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The best moment in Kevin Alexander's life so far happened at an Alabama gas station when he was 11 years old. "When I saw my mom after so long," recalls Kevin, 17, "I was like, 'I know it was worth it. Because I'm here now.'
"That's when I felt better. I didn't have nothing else to worry about."
When Kevin climbed into his mother Maria's car that day in Alabama, he didn't recognize her. The air between them felt dense and awkward, but the two soon warmed to each other. Her voice at least was familiar to him — from the many phone calls to his grandparents' small rural home in Guatemala, the promise she'd made to him over the years: "When I save enough money, I'll send for you."
For someone who'd been alive only a decade, Kevin already had plenty of worries. His mom had left for the States six years earlier. He missed her terribly, and faced a future as the grandson of Guatemalan farmers and shopkeepers amid rampant poverty and escalating violence.
But when the call finally came — the one saying, "It's time" — Kevin remembers, "I felt excited. I felt like I wanted to go! I was ready. I was waiting for this."
What he wasn't ready for was the lonely and arduous journey. First came a long bus ride to Mexico. That led to an uncertain month of waiting, holed up in a tiny house. His travails culminated in a punishing five-day hike across severe borderlands. On a bitterly cold night in the mountains, the little boy wanted to turn back.
"I thought to myself, 'What am I doing? This is craaaazzzy!' " Kevin says. "And I told the guy, 'Just take me back. I can't do it no more.' "
"Go ahead," the guide told him. "You're on your own."
Kevin had become close to an older woman who was also making the journey, to Texas to join her son. Hungry and exhausted, she'd given up, begging her young companion to leave her in the wilderness. She reminded him of his mother. He refused to abandon her.
"The rest of the people kept on going until I screamed, I yelled at them to help the lady out," he says. "And they did."
At the Alabama filling station, when Kevin jumped out of the hired driver's car and into his mom's, he became a kid again. His new family — Maria, his stepfather, and two half-sisters — moved to Nashville, and he started school at Neely's Bend Middle School. Without much English, he felt apart from the school life swirling around him. But he was home, and safe. His stepdad worked construction, while his mom cooked tamales (his favorite), drove him to school, and cared for the little girls.
And then one morning almost four years ago, as Kevin was washing the dishes, Maria cried out to him, then collapsed. An ambulance took her. Later that day, his stepdad told him that his mother had died of a heart attack.
He was overcome, he recalls, by a feeling much like the one he'd had on his five-day journey. "But this time it was worse," he says. "Because I lost the person I loved most. And starting over, basically alone."
Kevin, a spiky-haired 17-year-old with a sweet, supernova smile, doesn't do bravado. He doesn't expect to recover from losing his mom. "She left an empty spot in my heart that nobody's gonna fill up," he says.
But his mother left him something else — an instinct for right and wrong, and a generosity he hopes to pass on someday to his own kids. He smiles when he recalls how people still speak of her kindnesses, whether she was offering rides to those without cars or a few dollars to those without jobs or money. One cousin told Kevin a story: He'd been shot, and Maria was the only person who helped care for him, driving him to therapy and doctor visits.
"She was really special," the cousin told him. "You should be proud of her being your mom."
This spring, Alexander will graduate from Hunter's Lane High School. With JFON's help, he now has a Social Security number and a driver's license, and he's a legal permanent resident. He lives with an uncle and works nights and weekends at Arby's. He hopes to study to become a computer technician or an auto mechanic — "a job where I will use my brain, not force my body, like my stepdad and uncle and all of them do," he says. "It's not fair. Because they don't have papers, they have to do the hard work."
Overall, though, he believes he has a good life.
"I have everything I need," he says. Then he pauses before adding, "Except my mom."
Just call me Rocío," says Rocío Martínez, 36, spilling a golden laugh after spending about five seconds pronouncing her full name. In the poor area of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where Martínez was born, she says little girls were often given big names but denied big dreams.
The only daughter of six children, Martínez wanted to be a lawyer. "I knew that wasn't going to happen," she says, her voice quavering. With so many mouths to feed and an alcoholic husband, her mom pressed her to stay home and lend a hand.
When Martínez was 18, she started working in secret as a model and saving the money for college. But after her family found out, her mother gave her an ultimatum: If she kept modeling, she could never see her family again. "She considered me a really bad girl for my job," Martínez says.
She chose exile. Martínez made her way to the States to stay with some cousins, hoping her parents' anger would cool. The life her family led here shocked her — working extremely long hours, living in close quarters.
"My cousin talked to me really seriously," she recalls. "He said, 'We have to be here. We are helping our families. We come to work.' "
So she did. Martínez labored as an electrician's helper and cleaned hotel rooms, making less than she did as a model in Mexico. But when she started taking ESL classes, she says, "everything changed. ... I fell in love."
She was torn between her old and new lives. But she had a daughter, then a son. She knew she had to stay, to keep her family together. "I said, 'God help me,' " she recalls. "I don't know how it's gonna be, but my children are not responsible for the choices I have made."
For a while Martínez got by, between her boyfriend Norman's painting business and odd work she found, selling junk at the flea market and cooking for people. As with countless families, though, a medical emergency burst their bubble. When their daughter Julie was 6, the little girl fell ill. Her doctors suspected meningitis, then a stroke.
Eventually, doctors discovered that Julie had a rare malformation in her brain — "a little bomb waiting to explode," a nurse explained. The family agreed to a risky 16-hour surgery.
Martínez remembers her daughter's preternatural calm. "She told me, 'Mommy, everything is gonna be OK. Don't worry!' " she says, wiping away tears.
Miraculously, the girl was proved right. The crisis turned out to be the catalyst that brought the Martínez family closer. Her parents came to lend support as Julie recovered; the family reconciled. "I'm sorry for the way I treated you," her dad told her. "You grow stronger on your own." All, it seemed, was forgiven.
"Nobody teaches you how to be a father or a mother," says Martínez. "Now I understand them more."
But the surgery ushered in a new set of anxieties. Julie's surgery saved her life, but she still had seizures and required frequent ER visits and therapy sessions — all at a time when Davidson County sheriff's deputies had begun detaining thousands of undocumented immigrants through the 287(g) federal enforcement program. Deputies stopped many of Martínez's friends; whole families disappeared.
"You just went to get your kids from school, and you were stopped by the police and you will never see them again," she says. "I lived in fear."
That's when Martínez found JFON. Her first lesson in U.S. Law was marital in nature: She'd thought she couldn't legally marry Norman because he had legal status and she did not. But some countries permitted it, including America. "I said, 'Yay! I can have a dress,' " she recalls, laughing.
Then, a year and a half ago, JFON attorney Adrienne Kittos helped Martínez apply for a U visa — available to some crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. She'd been robbed a few years before, and she helped police find and prosecute her attacker. When Martinez's papers came, she says, "it was the happiest time. I was crying, screaming! I can go to the streets and be free! Now I am a person and a human being!"
Even so, old fears are hard to cast aside. As she got ready for her first workday as a legal, documented worker, her 7-year-old son Jordan started crying. "Mommy, they are gonna take you if they find you!" he told her.
"No, baby," she reassured him. "I have my papers now. I'm not gonna leave you."
For undocumented families, routes to legal residency are available. First, lawyers can help determine which legal channel to pursue. Victims of certain crimes who cooperate with police can petition for a U visa, which offers temporary legal status. Kids under 18 with deceased or missing parents can seek permanent residence as unaccompanied minors. Meanwhile, young people who came to the U.S. as children before 2007 may qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, announced in June.
These are not minor distinctions. The U visa and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (i.e., unaccompanied minors) can lead to permanent legal status — and eventually to U.S. citizenship. And successful DACA applicants can obtain driver's licenses and the right to work legally.
Aiding with such processes is a service of Justice for Our Neighbors of Tennessee (2195 Nolensville Rd., 835-2512), the nonprofit that volunteer board president Kaki Friskics-Warren calls "a lean, mean machine." To keep costs low, the Tennessee chapter of JFON shares space with Conexión Americas — a support organization for Latino families — at the newly opened Casa Azafrán Community Center (2195 Nolensville Road, 320-5152; en español 269-6900). JFON and Conexión also share the salary of a paralegal and translator, who assists JFON's single full-time employee.
JFON of Tennessee was launched in 2008 by Katherine Dix Esquivel, an attorney and mother of three who'd worked with migrant farm workers and wanted to offer legal help to immigrant women and children who were victims of violence. Today, its staff attorney is Adrienne Kittos, who knew she'd be an immigration lawyer from her first semester at Vanderbilt Law School. She typically maintains around 130 active cases, more than half of which are U visa applications. (Approximately another fifth are DACA petitions.) The rest of her clients are seeking permanent residence out of U visa status, with a few petitions for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status or permanent residence for family members.
Kittos says working at JFON is her dream job. "It's really gratifying," she says. "Especially with those victims-of-crime visas, it's nice to be able to make something good come out of this terrible situation." Esquivel, meanwhile, now works at the public defender's office but still offers pro bono services to JFON.
"The immigrants and refugees I have met through JFON have stories that absolutely compel me," she says, "stories of tragedy, courage, desperation, hope, perseverance, and faith."
JFON volunteer Kathryn Spry says it's her job to welcome fearful clients as honored guests — to offer them food after their long drives, child care during fraught attorney meetings, or sometimes, just a reassuring hug.
"I think all people ought to be treated fairly," she explains. "This is an opportunity to help with that a little bit."
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