The Crystal Theater, El Paso, Texas. Photo from the Aultman Collection, courtesy of the El Paso Public Library.
My daddy crossed the border as a four year old in 1914. It was an experience he never forgot. He and his older brother Ausencio crossed from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso, bypassing the immigration office, and walked up El Paso Street. My father’s generation often talked about the ease of crossing the border then. It was before the passage of the 1917 Immigration Act and the 1924 formation of the Border Patrol. “Vamos pa’ los Estados Unidos,” they kept telling him. He was confused. “¿Qué es eso? ¿Qué es Estados Unidos?” So he cried and cried walking north on El Paso Street. Frustrated at having to take care of his little brother, Ausencio finally took him into a variety theater, the Crystal Theater, to see part of a show. They saw an entertainer singing a humorous song and my daddy laughed. In his eighties, he could still sing a snippet of the song, "Toribio." Maybe this “Estados Unidos” wasn’t so bad after all, my daddy thought.
The story of coming here as a child is a story my father told often.
Crossing the border sin papeles was not a crime then. It was not until the Blease Bill, the Immigration Act of March 4, 1929, that entering the US without authorization became a misdemeanor and returning after deportation became a felony. Coleman Livingston Blease was a politician from South Carolina. He was pro-lynching, against interracial marriage (he wanted to criminalize both the couple and the person officiating the marriage), and a white supremacist. By the time the Blease Bill became law, my father had spent his childhood and teenage years in the United States. It passed the year he met my mother.
My father remained here for his entire life, passing away in a VA hospital at the age of 87. He made a life here without papeles until he was drafted during World War II. When they discovered he didn’t have immigration papers, they took him to Tijuana and had him re-enter the United States as if it were his first time. They called it “the drying out process,” drying out a wetback.
I’ve been thinking about him coming here as a child, fearful and confused, and how he worked for 55 years to help build this country. I’ve been remembering how proud he was to have served in the Army and how to flew the American flag in the front yard. He had a strong American identity (and an equally strong Mexican identity and an equally strong Indigenous identity). I wonder what he would think today of a President who cynically claims one week that, “We love the Dreamers,” while planning to destroy their lives.
Like countless others, I am nervously awaiting Trump’s decision today about ending DACA. Trump is expected to announce the end of DACA, Deferred Actions Childhood Arrivals.
DACA, initiated in 2012 under President Obama, defers deportation of undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children. They must meet numerous requirements in order to receive deferred action status and over the course of its existence, about 800,000 people have received protection by DACA. Since it began, over 95% of Dreamers are in school or working.
At noon, I will attend a protest on my campus. in support of DACA and the Dreamers. And their parents who brought them here because they loved their children. I will remember the ways in which the United States is complicit in creating conditions that push people out of their countries. I will remember my daddy and his stories of coming to the U.S. as a child.