When our kids were small, we had a nanny, a Guatemalan woman with a young daughter and a teenage son. My husband and I were employed at a big daily newspaper. The nanny and her kids spent a lot of time at our house. We told people they were like members of our family, though the real story was more complicated, as real stories always are.
The nanny’s story was like a lot of nannies’ stories. She had come north to be with the man she loved, but the relationship didn’t work out. At first, her plan was just to make enough money to return to Guatemala. But one job led to another, and she got a green card, and before she knew it, years had passed and she was the single mother of two extremely Southern Californian children. Her son rode a skateboard; her daughter watched Cartoon Network. At a certain point, going back to Guatemala just wasn’t an option. She became an American citizen several years after coming to work for us.
Her son was a 17-year-old high school student then. Quiet. Polite. Smart, too—college-smart, we’d tell the nanny, who’d just smile. Proud, we thought.
He was about six months shy of his 18th birthday when she told us the real story: Her son had been born in Guatemala and brought into the country as a little boy. She had left him with his grandma, had saved every spare cent to pay the coyote. For the first six years of his life, she’d scarcely seen him; when she had swept him into her arms, he barely recognized her. She’d never told him that his papers had expired, that he was here illegally. She had assumed they were all going back to Guatemala. Now, though, she was reading that her citizenship wasn’t enough, that at 18, he could be deported. Her boy, she said, desperately wanted to go to college. What had she done?
Southern Californians tend to see hard lines on immigration. You’re either here legally, many declare, or you’re violating the law. Breaks for undocumented kids, like the proposed Dream Act, annoy us. They remind us all that real stories stray outside the lines, that they can get complicated, that laws affect real people. People we depend on. People who depend on us.
I’d met an immigration lawyer once while reporting a story. Bring the boy in, he said, and make it fast. In minute detail, he rattled off instructions. Get his picture taken, in these dimensions, by this photographer. Get him checked by this doctor, by this date, no later. Take these papers, with these exact words, to this guy at the Federal Building.
The boy followed each order, nails chewed to the quick, with stunned, heartbreaking politeness. Then—scant weeks before he turned 18—there was an interview in a sub-sub-basement with this particular immigration official, and it ended. The boy was safe, on the right side of the hard line, his hands clutching a green card.
A dozen years have since passed. Our children no longer need babysitters. The nanny has moved to another state. The boy graduated from high school and enrolled at Cal State Fullerton. A clerical job at the big daily newspaper paid his tuition. Three years ago, the editors gave him a shot at reporting. Go cover this little city, they told him: the City of Bell.
Now Ruben Vives—the boy who was almost sent away—is a contender for a Pulitzer Prize for helping alert Californians to a massive municipal rip-off. He’s still too polite to tell his own story, but I persuaded him to let me tell some of it for him, because I wonder how many more kids are out there like him—good kids with dreams, who’ll make us all proud if we can just get past some of the hard lines we draw.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.