Billie and Fabian sit at a round table in Billie’s kitchen thinking out loud. Considering options. It’s evening. Pitch black, with no stars. It might rain. A dog barks.

“I don’t know what I could do, but I’d do everything I possibly could,” Billie says. “My husband would be so vocal. He’s very to the point.”
She speaks of her husband as if he is still alive. She misses him. She enjoys talking about him, but tears cloud her eyes. He died in 2013. He was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to Missouri in 1958 when he was 18. Two of his uncles worked in Kansas City at the time. He and Billie married in 1960 after they met at Nazarene Publishing House downtown where they both worked. A lifetime ago. She’s 76 now.

“My husband came here for the opportunity,” Billie says.

After he crossed the border, her husband needed a bathroom. He entered one marked “colored only.” When he came out, a man told him the bathroom was only for black people. The story surprised Billie when he told her. She had been born into an affluent Kansas City family. The social issues of the day never crossed her doorstep. The civil rights movement was something she read about in the newspaper. Really, she says, that sort of thing was not part of her life. Until now.

“I’d provide sanctuary for you and your family if immigration officials attempted to deport you,” Billie tells Fabian.

Fabian’s mother doesn’t have papers. She cleans Billie’s house. Fabian doesn’t have papers, either. Neither does his father and sister. Fabian, 24, knows he should be concerned, but he has lived in Missouri since he was 8 and doesn’t feel the threat of deportation. Not in a nervous, preoccupied, gut-fearing way. The idea of it—that he could just get picked up and thrown out of a state where he has lived almost his entire life—defies comprehending. Look at him. Big guy. Thin mustache. Soft spoken, nonplussed. Just taking things in. But it’s all in his head. He can’t conceive of deportation. Not like the glass of water he holds. Something tangible. It’s not like that at all.

“I’m not naive,” he says. “We have a president now who said things while he was campaigning and now he’s actually doing them.”

Like the ban on refugees and people from some predominantly Muslim countries. Who would have thought? Politicians don’t normally do what they say they’ll do. He’s already started rounding up undocumented people.

“It would be impossible to round up everyone,” Billie says.

“Yes,” Fabian says.

In 2012, Fabian applied to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA. The directive, established in 2012 by executive action, provides work authorization and a temporary reprieve from deportation for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children before the age of 16. As Fabian waited to be covered by DACA, a police officer pulled him over for not fully stopping at a traffic light. He was just four blocks away from his house on his way to pick up his sister from a party.

Do you have a license? the officer asked.

No.

Any ID?

Mexico ID.

The officer gave him two tickets. One for not stopping, the other for driving without proper identification. Four weeks after the officer stopped him, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services approved Fabian for DACA. He got his driver’s license before his court date and a judge dismissed his case.
Fabian thinks about the officer who stopped him. He spelled Fabian’s name incorrectly on the tickets. He wrote the wrong age, too. A lawyer told Fabian those two mistakes could have resulted in the case being thrown out whether he was covered by DACA or not. Fabian doesn’t know about all that. He’s not a lawyer. At the time, he had no intention of taking chances. But he wonders now whether the officer had deliberately made those mistakes. Could he have been trying to help him?

“There are some good people in this world,” Billie says.

She leans back from the table, her graying hair catching the ceiling light. She met Fabian’s mother in 2010. Billie was a nurse, a wife and the mother of three boys. She wanted to find someone to clean her house once a month. She contacted several people. One woman asked how many bathrooms Billie had. Four, Billie told her. The woman said she wasn’t interested. Another woman called, asked the same question and also turned down the job.

Then Fabian’s mother stopped by for an interview. Billie was out but her husband was home. Fabian’s mother looked all through the house before she made an offer.
I’ll do it one time, no charge, she told Billie’s husband. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you do, then I’ll take the job.

Her husband was taken by her straightforward approach and Billie hired her. Fabian’s mother worked very hard. Self-employed, she soon began hiring women to help her and started her own house-cleaning business. One customer, she told Billie, accused one of her employees of stealing and she fired the woman, but it bothered her. She didn’t believe the woman was a thief. Still doesn’t, but she did what she felt she had to do.

Billie wonders about the fear Fabian’s parents must live with. They have become part of Billie’s family. For 50-some years she was married to a Mexican man. They spent part of every year in Mexico. She carries her husband’s green card. I love Mexico, he would tell her. It gave me my birth. But I love the United States because it gave me my life.

Fabian was born in Pueblo, Mexico. His mother cleaned houses there, too, and his father worked as an electrician. Fabian helped his mother make bread. He watched his younger sister after school. One day, his parents told him they were going to the United States for a long vacation. His father had a visa and moved a year before the rest of the family to arrange for a home. When it was time for the rest of the family to move, an American friend met them at the border and told the border patrol they were with him. They were let in, no problem. When he was older, Fabian’s mother told him they’d left to make a better life for themselves and to provide an education for Fabian and his sister.

Everything in Kansas City was so well maintained, Fabian recalls. Street lights everywhere. All the traffic. It snowed four weeks after they arrived. He had really looked forward to snow and played in it all day. He looks at snow now and shrugs. But back then, it was very special.

As he got older, his mother told him not to discuss his status. If someone asks, just say you’re working on it, she said. To become a citizen, she told him, you have to marry, join the military or go back to Mexico and apply. He didn’t understand how he was different from his friends until he reached high school.

Because of his status, he could not get a driver’s license. He was ineligible for college scholarships. After he graduated, he worked at motels whose managers didn’t ask for a Social Security number or, if they did, accepted any old number he gave them. At that time he was 18 and still living at home and minimum wage was fine. He got into a community college with fake ID. He was getting by until the traffic cop stopped him.

When he applied for DACA, his mother was worried. If Fabian applies, she asked Billie, the government will have all of his information, right? Maybe then, immigration would come for her?

I’d open my home, Billie told her. You know where I am.

he issue of immigration has split Billie’s family. When President Barack Obama issued DACA, her nephew, a retired firefighter in his 50s, complained about his taxes going to “illegals.”

I don’t believe you’re saying this about children, Billie said. Children had no say about coming over here.

Her comment surprised him, and he said nothing more. They don’t talk to each other now.

Fabian married in September. He lives in a trailer park not far from Billie. He drops by from time to time since her husband died. He checks on her. Sees if he can help around the house. Ford Motor Company’s Kansas City assembly plant recently laid him off after eight months. He knew the job was temporary. He had worked at a title loan company for a year and a half when that job, too, dried up. He hopes to get an apprenticeship with a labor union. Assuming the new president doesn’t cancel DACA.

A loophole in DACA, Fabian says, may allow him to avoid deportation should worse come to worst. Under DACA, an immigrant may leave the country with a temporary visa in the case of a family emergency and return legally. Immigration only cares about an immigrant’s last known status, Fabian says. Under this scenario, they couldn’t deport Fabian because technically he would no longer be undocumented. He’d have the temporary visa. He thinks he will try it. If he has to fabricate a family crisis to meet the criteria, so be it. Nobody knows if it would really work, but his American-born wife likes the plan. She has two children from a previous marriage. Fabian says he treats them as his own. He doesn’t want to be separated from his family. Every day, he gets online and checks the status of DACA.

“If it’s cancelled, I’m screwed,” he says.

Billie considers his plan. She doesn’t know the ins and outs of DACA. She hopes he’s right. One of Billie’s three sons lives in Colorado. His son’s high school basketball team, the Spartans, played a private Christian college team not too long ago. A number of Mexican students belong to the Spartans. DACA kids. Parents of the opposing team held signs: “Make Our Team Great Again. Send the Spartans Over the Wall!”

Fabian never spoke about his status at the Ford plant. Sometimes some knucklehead would mention immigration. Try living in their shoes, Fabian would say. Your family is struggling. You’re scared of the cartels. You can wait years for a visa or you risk everything for an opportunity.

Some people heard him. Not all. More often, co-workers would get very vocal on Facebook. In person, he finds they back down. They get quiet. Doesn’t mean they’ve changed their thinking, though.

Billie watches Fabian. He sips a glass of water, says nothing. She tells him not to think about those people. Think of instead of his family. Do what needs to be done for himself and them. And if ICE comes for him, come to her. She’ll shelter him if need be, her house his underground railroad.

“You know where I am,” Billie says.

SHARE
J. Malcolm Garcia
J. Malcolm Garcia is author of What Wars Leave Behind and the forthcoming book Without a Country: The Untold Story of America’s Deported Veterans.