Stephanie waited by the door to her Pleasanton colonial. Birds chirped. The early morning sun streamed through the lacy curtains and reflected off the tile in the foyer. Lonely music echoed from Britney’s room. Ashley slept and Emily sat on the stairs waiting with her mother.
“The lawyer couldn’t get in touch with Daddy last night?” Emily asked, her eyes drooped in concern. “Or this morning?”
“Not yet honey,” Stephanie replied as she moved the curtain aside and peered into the fiery sunrise. “The office that processes information about these cases closed at 4:00 yesterday. And, unfortunately, they’re very inefficient and couldn’t answer our questions.”
“So, you’re going to look for him?”
“Yes,” she answered. “Mr. Beckman’s going to speak with the director of the office in person. I’m going to bring Daddy his phone and wallet and let him know how much we all love him.”
At the completion of her sentence, a pit attacked her stomach, but she ignored the stitch and turned to hug her daughter.
“We have a very smart lawyer working on Daddy’s case,” she said looking into Emily’s tired brown eyes. “Thank you for being so brave. Your sisters will take care of dinner. I gave them my credit card. Order pizza, watch a movie and I’ll text you to let you know what’s happening.”
“Will Daddy be coming home with you?” she asked.
“Maybe,” Stephanie answered as attorney Rupert T. Beckman’s black Mercedes turned into their driveway. “Mr. Beckman believes there’s a chance he could be released on the Cessation of Deportation request this morning. But they may keep him for the full 24-hours, which means he might not be back until tonight. Either way, he’ll be home for pizza dinner.”
As Stephanie entered the passenger seat of Rupert’s car, she looked back at the house to see Emily in the foyer window waving to her.
“Good morning Mrs. Domo,” Rupert smiled, handing her a cup of coffee. “Let’s get your husband out of detention.”
Stephanie sipped her coffee and watched the trees pass along the route to San Antonio. Rupert detailed a series of calls he made and listed the actions he planned to take in serving the case to the ICE director for Chuck’s release. Stephanie heard each point, understood some of it, but emotionally checked out of the conversation until Rupert finished his rundown and fell silent for much of the drive.
“I feel so…” Stephanie started to speak and then bit her lip.
“Yes, Mrs. Domo,” Rupert said.
“I feel so stupid.”
“No, Mrs. Domo…”
“Or, well…” she corrected herself. “I feel deceived.”
Rupert paused and stared out the window as he angled off the highway down an exit ramp.
“You should bear in mind,” he said. “Your husband’s parents likely either told him not to say anything about his status to anyone. Or, they may have deceived him.”
“You’ve got to know if you’re a citizen or not?”
“Maybe not,” Rupert replied as he navigated the crowded streets of San Antonio. “I’ve seen so many cases and each one is different. I’ve seen people who swore up and down they were American citizens.”
“I always thought it was weird that he didn’t have a birth certificate, but we never seemed to need it.”
“I’ve seen it all,” Rupert smiled at her as he made a right turn into the ICE office complex.
“It’s been so hard not to completely lose it in front of the girls,” she lowered her voice as if she could burst at that moment. “I haven’t even cried more than a single tear or two since this whole crazy shitshow started.”
Rupert pulled into a parking space and pulled the emergency brake.
“I’m sorry to swear,” Stephanie lowered her gaze into her lap.
“Mrs. Domo,” Rupert rested his hand on top of her shoulder. “Let’s get your husband out of this shithole.”
The Immigration office in San Antonio consisted of a small room, maybe 30 x 30 feet wide bolted onto the front of a massive, sprawling complex that resembled the marriage of a high-security prison and a middle-eastern military base. Camouflaged jeeps sped through the parking lot, stopping at armed guard houses before entering mysterious underground garages. Behind the barbed fencing, black-clad ICE agents resembled action figure clones of each other. They wore the same granite indifference across their faces like stone badges of legitimacy.
Stephanie sat on a plain, square pine couch with uncomfortable polyester cushions, while Rupert spoke with the ICE agent through the reception window.
Stephanie’s cell phone buzzed. Emily’s smiling avatar appeared in the palm of her hand.
“Making homemade pizza for Daddy tonight,” the first text read. “Brit and Ash getting ingredients at store. I’m making a ‘WELCOME HOME’ sign.”
Stephanie replied with smiley face emojis before exhaling the trepidation from her chest and stashing the phone in her purse. Two ICE agents entered the lobby and flashed their key cards against a card reader to enter the bowels of the building. A third stood in the lobby speaking inaudibly into his cell phone.
The grey INS bus rumbled down a lonely road. None of the dozen other passengers spoke. They mostly kept their heads low in silent resignation. Chuck rested his cheek against the window and watched the Texas landscape blur past him. In the distance, he could see the tall arching entrance to Mexico looking like a death sentence slowly creeping toward him.
The cold metal of the iron clasps around his wrists and the heavy chain that connected him to the other passengers rattled and clanked with each bump, crack and pothole they rumbled over. Chuck tugged on the chain, eliciting an annoyed look from the passenger in the seat across the aisle who was directly daisy-chained to him.
About a quarter mile out, the van turned right and ambled across a dirt road, skirting the border fence and entering a gated, armed compound.
Chuck watched the traffic mount at the border check point, which looked like a tollbooth to hell. Armed guards held menacing rifles over their shoulders while leashed German Shepherds prowled, inspecting each car and standing on hind legs to sniff each passenger.
Chuck’s van entered a pitch-black tunnel and the checkpoint disappeared from sight. The tunnel seemed interminably long and the darkness unnerved him.
As they exited the tunnel and reentered the daylight, Chuck’s numbness to his situation eased, replaced with abject fear.
“Are we in Mexico?” he asked the person across from him, who continued to stare ahead without acknowledging him.
Dust flew across Chuck’s window obscuring the view of the nondescript landscape. They could as easily have been in Laredo, Texas as Monterrey, Mexico. But, the street signs, all written in Spanish told Chuck all he needed to understand about his whereabouts.
“Holy shit,” he muttered to his partner across the aisle of the bus. “We’re in fucking Mexico.”
Rupert stood at the ICE window longer than Stephanie expected. Long stretches elapsed where Rupert leaned patiently against the glass while the agent searched his computer or left his seat to retrieve a folder.
Stephanie could tell the news caught her lawyer by surprise. She observed the tone of the conversation, the body language, the stone-cold wall erected by the man behind the glass.
The look on Rupert’s face nearly caused Stephanie to choke on the bile in the back of her throat. It was just a glance back at her while he continued to converse tensely at the window. But, the look of combined anger and panic told her the story she didn’t want to hear - but half expected anyway. She knew the answer even without him speaking a word to her. As much as he assured her that the government could not legally take action against her husband within the due diligence of 14 days, her nagging gut told her otherwise.
Her phone buzzed from the confines of her purse. She could hear it and feel it. As if in a trance, staring at Rupert, who had grown animated and now outwardly argued with the ICE agent in the window, Stephanie took out her phone and glanced at her daughter’s smiling face.
“Making Daddy pepperoni + mushrooms – his fav!!!” read the text, followed by a picture of Emily’s multi-colored “Welcome Home Daddy” sign adorned with pictures of balloons and X’s and O’s to signify kisses and hugs.
Stephanie’s face ran bright red and a wave of heat rose from her stomach, up her throat and across her face. The room spun and darkened for her, overrun by blue and yellow dots in her field of vision. She swayed but did not quite pass out as she felt she might.
Instead, her phone dropped from her limp hand, shattering on the cement floor. And, like a deluge, from the back of her face to the front, she exploded with tears. Unable to stop herself, she wailed like a dying dog and fell to her knees. Her hands rested on the cement floor and she heaved for air, suddenly unable to move her body, stop crying or fill her lungs.
Rupert pealed himself from the window and dropped beside her to help her to the couch. With an arm around her shoulder to prop her from falling again, he urged her to take deep breaths. She continued to moan and heave with one hand across her mouth and nose and another steadying her weight against Rupert’s shoulder.
Her phone, face down on the floor, continued to buzz. The ICE agent on his cell phone turned to face the wall and the statue-like agent in the reception window turned to clack at his keyboard.
“Can she get some water here?” Rupert called out, as he and Stephanie slid from the couch in unison to a sitting position on the cold cement floor with their backs against the side of the hard pine furniture.
The agent in the window produced a small cup of water from a bubbler and nodded to the agent on the phone, who walked slowly across the room to retrieve it and hand it to Rupert.
“He’s… gone…” Stephanie uttered between gasps for air. “They… sent him…”
“Shhh,” Rupert spoke softly. “What they’ve done is totally illegal. We’re going to fight this.”
Dust rose in the circular rotary at the center of Reynosa, Mexico.
After the heavily armed ICE agents unchained all the passengers at gun point, with the barrel of a high-powered rifle within inches of his face, Chuck rubbed the stress lines from his skin. The dozen other illegal immigrants from the van scattered into the surrounding neighborhoods.
Chuck circled the small fountain in the center of town, wandering aimlessly as the van kicked sand and pebbles at him and sped back toward the heavily armed tunnel from which they had emerged.
Chuck surveyed his surroundings. Shadows from the two, and three-story gold and beige stucco buildings fell across the dirt street and cut his face in half. In the distance, children played soccer in an empty lot. Women hung clothes along clotheslines in their back yards. A motorcycle buzzed along a hidden alleyway somewhere on the other side of the short, tightly packed storefronts that encircled the fountain.
Chuck reached into his pocket, but he had no phone, no wallet and no money.
He called out to a street vendor, selling apples, oranges and limes by the side of the road.
“Excuse me,” he shouted. “English? Do you speak English?”
The vendor looked sideways at him and answered only a single word in Spanish that demonstrated to Chuck just how hard his new life would be.
Chuck looked around, outwardly from the fountain. The sun drifted toward the horizon. Dark shadows extended across the plaza. Four indistinguishable roads led to four undetermined parts of his new home. Above a cantina where the van left him, a nylon sign, drooped and torn, displayed the only words in Spanish that he could interpret.
“Bienvenido a Mexico”.