Editor’s note: For several years now, Boulder Weekly has been covering the hardships Front Range families face when a loved one is held in immigration detention and/or deported. For the most part, our reporting has ended at the time of deportation, but the truth is, that is only the beginning of the story for many such families.
We first met and reported on the Guerrero family in January 2015. Luis was being held in detention while his wife Sofia and four children struggled to get by in his absence. Shortly thereafter we reported that Luis had been suddenly deported to Mexico without any prior notice to his family. That is where our previous reporting stopped.
Eventually, Sofia had little choice but to take her three youngest children, all U.S. citizens, to Mexico in an effort to keep the family together. Needless to say, it’s a very difficult transition for them.
This time around, we have stayed on the story. Last year we sent Angela K. Evans to a small town north of Mexico City to reconnect with the Guerrero family. She has also stayed in touch with the oldest son Andy, who still lives in Colorado.
This week we give you the first installment in a series about this remarkable family. We hope it will resonate with you, especially in these times of extreme difficulty for our immigrant communities. And with that, Boulder Weekly is pleased to present the rest of the story, that is to say, the rest so far.
Seated at his mother’s grave for the first time, Jose Luis Guerrero grieved not only for her, but also for his wife and children. Though still alive, they were thousands of miles away at home in Aurora. For almost 20 years, Guerrero, who goes by Luis, lived and worked in the U.S., mostly in Colorado, starting a family with his wife Sofia and raising their four American-born children, Andy, Jenny, Melody and Lucy — now ages 18, 15, 9 and 4 respectively. But after his deportation the previous week, Luis now found himself in a place that no longer felt like home.
All of Luis’ siblings died as children. His mother died the year before his deportation, without seeing her only living son in years. His father is his only family left in Mexico, and his home state of Nuevo León has grown increasingly dangerous since he left, plagued by violent drug cartels and corrupt cops.
So Luis considered crossing the border back into the U.S.
“I know that I’m not from there, but I don’t belong here,” he told his dad as they sat in the graveyard together. Living in Mexico just didn’t make sense; he didn’t feel like he belonged there; he belonged with his wife and kids.
“I was thinking, if I go no one will miss me, but if I stay there’s my family,” Luis says.
He remembered going out to breakfast as a family and playing baseball in the backyard with everyone on weekends. He pictured his kids laughing and screaming on the roller coasters at Elitch’s, and the pride he felt when they talked about school and going to college someday. He sat and thought about all the seemingly trivial things that brought him daily comfort in his life in Aurora. “We had a small patio in the back and at the end there were these windows that the sun always came through,” he says.
Luis is an intricate and sometimes long-winded storyteller. But his animated recounting of events is captivating. “I could write a book,” he repeats throughout our conversations. And I believe him.
After visiting the cemetery that day, Luis started making plans, figuring out the safest way to traverse the southern U.S. border undetected. Things had changed since he first made the crossing in the early ’90s. Back then, he simply walked across the border and continued traveling north. Now there’s the cartel to consider, and the militarized border patrol. And of course there’s the risk of being detained if he made it to the U.S.
“I was thinking, but what if I try to go back and they put me back in prison? I had just left prison and I didn’t want to go back,” Luis says. “No matter what, after you leave prison you feel good because you are free.”
Before his deportation, Luis spent almost six months in immigration detention at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Denver Contract Facility in Aurora, operated by the private prison corporation the GEO Group, Inc. While fighting to stay in the country with his family, he was held in prison-like conditions under constant surveillance, allowed to see his family once a week during visiting hours.
Faced with the reality of being thrown back into detention at the hands of ICE, Luis once again reconsidered his plan to head north across the border. But how could he live so far away from his wife and kids? He still couldn’t reconcile a life in Mexico without them. It felt like an impossible decision.
• • • •
Luis and Sofia lived in Aurora for more than a decade, raising their children and building their careers. Like most families, they balanced the workweek with school schedules and the kids’ activities. She worked at Burger King for five years before moving into the cleaning industry, eventually starting her own business. He worked in construction, also starting his own company in the summer of 2014. They paid taxes, owned their cars and wanted to plan a vacation to Disneyland.
“Everything was going so well,” Luis says. “But in a moment, everything changed.”
Early one August morning that same year, Sofia was awakened by a knock at the front door to their Aurora house. Luis was in the shower and their youngest daughter Lucy was still asleep. The three older children, Andy, Jenny and Melody were finishing their summer break in Mexico with their maternal grandparents, easily traveling across the border with their U.S. passports.
Sofia opened the inner door to find ICE agents standing on the front stoop behind the glass outer door. A few days earlier, one of Luis’ workers was driving the company truck when he was pulled over. The police didn’t ticket the worker, himself undocumented, but did take down Luis’ information from the car registration. Although the employee informed Sofia and Luis about what had happened, the couple thought little of it — until Sofia saw ICE agents around 6 a.m. that morning. One of the female officers asked for the employee in Spanish, Sofia remembers, noticing a slew of officers on her front lawn and several ICE vehicles in the street.
“I told them he doesn’t live here,” she says.
Sophia says the officer never introduced herself or showed her any ID, and Sofia talked through the glass, refusing to let the agents inside unless they could show her a warrant.
The woman relentlessly questioned Sofia, finally asking who owned the company truck.
“If you have the information of the company, for sure you have the name of the owner,” Sofia told her. “I asked them again, ‘Who are you looking for exactly?’ and she didn’t tell me. But in that moment, the agents around the house were pulling out their guns.”
At this point, Sofia went to get Luis, afraid the officers would wake up Lucy.
“I was strong but I was scared when I saw the guns,” she says.
When Luis came to the door, the agents grew increasingly aggressive, asking for his cell phone and identification. In the middle of all of this, Lucy woke up and Sofia held her at the front door while the agents attempted to draw Luis out of the house. Finally, he handed them his cell phone and valid New Mexico driver’s license, but still refused to cross the threshold. Eventually, the agents left, leaving his things on the front lawn.
Relieved for the moment, Luis and Sofia immediately called a lawyer, who told Luis not to leave the house. For two days, he stayed inside, only occasionally going into the backyard, afraid that if he even stepped out the front, ICE would arrest him.
But one day, he had to leave for work. He was trying to get a contract to build a big apartment complex near Coors Field and couldn’t afford to miss the meeting.
By the time Luis reached the end of his street, ICE officers had him surrounded. They asked him to step out of his truck, then proceeded to cuff both his wrists and ankles. “He put them on really tight,” Luis says. “I asked him to make it bigger because it’s hurting me but he did the same with the other hand.”
Sofia, returning from dropping Lucy off at a babysitter’s, saw Luis inside one of the unmarked vehicles and recognized the same female ICE officer she’d seen on her front lawn a few days before.
Sofia stopped and asked her why Luis was being arrested.
“She answered, ‘I left a paper in the truck and that’s all I can tell you,’” Sofia says. “It was not in a good tone.”
Sofia stood in her driveway, helpless, as Luis was driven away. She was in complete shock, unaware that she wouldn’t be able to touch her husband again until they reunited more than nine months later.
They took Luis to what he calls an “immigration station,” not a police station and not the detention center. They removed the cuffs and fingerprinted him, speaking to him in Spanish but showing him paperwork in English. Someone offered him voluntary departure papers to sign, which would require him to leave the country quickly and of his own accord, avoiding detention and giving up the legal right to fight his case in immigration court. He refused. Not only could he not read the English document, he was unwilling to give up so quickly, to leave his family behind so definitively.
His refusal to leave voluntarily triggered expedited removal proceedings due to previous deportations. More than a decade before, when Andy and Jenny were small children, Luis had been forcibly removed from the country while living in McAllen, Texas. He was deported again attempting to cross the border. Each time, he was held in jail for one night and then released on the other side of the border. And each time Luis came back — back to his family, back to work. Although he hadn’t had any run-ins with ICE for more than a decade, these deportations remained on his record.
That day in 2015 he was taken to the GEO detention facility in Aurora, one of some 200 such detention centers around the U.S. currently detaining 40,000 people. The conditions at many private detention facilities are often substandard, including inadequate health care, safety and security, as well as the use of solitary confinement, raising alarms with both advocacy groups and the Department of Justice. A March 2017 class-action lawsuit against the private prison corporation GEO Group, Inc. also alleges the use of forced labor and violating anti-slavery laws, specifically citing the Aurora facility where Luis would spend the next several months.
Sofia waited to tell her three older children what had happened until she picked them up from the airport the following day. Although Andy and Jenny had spent several summers at Sofia’s parents’ house in Ixmiquilpan, located three hours northwest of Mexico City, it was Melody’s first time away from her parents for so long.
“It was so sudden,” Andy says of his dad’s detention. “I knew that it was a possibility and it was one of the fears that my family faced, but I’d try not to think about it. I knew it was out there but you could say it was kind of vague until it started orbiting on top of us.”
Even a couple years later, he is emotional talking about his first visit to see his father at GEO.
“Seeing him behind a piece of glass and only being able to talk to him through a phone kind of crushed me,” he says.
The family all sat together to talk to Luis, separated by a thick window. Lucy, only a toddler, looked under the counter to see if she could get through to hug her dad, then she ran over to the door at the far end of the room to try and get to him. All the kids cried that day.
“I really wanted to tear the walls down when they came to visit me the first time,” Luis says.
“You’re frustrated because your family cannot hug you. They can see you, but they cannot touch you. When the time for visits is over you have to go in that moment and that’s it,” he says, snapping his fingers.
A few days later, Sofia went back to cleaning houses, while trying to also figure out Luis’ immigration defense, and the kids returned to school.
As Andy began his junior year of high school, everything had changed. As the oldest, he now had the extra pressure to help his mom pay the bills. “There was a sudden weight on my shoulders,” he says. “It was a weight that both my mom and I carried.”
He picked up a job at the Pepsi Center, “sweeping the floors, cleaning up beer.” He’d start at 5 p.m., often getting off at midnight or 1 a.m., only to ride the bus for another hour to get back home.
Eventually, Sofia took a second job cleaning local churches at night, and Andy quit the Pepsi Center to help her, starting at 8 p.m. and finishing up around 3 a.m. They would grab just a few hours of sleep before getting up for school and work, and doing it all over again.
But through it all, Andy remained resolved to finish high school and get into college. He started spending a lot of time alone, afraid his friends would distract him from his goal.
“College was my number one priority and I stopped talking to a lot of people because I was like they aren’t going to help me, they might even pull me down, even if that means that I have to be alone,” he says.
The weekend routine changed too. Instead of playing games together or exploring Denver by light-rail as a family, Sofia and Andy spent Saturday night cleaning, Lucy often falling asleep on the couch in the church office while they worked.
And they would all go to GEO to visit Luis, allowed only one hour of visiting time for the entire family. Andy says it was too painful to talk to his dad about how his life at school and work had changed.
“I didn’t want to talk about anything else besides how he’s doing,” Andy says. “I know it was hard; we were out here and he was inside.”
So Luis would talk to his family about life in GEO — how bad the food was, his lack of freedom, what he missed.
He’d talk about the Hispanic butcher shop across the street from their house, smiling as he thought about the carnitas, chicharon and other Mexican meats. “But there (in GEO) they just gave me damn bread everyday,” he says.
He’d watch families on TV eating together, a constant reminder of what had been taken from him. His life had been reduced to memories. He constantly thought about the little things; going to Catholic mass together as a family, playing soccer in the park on Sundays while his wife and kids cheered him on from the sidelines. He’d recall birthday celebrations and holidays, school activities and simply watching TV together in the evenings.
“I’m very close with my family,” Luis says. “One day they took them away from me and that’s when they cut my wings.”
The only hope Luis was able to offer his family were the stories of someone else’s release. He told his wife and children every time someone won their immigration case and was allowed to go home to their families. For months the entire family held onto the hope that it could be Luis next week, that he would be home in time for the holidays, that the entire ordeal would be over.
“That was the hope that we had,” Andy says.
As the weeks turned into months, and the winter holidays approached, it became evident Luis might not win his appeal to remain in the U.S. with his family. His hope was slipping away.
He says it felt like he was wasting his days, even comparing himself to Marty the Zebra in the animated film Madagascar which he had seen with his kids.
“I’ll be here all week,” Marty tells zoo visitors. “In fact, I’ll be here my entire life. 365 days a year.”
Often frustrated by seeing others come and go, Luis didn’t understand why they were holding him for so long. He watched as other detainees were released after just a week or two, people he says were accused of domestic violence, caught growing marijuana in their homes or had criminal records.
While in GEO, Luis worked in laundry, receiving $5 a day for his labor, which he mostly used to purchase coffee. He also tediously crafted bracelets and rosaries from plastic trash bags that he would then sell to other people in detention, or give away freely. He kept a few for himself, carrying them when he was later deported, including a bracelet he made with Sofia’s name woven into it.
It was one of the only distractions he had; the other was talking to the pastors and priests who came to talk to the detainees.
“When you’re outside you just see Bibles go by and when people try to share with you about God you are always busy and you say, ‘no,’” Luis says. “And inside when you are with your Bible and that’s the only thing you have, that’s when you learn to talk to God.”
He would often stay up late, reading the Bible until he fell asleep.
Meanwhile, Sofia continued to work on his legal case with the help of advocates and lawyers. She says she paid more than $4,000 in lawyer’s fees, which got her nowhere. She filed a stay of removal application, which would allow Luis’ release, citing their four U.S.-citizen children. But the application was denied.
When then-President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program by executive order in November 2014, the family once again got their hopes up. The program would have granted deferred action and work permits to thousands of undocumented parents of U.S. citizens, however, a Texas Judge soon blocked it. As Luis sat alone in GEO, Sofia and the rest of the family waited.
It was almost too much for them to handle.
The entire family would cry at the weekly GEO visits and Sofia cried in court every time an immigration judge ruled deporting Luis wouldn’t cause a hardship on the kids. The family was living through the opposite reality. The hardship was unbearable.
Andy was mad — angry that his dad was being detained, mad that neither he nor any number of lawyers and advocates who were helping the family, could do anything to get him out.
Fourteen-year-old Jenny was taking it especially hard.
“I was depressed,” she says. “I didn’t talk to anyone at school.”
“Jenny was always really close to her dad,” Sofia adds. “He’s a dad that is very close with his daughters. I don’t know, maybe she wanted to blame me. But she became very aggressive and I was trying to do my best.”
As she became more and more reclusive at school, Jenny acted out more and more at home, often fighting with Sofia. She tried to be upbeat on her weekly visits to the Aurora facility, but would end up leaving feeling worse than when she walked in. And she tried to go to every one of Luis’ court dates, hoping to see her father without a glass barrier between them, even if she still wasn’t able to touch him or talk to him.
At his final court date, when the judge gave the final deportation order, Jenny was there, sobbing in the gallery.
“He wanted to hug me but they wouldn’t let him,” she remembers. “You never know when it’s your last time seeing them.”
In a last ditch effort, Sofia appealed to Sen. Michael Bennet through the help of immigration advocates. She was told ICE would not deport Luis until Bennet was able to talk to them. That meant he’d be in Aurora for a few more days at least, or so she thought.
• • • •
Early one morning in late January 2015, several guards came into Luis’ cell, demanding he sign yet another piece of paper he couldn’t read. For the most part, Luis says the immigration officers at GEO intimidated him. “You have to do what they say and that’s it,” he says. Regardless, he says he was often accused of disrespecting the officers when he wouldn’t do what they wanted, even if it was asking other detainees to translate for him. When he refused to sign the paper, which he later realized was his deportation order, Luis says the ICE officers were violent, wrestling him to the ground, hitting him and forcing his fingerprint on the paper.
“They took my fingerprint and said the fingerprint is more valuable than the signature,” he says.
In the process, Luis hurt his knee and in turn lashed out, telling them “really bad things,” scared by their actions. One officer warned him, he says, telling him to be careful because they had started their body cameras. It wasn’t the first time immigration officers were violent, Luis says. One time an officer even threw food at him. But, the security cameras were often turned off at GEO, he says, and he has no way to prove he or anyone else was mistreated. He understands it’s their word against his and doesn’t really think sharing his stories will change anything.
“You won’t find any evidence they hit me,” he says. “There’s no way to prove what they did. It’s impossible.”
After the fingerprinting incident, officers led him to a van. At first he thought maybe he was being released since there weren’t any other detainees with him. But the van traveled several hours before stopping. Luis still hoped it was a Greyhound station and they were sending him home, but he soon realized this wasn’t the case.
From the GEO facility in Aurora, ICE agents took Luis to Otero Detention Center in southern New Mexico. He only found out where he was by asking a guard. The next day, they gave him a winter coat, which he still has, and returned his wallet after removing his driver’s license and any other form of identification he had.
“They said, ‘This stays here. If you’re Mexican, what could you want with a U.S. ID?’” Luis remembers. His license didn’t expire for another year.
After a few more hours of driving, Luis stepped out of the van surrounded by immigration agents. As he looked around, he realized he was at the border. Juarez, Mexico, could be seen in the distance.
Just as suddenly and unexpectedly as Luis was taken from his life in Denver and held in detention, he was deported back to Mexico before his family even knew he was gone.
“I tried to keep my hope but when I found out he was down there… ” Andy trails off. “I was demolished inside. I was broken. I was shattered in pieces.”
While his family grieved in Aurora, Luis found himself alone at the border. He started walking toward Mexico, leaving the ICE officers behind him, refusing to look back. Once he crossed into Juarez, he saw a man selling tacos from a roadside cart. Luis hadn’t eaten any decent food in months but he didn’t have any money either. As he walked by, the man asked him where he was going.
“I don’t really know where I’m going because immigration just threw me out,” Luis answered.
The man offered him discada tacos, a mixture of grilled meats and spices, and insisted he take them even after Luis said he had no way to pay for them.
“I used to make this with my family,’” Luis told the man. “Before they took me, when I was together with my family at home, we used to make discada, frying all the meat and putting it on crackers.”
Another vendor offered Luis a Coke, which he happily accepted. It had been a long time since he had such a good meal. As he finished, the taco seller wrapped a few more tacos in tinfoil for Luis to take with him.
From there, Luis went to the Mexican immigration office at the border. He was frightened, not knowing what they would do and afraid they’d detain him, this time in Mexico. Instead, they brought him into the office and allowed him to use the phone. They directed him to the “house of immigrants,” he says, a place for recent deportees to stay a few nights, take a shower, get paperwork in order.
“That’s where I fell asleep and actually rested because I had a good bed, not like in prison where you had only a thin mattress,” he says.
At the immigration house, officials were able to secure a temporary ID for Luis and give him enough money to travel back to Monterrey, the capital of his home state of Nuevo León. With roughly 1,000 pesos (about $53) in his pocket, Luis was met by his dad at the Monterrey bus station. The next day, they went to the cemetery.
He recalls the last time he spoke to his mom over the phone. He was speaking to her just 20 minutes before she died, telling her that Sofia was going to be fine despite spending more than a month in the hospital with preeclampsia while pregnant with Lucy.
Luis knew she was sick, but she always told him not to come back to visit, not to risk separation from his wife and kids for her sake. “She always told me I need to take care of my family,” he says.
• • • •
While Luis was deliberating what to do next, Sofia was making hard decisions of her own.
She decided to send Jenny to Mexico to be with her dad. Jenny’s aggressive and depressed behavior had increased. Then her school called. Someone had found a note written by Jenny, describing how she had begun cutting herself, that she contemplated hurting herself further. Life without her father was too much for the young teenager to bear.
“So, I made the decision that if she wanted to be with her dad then she should go be with him,” Sofia says. Luis was deported at the end of January 2015 and in March Sophia put Jenny on a plane to Mexico City alone. Jenny was ecstatic to see her dad, holding back tears at their reunion.
“I wanted to cry, but I was brave enough not to,” she says.
However, it was a temporary solution, hastily decided in an effort to save Jenny. The rest of the family remained in limbo. Back in Aurora, Sofia didn’t know what to do next. Should she move back to Mexico too, leaving her life in Colorado behind, perhaps for good? Should she stay, hoping there was some way Luis and Jenny could return together? Or should the family remain separated? If that were the case, she would effectively be losing both her husband and daughter. The questions wore on her other children as well.
“It was just a hard thing to see my mom crying. I noticed her mood changed, she was just really bummed out all day, she just didn’t want to go out and see friends,” Andy says. “And that’s how I feel now.”
Finally, Sophia made up her mind. After months of working two jobs, raising four kids on her own and fighting her husband’s legal case only to lose in the end, she would also leave the U.S. Her three daughters would join her, American citizens who had never lived in Mexico before. Andy would stay in Colorado by himself to finish high school and, hopefully, go to college. It seemed the reality of Luis’ deportation had left the family with no other choice.
To be continued. Read Part 2 here.