As told to Emily Kestel
Maria Gonzalez-Alvarez is a disaster case manager for the tornado and derecho programs at Mid-Iowa Community Action in Marshalltown. She is the co-founder and co-organizer of Immigrant Allies, which is a resource organization that helps immigrant families that formed after the ICE raid at the Swift & Co. pork processing plant. She is also a board member of Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support, or ACCESS.
Her family immigrated to the United States from Michoacan, Mexico, in the 1990s. Undocumented for most of her life, Gonzalez-Alvarez received permanent residency last year through her husband, Roberto. She has two kids: Alexa and Carlos.
The following story has been formatted to be entirely in her own words, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I am who I am because of my mother’s sacrifice.
I came to this country when I was 3 years old. When my mom came here, she had to walk through the desert.
I remember parts of Mexico, but there’s also parts that I’ve blocked off. When my mom, brother and I were going to come to the U.S., she had gone to Mexico City to see if she would qualify for a visa to come as a worker, but didn’t make enough money. The U.S. government was afraid that with two kids and no income, she would be a liability, so they denied her.
There were days that she didn’t have food to feed us. I remember her giving us tea to help us go to sleep because we would be so hungry. I remember watching her cry sometimes. At my age, there was nothing I could do to help her. I didn’t know why she was crying or what she was going through.
Before we were going to cross the border, she took us to my grandpa’s. He was a farmer. During that time, the Mexican government took away a lot of land and left him without anything. He would go up into the mountains with a donkey to get wood to sell in the city.
My mom told him that we’re going to leave and he said, “Don’t go. I’ll do whatever I can to help you.” And my mom said, “It’s my responsibility to take care of my children. I can’t offer them anything here. They’re never going to have a chance to do anything here.”
Several years later when we were in the U.S., my mom got the call that he had passed away, and she fell to her knees. She had promised that we were going to go back to see him, but she couldn’t leave the country. She couldn’t even go say goodbye. I asked, “Mom, didn’t you cry when you left him?” And she said, “No, because I knew that if I cried, I would have stayed. I wouldn’t have left.”
We all flew up to Tijuana together from Michoacan. At the border, my mom was required to walk. There was no other way for her to come. The coyote that was going to bring her didn’t want to at first. He said that she was a liability and on top of that, she was a woman and the group that he was going to cross were primarily men. My mom said, “No, my kids are going to cross, so I have to make it across as well.”
They put us on a bus, and my mom said, “You have to be a big girl. You have to take care of your brother.” I don’t remember much of the bus.
I remember being in a hotel room with other little kids and my brother started crying because he was hungry. A lady went up to him, grabbed him by the arms and shook him. I remember freaking out and grabbing him and running to the bathroom. I laid him on top of me and rubbed his back so he would go to sleep. We slept in the bathtub. The next day, they put us in the back of a truck and told us that they were going to take us up to meet our families. When we got there, my aunt was there with her husband. I asked where my mom was and she said she was coming. It took her a couple of days to arrive.
When I saw her, she was covered in dirt and scratches. The first time she took off her shoes, the blisters on her feet were so bad she had to basically rip off the shoe.
When we came to Marshalltown, there weren’t a lot of kids that looked like me. We were one of the few Hispanic families here at the time and there wasn’t really an ESL teacher either, so we were basically on our own.
I obviously knew I was different by the way I looked and the language I spoke, but I didn’t fully realize that I couldn’t do everything my friends did. I still did sports, my mom would still volunteer and we still went to potlucks.
When I was 14, I told my mom that I needed my Social Security number to apply for driver’s ed. She said, “You don’t have one. You are undocumented. You cannot drive legally here.” I said, “But other people can!” To me it was so stupid because my friends could all drive but I couldn’t. That was my first “I can’t.”
When I was in high school, people were applying for scholarships and FAFSA [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and I couldn’t do any of that. My whole life, people had told me that when I grew up, I could be anything. That I could pick whatever career I wanted. But in reality, I couldn’t. I could only do what my family could afford. And with my mom working at a pork plant, that wasn’t going to be very much. I couldn’t afford college. For a long time, I thought that I was going to end up working at the pork plant. I would tell my mom and say, “This is it. This is who I’m going to be.” My mom would say, “No. No.”
She’s the type of person that doesn’t let you fail. She always says, “I walked five days through the desert for you. Five days! And this is what you’re giving me?” She’d tell us to just keep pushing forward and that everything was going to work out. That’s when the raid happened.
It was 2006. I was a junior in high school. That morning as I was getting ready for school, I got a call saying that the pork plant had been raided. My neighbor said, “Your mom is walking into the cafeteria of the plant. ICE is there and she’s probably going to be deported.”
At that moment, I thought, “What do I need to do to help her? What do I need to do to help my siblings?”
I decided to take them to school because I thought that was the safest spot for them. As I got to school, I said goodbye to my siblings and I went up to my teacher. My teacher said, “Everything is going to be OK.” It was hard for me to explain to them everything that I was feeling and what I was going through.
As I was talking to them, my aunt called and said there was a rumor that ICE was picking up all the kids that were being left behind by the raid. So I left the high school and picked my siblings up. I went to my aunt’s house and dropped them off. I’m like, “Tia, I have to go find my mom. I have to find her.” She said, “But you don’t have your papers either.” I said, “That doesn’t matter because I know my mom would do anything for us. I have to find her, I have to make sure that she’s safe and that she knows what’s happening.” My mom didn’t understand English, so my biggest fear was that she was going to say something or do something that would get her into even more trouble.
As I got to the plant, I saw all of these big white buses with tinted windows. I saw ICE officials pulling out people with their hands behind their backs. I remember holding on to the chain-link fence, and seeing one lady in particular. She wasn’t my mom, but all I could think about was, that’s how they took out my mom. That’s how they arrested her, like she was a criminal, like she was committing some sort of crime. All that she was doing was working to provide for her children.
I just started crying. I didn’t realize how loud I was – I was attracting attention from other people beside me. This immigration officer came up and handed me a card with a number to call to find out where my mom is. I went back to my car, got to the house and started making phone calls. Everywhere I called, they were like, “No, we don’t have anybody that’s registered to that name. We don’t have any clue where she’s at. You’re too young to be making this call, you need to find an attorney.”
Eventually it was the evening. Usually with five of us kids, evenings at our house were crazy. That day, the house was dead silent.
I remember taking my siblings to my mom’s bed. I was lying on the edge of the bed and I could feel my sister’s legs over me. My little sister was a baby and I was holding her on my chest. My brothers were on the other side of me. I could hear them breathing and I just kept telling them, “We’re going to be OK. We’re going to get her out.” Once in a while, I could hear them drying out their tears and taking deep sighs.
Nobody slept that night. When the morning came, we started making phone calls. We started finding different organizations and churches that were willing to support us. We were finally able to find someone who was able to direct us to an attorney who took on my mom’s case. He was able to get ahold of her and find out where she was. She was at Camp Dodge. We were able to talk with her and she kept telling us, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to stay here. I’m going to fight for you guys.” I was telling her, “I’m going to fight for you. I’m going to take care of the kids. I’m not going to let you go.” I think both of us were terrified, but we comforted each other.
I kept trying to be strong for my siblings. I kept thinking, “If my mom was here, what would she do?” I kept channeling her and everything that she had done for us.
Eventually the lawyer was able to petition for a hearing in front of an immigration judge. The judge asked for proof that she was a good mom and a good citizen. Since there was no official record of her, we had to count on the community to support us. We were able to get letters from different community members and teachers and organizations that she had volunteered at. Years later, they granted her permanent residency.
After that, I told myself that regardless of what happened, I had to make a name for myself. I had to build a name for her because I wouldn’t be here without her.
We started Immigrant Allies right after the raids happened. There weren’t any resources for the kids or these families. People didn’t know what was happening. The school didn’t know what was happening. They just knew that there were a bunch of kids being left behind and children were coming into school crying. There was no action plan in place. So we said, “That can’t happen again. We can’t have a situation where a child is waiting after school for parents to pick them up and nobody’s going to come. We can’t have a mom deported because she didn’t know that she could go in front of a judge.” It was important to us to educate others. Part of the education was sharing our stories and sharing why these people are important to our community. It was time for some of us to come out of the shadows.
I wanted to share my mom’s story and her journey with other people. I think a lot of times, people see these stories on the news and they think about somebody else. They think about how these people are criminals and that they’re breaking the law. They don’t realize it’s your child’s teacher or caseworker. When I first told her story, I saw her in the back and she was crying. She’s not a crier, so I thought that I had broken her. She told me that it was therapy to hear her story shared. I think we’ve both grown from being able to share the story with our community and nationally.
Even after all of this, my brother and I were still undocumented. So it was terrifying to her that she couldn’t do anything to protect us. It wasn’t until the Obama administration passed DACA that my brother and I were able to work and get our driver’s licenses. By that time I was already married and pregnant with Alexa.
I remember when I got my work permit in the mail. My husband worked nights and he came in with the mail at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. He had a letter from immigration. I was like, “Oh, it’s probably just them processing the papers.” We opened it up and it was my green card. I just started bawling. This little plastic piece of paper changed my life so quickly.
I called my mom and she said, “Is the baby OK?” And I said “Yes. I got the green card!” I could hear her crying. She said, “You know, everything I’ve ever given, everything I’ve ever done … all of my sacrifices have been for you guys.” I could tell that it was a relief for her to know that we would be safe.
It was a relief for me too, and as a soon-to-be mother, all I could think of was, “I have to be the same woman that my mother was.” I want her to know that her sacrifice, her trauma, her tears, everything that she’s gone through … I want her to be able to look at me and say that it was worth it.