Abel and Zulma Muñoz stand at the north end of Playas de Tijuana, where the international border fence meets the Pacific Ocean. The area was once an international park, the pet project of First Lady Pat Nixon, who envisioned a place where people of both nations could enjoy a day at the beach together. It was a nice idea rendered impossible by political reality. And now the border fence bisects the park and stretches 200 feet out into the Pacific, marking the far northwest extremity of Latin America.
It seems fitting that Abel and Zulma be here on the fringe of this country they grew up in, separated by 12 feet of steel from the country they called home for 17H years. To them, the wall stands as a physical embodiment of the United States immigration laws that mandated their February 22 deportation. Now they find themselves in a Mexico they don't recognize, separated from their source of income, their house, and their three American-born children.
Abel and Zulma met in Tijuana in the late 1980s. She was a short, pretty, fair-skinned teenager from Chihuahua. Tall, handsome, and four years older, Abel hailed from the state of Veracruz. The two were married, and in 1989, Zulma gave birth to a son they named after his father. The joy Abelito's birth brought the Muñozes was soon replaced with worries about his health. In a high, singsong voice, Zulma, now 37, recalls, "When he was nine months old, he spent two weeks in a clinic here in Tijuana. The diagnosis was pneumonia. But when they delivered the baby back to us, he was still very sick. He was only nine months old at the time. So we went to several doctors to get another opinion, because it was clear he couldn't breathe correctly."
The diagnosis kept coming back as pneumonia, but pneumonia treatments were not helping Baby Abel. "A friend of ours worked in a medical clinic in San Diego. She suggested that our baby could get better care over there." Zulma waves her hand northward. "Because my father had a green card, I asked him and my mom to accompany our baby and our friend. I remember it was a Sunday around 9:00 at night. Around midnight, my mom called me and said, 'Prepare yourself, because the hospital is going to give you a letter to allow you to cross the border. The baby is very ill.' "
Abel and Zulma crossed the border on Halloween of 1989 and joined their baby at Children's Hospital. Zulma's voice quavers, and her deep brown eyes well up with tears as she recalls. "The baby was in intensive care when we got there and connected to medical apparatus. The diagnosis was he had a tumor in his chest and leukemia. We ended up staying with the baby until he died on December 7, 1989, at Children's Hospital. At that time, I was three months pregnant with my daughter Leslie."
After taking a silent moment to compose herself, Zulma continues. "The doctors were very interested in Abelito's case, but unfortunately, by the time they were able to see him in San Diego, it was too late. Everything was too advanced. But they wanted me to stay in the U.S. so they could check the baby [in utero] to see if she had leukemia like Baby Abel had. That's how we started our life over there. My husband, in less than a month, got work. And we were able to go forward because my husband did several jobs."
For the first seven years, Abel worked as a butcher at a carnicería and picked up odd remodeling and construction jobs where he could. From the carnicería, he moved into landscaping, and finally into electrical work. At first, Abel worked with a false Social Security number. Later, he obtained a taxpayer identification number from the Internal Revenue Service. The Muñozes lived in apartments in Paradise Valley, then Southcrest before buying a house in Ocean View in 1996. Forced to sell in 2004 because of new school construction, they bought a new house in Lomita. It was during the time of the move that Abel decided to try to legalize his residency in the United States. "A friend of mine showed me his green card," he recalls. "And this man had been put in jail for fraud. Since a lawyer had helped this other person who had been in jail for fraud get a green card, we thought for us who have never done anything wrong it wouldn't be a problem. It would be easier."
Abel and Zulma contacted the lawyer the friend had used, Murray Hilts, whose offices are on Meade Avenue in North Park. According to the Muñozes, Hilts "gave us a lot of reassurance" that because they'd had no legal trouble and because they had three children -- Leslie, Marcos, and Adilene, now 17, 13, and 9, respectively -- who were American citizens, they should have no trouble obtaining green cards. "He told us the legal application should take about two years," Zulma says. "The first year, we gave them all the papers and submitted everything from the time we had been living in the U.S. After that, we started getting court appointments. We had three hearings in the immigration court. At the third hearing, we were denied the permit to remain as legal residents. And we were told we'd have to leave the country. We appealed. After six months we got another answer. It was the same: denied. We appealed again, to the Ninth Circuit, and the answer was the same: denied. The letter arrived December 6, 2006. We took it to our lawyer and asked what we could do. He said, 'Nothing. All we can do is wait for January and see if there's a reform in the law.' And he told us another letter would come telling us what date we had to leave. That letter never arrived."
Instead, on February 22, between 7:30 and 7:40 in the evening, Zulma responded to a knock at the door. When she opened it, she was greeted by 15 to 20 immigration and customs agents. "A lot of them had flashlights," she recalls, "and their hands were on their weapons. They spoke to me in Spanish. First they said they had an order from immigration to take us away, and they showed me the order. Then they asked, 'Is your husband here?' I said, 'No, my husband's not here.' "
Leslie and Adilene Muñoz were upstairs when agents arrived. Marcos, who was downstairs, ran upstairs to tell them. Reached by phone, Leslie recalls, "My brother came upstairs and told me that immigration was downstairs. So I ran downstairs, and I saw a bunch of agents. Five in the kitchen, another 5 in the dining room, another 5 in the living room. There were more than 15 agents inside the house. It was shocking. Plus, they closed the whole street and searched the whole house like they were looking for some criminals."
As agents searched for him in the house, Abel, who had been out shopping, returned. Zulma remembers, "They immediately took his driver's license and put him in handcuffs and put him into a car."
"It was all done so unjustly," Leslie recalls. "Not only did they not let my dad come in, they wouldn't let us go out to say good-bye to him."
Zulma begins to cry again. "As they were taking us away, the kids were hanging on to me. They didn't want me to leave. I told them, 'We're going to be okay.' It's very sad. They don't care about the pain they're causing to children and families. I know they're doing their job, but it's a heartless job. I understand when they arrest people who are criminals and send them back. That's okay. But we're just hardworking people trying to make a living and get ahead and raise a family. We're a very united family. Abel has always provided everything, even if he had to work two or three jobs. I worked a few hours every week for the school district. I've always gotten involved in school things for my kids. I've always been there for my kids, and they need me."
After being held separately for four hours or so, the Muñozes were brought to the border and released into Mexico at 1:30 a.m., February 23. Seventeen and a half years had passed since the last time they were in their native country. They stayed, and continue to stay, with Zulma's mother in Soler neighborhood, just west of downtown Tijuana. The next day, they woke to a Tijuana far different from the one they remembered. "After 17 years," Abel says, "it's all different. It's another world. And now we're not from over there," he nods northward, "and we're not from over here either."
Now familia Muñoz straddles the international border. Mom and Dad live in Tijuana, where they're trying to make money by selling hot food at the weekly flea market in Zulma's mother's neighborhood. Meanwhile, their children continue to live in their Lomita house during the week and see their parents in Tijuana on weekends. Though under the supervision of an aunt, it's Leslie, a junior at Morse High School, who acts as primary caretaker during the week. "I have the whole responsibility to myself," she says, her voice choking on tears. "I have to be in charge of the bills. We're trying to rent our house, and I have to be in charge of appointments and showing the house to whoever comes. I have to be in charge of my sister and my brother to make sure they have what they need. I have to be in charge of groceries. Everything my parents did has become my responsibility. It's really hard because I never had to do this before. Overnight, I had to become an adult. Sometimes I just want to give up because it's so much that I have to do. I don't have time for myself anymore. But the thing that keeps me going is my brother and sister. They look up to me, and they need me to keep on going. So I keep on going."
Murray Hilts did not return phone calls.