an american dream

Elena arrived in Texas shortly after Anthony, her 9 year old son, declared for the thousandth time that he wanted to be an architect. For years, he drew a variety of buildings on blank sheets of paper: churches, corporate buildings, schools, castles, and houses. He constantly asked Elena what she thought of them. She always said, ay mijo, que lindo, and Anthony would always remind her of his chosen career path.

I thought it was a phase, but he’s been saying this since he was 5, Elena said to me. I held the receiver closer my ear. Elena sounded like a nice woman. She spoke in a friendly, gentle voice, occasionally laughing about Anthony’s tendencies as a child. Initially, Elena told me that she was calling our organization to see if her son had qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Now, she was explaining their life in Mexico and the U.S.

When Anthony was 8, his father left. He left one morning, casually, after promising Anthony he’d bring gum from el mercado, where he was going to buy meats. Elena had no idea that he wouldn’t be returning from that mandado. She said that she told Anthony that his father went on a long business trip, and wouldn’t be back for a while. Everyday after that, for about a month or two, Anthony would ask his mother if his father came back from his trip. Elena only shook her head, and, after a while, Anthony stopped asking.

A year later, Elena decided that she and Anthony would go pa’l norte because there was nothing left for them in Mexico; the only family she knew besides her husband, her parents, had died. She also reasoned that she would make Anthony’s dreams come true by going to the States and enrolling Anthony in an elite, private school, like the ones they saw on television. He would then have the option to fulfill his dream as an architect, if he still wanted to do that. She was ready to fulfill their American Dream.

They had no family in the U.S., so when they made it to Texas, they were homeless for a few days. When Elena was offered a job at a restaurant that also had available lodging space above it, she accepted the offer immediately. She worked in that restaurant for most of her life; she saved the money she earned and bought a small home. To this day, her and Anthony reside in that house.

Their lives seemed to be going well—she had a stable income, paid for the rent and utilities on time, provided meals, and Anthony had achieved a high grade point average. He also volunteered at a youth center, was a member of the basketball team, and was still set on being an architect. It was his senior year, and he had a college in mind, one that wasn’t far so that he could commute from home. He had also planned buying his mother a lovelier home, one with a front and back patio, soon after he graduated from college and began his career.

During the college application process, Anthony realized that he was ineligible for colleges, including the schools of his choice. His mother couldn’t afford to pay for tuition, and Anthony couldn’t apply for federal financial aid—he was undocumented, and so was his mother. They still are.

Elena fast forwards her story and informs me that Anthony is now a construction worker who injured his back while working. He being undocumented, his boss decided it wasn’t necessary to pay for his health insurance. It has been difficult for Anthony to pay the medical bills and continue getting necessary treatment.

Elena’s voice breaks on the phone. She says that she can’t help Anthony financially because she is disabled and stays at home. They still live together, and although she’s told him to go and start a life of his own, he doesn’t want to leave her. He knows I wouldn’t be able to pay for anything on my own, Elena tells me. He’s the best son I could’ve ever asked for.

There is a pause. I hear Elena take a deep breath, and she sounds like she is no longer crying. So, does he qualify for the program? The other day I asked him to gather all his paperwork from high school and middle school because I know that’s some of the proof the state requires.

I tell Elena that it’s great that she found the paperwork ahead of time. It will make the application process much quicker. I hear the glee in Elena’s voice. She thanks me and Obama for this opportunity.

I grab a DACA application from a nearby folder and write her son’s name. How old is he? I ask Elena. She replies confidently. 32.

My palms sweat. I breathe deeply. I tell Elena that I’m sorry, but at this time, the age limit is 31. He is a year too old.

She answers unfazed. He is just older by one year. One. He grew up here and everything. Surely they will understand.

I apologize. There is a silence. Elena cries. After a minute, she sucks in her breath and thanks me. I apologize again. Out of the corner of my eye, I see my supervisor. He mouths, ask if she wants to be a member. I hold a finger up and nod.

I don’t feel like asking her. But I do anyway. I’m really sorry, I say in a low voice. The legal system is really messed up. There are so many people like Anthony, who barely missed the age requirement. But, if you have time on your hands, you can join us and start a movement for reform. We can fight for your son. People like your son.

I wish I could volunteer, but I can’t leave my house, she says in a small voice.

I tell her not to worry. Before I can say anything else, Elena clears her throat. You know what? she asks, her voice unexpectedly firm. I know how I want to help—tell Anthony’s story, she says. Let people know. Maybe then they’d understand.

I force back tears. Of course, Elena, I say.

She thanks me again, and reminds me that if we need anything from her—anything she can do from home, of course—to give her a call. I take down her number. For the last time, she thanks me, and then hangs up.