I Was an Illegal Immigrant

This is a guest post from my friend Jesus Vital. I’m sharing my space on Prodigal this month because he has a remarkable story and I didn’t want you to miss a chance to hear it.

I was an illegal immigrant for most of my childhood. I grew up with all the new privileges that America had to offer — a safe home, healthcare, and schooling. We weren’t rich, but we felt rich, just to be able to live in dignity and support our family.

At first glance most people would never guess I am a first generation immigrant. I don’t look like one, I don’t sound like one, and some might say I don’t act like one.

But looks and assumptions can be deceiving.

I am a first generation immigrant from Mexico.

I was born to two natural born Mexican citizens. Shortly after my birth they decided Mexico was no place to raise a family and, despite the obvious obstacles in front of them, set out for the “otro lado” (the other side).

Their transition to America was not an easy one. My father moved first, and began working at a meatpacking plant in rural Kansas. My mother followed after him and was able to attain a Visa to work at the plant with him. For two people who lived under the poverty line in Mexico, minimum wage felt like a killing.

Unfortunately, the crossing was too dangerous for a newborn infant, so my mother left me with family in Mexico. It broke her heart, but she knew it was what she needed to do. She swore she would come back as soon as she could establish a life that was safe and stable enough to support me.

A little more than a year later, she came back to get me.

The first time my mother saw me I was sitting on a small kid’s chair in a storefront beneath my grandparent’s home and she ran and held me like any mother would. Unfortunately, I didn’t respond to her right away so, rather return to the US right away, my family decided it would be best to wait until my mom and I could bond.

Years before my uncle had returned to Mexico for his son and hadn’t taken the time to wait, and his son died in route to America.

They did not want the same thing for me.

When the day came to make the journey, my mom was nervous but her cousin promised everything would be okay. He gave her the rundown. She would board a commuter bus in a Mexican border town and go through the American checkpoint. There she would present me to border patrol as her nephew (my cousin had legal status) with documents saying that she had permission to have her nephew in Mexico.

If all went well she will stay on that bus until she got past the next checkpoint somewhere in Texas. Her cousin would follow the bus, just in case anything went wrong. After the last checkpoint she would get off in San Antonio where we would all be reunited and he would drive us to our new home in Kansas.

The plan went accordingly thus beginning my life here in America.

My parents understood that if we were going to continue to live in America they needed to solidify their residency in the country. This process can be long and strenuous with no guarantees. A recent article in Time Magazine titled “We are Americans: Just not Legally” gives great information on the process of securing at least permanent residency (green card).

In this particular article I realized that I myself had a 26% chance of securing residency.

It helped that my dad’s father was citizen. From there my dad secured residency then citizenship which then helped out my mother and me. The process to become a resident took about 12 years and it took 17 years to become a citizen.

This is the reason some families choose to stay under the radar.

I still remember my first opportunity to vote in a primary election, in 2007. It was then that my status as an American Citizen became real to me. It was such an overwhelming feeling. This served as the beginning of my American Dream for my own family that I will have someday.

People have asked me what I think about issues of immigration, and I tell them that I understand both sides.

And, at the end, ignorance is really the enemy here.

I say this to Mexicans who participated in the marches of the last decade. Even I took part in these marches but what I realized as I was marching was that I was not educated. So I stopped marching and started reading. I learned there are a lot of reasons why New Immigration Reform needs to take place.

I believe that America needs to do a better job securing the borders, but I also believe we have a responsibility to find solutions for honest, hard-working families seeking a better life. We may be decades from that ideal reality, but we can be working toward it just the same.

It’s the right thing to do.

My challenge to you is to pray. Pray for the safety of people, father and mothers, sons and daughters, facing dangers in the harsh deserts of the southwest. Pray because our God has a plan for them too.

Second, get educated. Read, watch documentaries (Great ones on Netflix), and talk to someone who you know that is (or might be) illegal. Ask them why. You might be inspired by their journey to America. Not every immigrant is dealing drugs or apart of some gang organization. Most of them are people, just like you, who are desperate for opportunity.

Not an opportunity to become rich, but a chance to properly provide and feed their family.

The journey that my family has had to travel to get to this point has been long, but very much worth it. I have a great honor being able to serve and contribute to this great country that has provided so much hope and opportunity to my family.

Do you know others with stories like mine? How has my story surprised you?

[Photo: Vox Efx, Creative Commons]

  • http://twitter.com/lauren_hardy Lauren Hardy


    I love what you said about praying for illegal immigrants: “Pray because our God has a plan for them too.” It’s so easy to dehumanize people when we talk about this issue as a whole, but we have to understand and remember that everyone is different.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    Lauren Hardy

    • Zeus Vital

      Yes Lauren, we should not underestimate the power of prayer and how something like prayer can give more compassion. Thanks for reading!

  • Brittany

    I really appreciate your perspective on this issue, thank you so much for writing. I’m in law school and just took a course on Immigration and Citizenship which really opened my eyes to the brokenness and complexity of the immigration system. There is so much room for change, but it’s not enough to speak in soundbites claiming that we need to “reform immigration!” it’s just not that simple. We would do well to educate ourselves on these issues. People’s lives are at stake, but reform is so much more complex than just “fixing” immigration.

    • Zeus Vital

      Absolutely Brittany, education and awereness is key. They go hand in hand and are only effective when they work together. Lets learn more about this so we can better serve and communicate with immigrants. Thank you for the support!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=110400335 Larry Bienz

    Thanks for sharing this, Zeus. It’s amazing how all it takes is a real-life story to show that no issue is as simple as we often make it out to be. Love ya, brother.

    • Zeus Vital

      Larry! The truth is most things are not as easy as they seem and deserve special care. Thanks for the support. Love you too man!

  • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

    Thank you so much for shedding light on the immigrant experience for us, Jesus. I have a few questions that I hope you can answer for me. I guess I’m wondering what advantage is gained by immigrating illegally versus legally, especially considering how if long it took for your family to get permanent residency and citizen status. How does that timeline compare with the legal process? Why is illegal immigration the easier route when it takes so long to get through the process, with the added fear of being deported back to the very country that your family was trying to escape? Is it just the fact that by immigrating illegally, people can earn American wages to pay for the process, while in Mexico it is harder to earn enough to pay for the legal immigration? What is it about the legal process that you feel should be made easier so that families like yours shouldn’t have to put themselves at risk?

    I ask because this isn’t something that I feel the media explains at all. There has to be a legitimate reason why people choose the risk of illegality over legal process, but that hasn’t been made clear. Instead, we’re stuck with this damaging, demonizing narrative that illegal immigrants are lazy criminals looking for an easy pass. It doesn’t address the root of the problem.

    Thanks again for sharing your story!

    • Zeus Vital

      Bethany, first off thank you for reading. Secondly I will try to answer to the best of my ability but keep in mind that most of my responses are influenced by my personal experiences and do not necessarily reflect all other immigrants experiences. Although many might relate. (Hope that makes sense)

      -Often times some immigrants do not come to America with the mindset to stay. Its more of a temporary thing to earn a quick buck but once they become accustomed to the lifestyle they settle and stay. In addition most immigrants are desperate and they cannot wait for the process to take place. They need money and resources now to provide for their well beings. The “Other side of Immigration” on Netflix does a good job of covering this. There is always fear of being deported but the reward and need far outweighs the cost. Im am not sure about the financial side of paying for legal citizenship but lets just say that its not the problem because immigrants pay thousands for ‘coyotes’ which are the smuggles or guides who bring the people across. The motive is for a better more sustainable life and to hopefully achieve the American Dream.

      As for making the process easier, honestly I am not sure. I am still trying to formulate exactly how it can be better.

      Truth is many are hard working people. Unfortunately they are conditioned by corrupt government in Mexico where they can not be trusted and thus think it might be the same here. This is why education and awareness to Immigrants is also valuable.

      I hope this helps. Please let me know if you need a little more clarification.

      Thank you for the encouragement!

      • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

        Thanks so much for taking time to address all my questions, Jesus! I will definitely check out that documentary on Netflix. Again, I so appreciate that you took time to tell us your story, especially since it touches on such a tense issue.

  • RinaMaduro


    It is very good and interesting to read such a story from an immigrant.

    I’m from Curaçao. And here also we have a lot of problems with illegal immigrant mostly from Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, and Dominican Republic. The process here is also very though, although I don’t think as though as in America. A few years back, the …
    I know that they are coming here for a better life and provision for their family here in Curacao or for families left in the original country. Here they have it so much better and get opportunities that in their home country they never would have obtain.

    • Zeus Vital

      Love your insight. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  • http://www.giraffesandladybugs.blogspot.com/ Grace Elizabeth

    AMEN! Perhaps we need to stop being so prejudice, and learn to love with a love that doesn’t demand, or expect, or think the worst, but a love that is unconditional, ever-flowing, and unprejudiced.

    • Zeus Vital

      Its so true but that is the tough part. I can only hope we can begin to see though the perspective of others and maybe then, we can achieve a love the covers those things.

  • http://www.facebook.com/idalia.castromartinez Idalia Castro Martinez

    Wonderful story. Well written. I am moved by many stories similar to yours. I pray that all works out for all the immigrants who are already here. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

    • Zeus Vital

      Idalia, love the support. Thank you for reading. Say hi to Phil!

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    Thank you so much for sharing your story! Immigration (illegal and legal) has been heavy on my heart since watching El Norte in my high school Spanish class. I actually wrote my ungrad thesis on multiculturalism using Esperanza from House on Mango Street. I’m so glad you could become an estadounidense. I wish there was an easier way for immigrants to legally come to the US.

    • Zeus Vital

      Me too Katie. Thank you for the support!

  • http://www.leighkramer.com/ HopefulLeigh

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us! One of the best books I’ve read on the subject of immigration reform and what a Christian response should be to immigrants is Welcoming the Stranger. I don’t know what the answers are but I agree that we can and should be working toward changing the system.

    • Zeus Vital

      HopefullLeigh, I will look up that book. Thank you for the support!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Katherine-Harms/602268732 Katherine Harms

    I know I sound uncharitable, but illegal is illegal. I don’t hate people who break the law to come to the US any more than I hate thieves or murderers. We are all sinners before God, so it doesn’t do to hate anyone, but the fact is that national laws are laws, not options. I am sorry that the process made anyone feel justified in sidestepping. If the law needs to be changed for the good of the nation, then we should change it. But I do not feel the least bit comforted to know that it is so easy for someone to simply act as if the law does not exist and then profit from the act.

    I have nothing against Jesus individually, but his story is replicated all over the place, which only makes me more dissatisfied with the federal government. Jesus is probably a great human being, and he didn’t ask anybody to bring him here illegally, so I am not castigating him. On the other hand, I am not condoning his life story, either. I think it is a crying shame that the US government is such a mess.

    That is the first problem. I think it is a crying shame that people believe that they have the right to disobey laws they don’t like. That is at the root of every criminal act: the law doesn’t apply to me, and I am smart enough not to get caught. This nation is supposed to be a nation of laws, not men. If Jesus had successfully appropriated a million dollars illegally and told the story twenty years later, nobody would think he was a good person for having done so, even if he used all his ill-gotten gains to build an orphanage.

    Jesus represents a problem that some people seem to believe Christians are supposed to solve by just loving one another. Some people seem to believe that enforcing the law is unloving. That is ridiculous. Law enforcement is not about love or hate. Law enforcement is about justice, and justice only stands strong when everyone is equal before the law. The fact that I really, really, really want a car I cannot afford does not justify my theft, and the fact that Jesus really, really, really wanted to be a citizen of the US does not justify his illegal appropriation of that status.

    Think deeply what this story means for the stability of the USA. Christ does not teach us to pick and choose what laws to obey. Christ taught us to honor government in obedience. The beauty of participative government, which is the forn defined by the Constitution, is that citizens can change it as necessary. However, when people can become citizens by avoiding compliance with the very laws that give them the right to vote afte they become citizens, there is something deeply wrong going on. I am glad I was able to read this story, because it gives the most personal perspective I have seen on the issue of immigration in the US, but I did not come away thanking God that this person was able to break laws with impunity.

    There was a time in the world when every nation was a nation under the power of a man who had all the say. People who pleased the man did whatever they pleased. A nation was a nation of a man. It was a great step forward when people rejected that idea and devised documents that stated the rights and responsibilities of every citizen. That meant people were not subject to the whim of any man, not the whim of a leader or the whim of a citizen or the whim of a non-citizen. All were equally subject to the commandments in the document. Our Consitution and our laws are our documents. Everybody — citizens, presidents and people who want to immigrate here — is subject to the Constitution and the laws. It is a tragedy of the greatest magnitude when the Constitution and the laws are ruled not to apply to some special person.

    • Zeus Vital

      Katherine, I thank you for taking time and reading this story. Despite where we fall in the spectrum of opinion, it is great to hear another person’s point of view. Although we might disagree and have different experiences with this subject it is good to know that it is on some peoples minds.

      I would love to answer any further questions that you might have.

      Otherwise, I woud like to hear if others agree or disagree. Ready, set, go…

    • Ricardo Cardenas

      Katherine, I understand your opinion that illegal is illegal, but in this case there is no
      cut and dry, black and white answer to this issue. Your comparisons to stealing
      a car and stealing millions of dollars are not the same as immigrating to the
      US illegally. Yes, they are all illegal, but does that mean that they are all
      unethical or immoral? Stealing is unethical, yes, but if someone is living in a
      place where the conditions are dangerous or unsuitable for raising and taking
      care of a family, is it unethical to move to a place where you can better
      provide for them? I feel like anyone in that position (Mexican or not) would
      find it very difficult not to take the opportunity to provide a better life for
      his or her family. Obviously this is a very big issue, with many things
      surrounding it, but the problem is that there is no black and white way of
      looking at this issue. It is not either “right” or “wrong,”
      because the issue is complex! We live in a country where we are fortunate not
      to have immediate dangers surrounding us unlike our neighbors to the south, but
      because we enjoy this comfortable living, it is sometimes hard to see it from
      the other side of the fence. What would you do if you were in that situation?

      Yes, Jesus does tell us to obey the law of the land, but Scripture also commands us to love our
      neighbor, receive the alien from foreign lands, and help those who are less
      fortunate than ourselves. So which command are we to follow in this situation?
      You know what I mean?

    • Rebekah

      Katherine, I disagree.

      First of all, during the time of Christ, the law said that an adulteress should be stoned. Christ ignored that law. Some laws of the world are in direct opposition to Christ’s law.

      Next, in regards to your comment: “That is at the root of every criminal act: the law doesn’t apply to me, and I am smart enough not to get caught.” I can’t see how this could apply in Jesus’s situation, as he was a child when he made the crossing. He didn’t decide to break the law. Immigrant children don’t grow up with the knowledge that coming to the United States is wrong. Jesus, as well as other children who are brought by their parents, aren’t trying to “not get caught.” It isn’t until much later that the dark fear of being ripped away from the only home they know sinks in.

  • Alice S


  • Emigdio Bautista


  • ajay

    The issue of illegal immigration is simply an issue of racism and greed. Millions of European Americans came to this country years ago either through the Mayflower or as Italians, Germans, Irish, etc. and they all received in one way or another there “papers” Immigration reform. Now those same people who 100 years later got there reform because really.. the only real Americans here are native Americans, wanna close the close on others simply because of the color of there skin. It is an issue of racism and greed. Imagine how the U.S would be if the U.S had not given those same Europeans who are now “citizens” there papers. America the powerful we would not be. It’s just people who got in through the door and wanna close the door on others. Its as simple as that. Greed and racism.