is celebrated fervently with the posadas, nine days of religious festivities, dancing, singing, food, and family. “I come from a small pueblo where everyone knows each other.”
The topic lights up Orozco’s eyes. “It’s incredible for such a small pueblo to have such a big celebration,” Orozco said. “Yeah, you decorate houses very nicely here but it doesn’t have the magic of our country, where you’d have the posadas, break piñatas, and collect peanuts… that over here is seen little.” Despite the challenges immigrants here face, this may be the first Christmas where some carry hope when thinking about immigration reform.
“Obama’s reform will be something proud for us immigrants, for we may see our families again,” Salazar said.
It is expected that Obama’s new program, known as Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA), will include advanced parole which may allow undocumented persons to travel abroad for certain reasons, such as if a relative is sick.
But the new program isn’t enough. Ferrell said that fixing the system requires passing laws. “There was a very good bill passed by the senate last year … It addressed concerns of Americans, border security, a pathway to citizenship,” Ferrell said. “Because of politics in the House it never got through.”
The issue also affects mixed-status families. About 4.5 million U.S. citizen children have a parent that is undocumented, according to Human Impact Partners.
“Americans realize this is a country of immigrants and the country benefits from immigration. The vast majority of people support immigration reform,” Ferrell said.
“Immigration reform is very important to reunify families,” Orozco said. “How many people will it help mentally?… How many people live here with depression for not being with their family?”
Gomez plans on spending this Christmas at her Long Beach home with her children. She will make dinner and said they will probably play dancing games.
Gomez has a message to tell her family back in Guadalajara: “Que los quieren mucho, los extraño. No pierdan la esperanza de que un día, yo estaré con ustedes para darte ese abrazo (That I love you all so much, I miss you all. Don’t lose hope that one day, I will be with you to give you that hug).”
*Names were changed at the request of the interviewee.