Long before the issue of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) became a common part of the American dialogue, one part of my family was dealing with the same worries and fears that many young Mexican immigrants who were brought into this country as children are dealing with today.
My second cousin Bernardino "Bernie" Ortega was brought to the United States in the summer of 1959 by his parents Eustolio and Victoria Ortega. Eustolio was my father's first cousin and had made his way to Ciudad Juarez to escape the dreariness and hopelessness of poverty in Southwestern Mexico. Eustolio and Victoria had dreams of starting a new life in Texas for themselves and little six-year old Bernardino.
Upon arriving in Juarez across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Eustolio promptly contacted my father Salvador in San Antonio to ask for his assistance in securing the proper immigration documents. In the late 1950s, the immigration process seemed far less burdensome than it is today and the paperwork was often processed rather quickly. As Eustolio's American sponsor, my father agreed to help him by guaranteeing employment and a permanent residence in the U.S.
|Eustolio Ortega in Ciudad |
Juarez Circa 1958
Life in America
From the beginning, life in San Antonio for Eustolio, Victoria and Bernie was not easy. My father arranged for Eustolio to work as a laborer on construction sites around San Antonio. The work was brutal and difficult. Victoria began work almost immediately as a domestic worker. Living in a small rented house on the south side of San Antonio, the family seemed happy and eager to build a life together full of opportunity and promise.
But for Eustolio, the American dream seemed to fall way short of his expectations. Although he wanted desperately to succeed, he bitterly complained that his employers were often abusive and discriminatory toward him. He lamented to my father that his meager pay and disrespectful treatment by his supervisors were not worth the effort.
One day, he announced he would quit his job and return to Mexico. "Es mejor vivir en Mexico con respeto y dignidad que vivir en America como perro." "It's better to live in Mexico with respect and dignity than to be treated like a dog in America," he said.
Eustolio made his decision. But Victoria made it clear she was not on board. Victoria recognized that little Bernie's future was best assured by staying in America. The couple fought bitterly over whether to go back to Mexico but Victoria held her ground. Frustrated and angry, Eustolio raced back to Mexico alone.
For all practical purposes, Bernie was a bonafide member of our family. My parents enrolled him with us at Rayburn Elementary School. In Mrs. Steigal's second-grade class, Bernie and I both received certificates for being the best spellers. We all played together, studied together and traveled to the beach at Corpus Christi together. I always considered Bernie as my "brother from another mother."
Several years passed. One day, word arrived that Eustolio had died while living alone in Ciudad Juarez. Family members said he had found work as a street musician but had lived such a lonely existence that he literally drank himself to death.
For Bernie, life continued full of hope and optimism for the future as he entered high school. As a brilliant, straight-A student, Bernie became popular at Harlandale High School in South San Antonio. He excelled in every subject including English, Science and student politics.
By the time he graduated in 1971, Bernie was definitely on a sharp trajectory upward. There was no doubt he was headed toward great things in his life. My mom organized a wonderful high school graduation party for both Bernie and me where we were honored by our entire family. I was beaming with pride not just for my own high school achievements, but also for Bernie who had managed to overcome so many obstacles in his young life.
|Bernie as my Best Man during my wedding to Jo Anne|
November 24, 1979
At St. Mary's, Bernie made a name for himself engaging in various student activities in conjunction with his area of study, Political Science. He participated in spirited political debates and was credited for offering intelligent, reasoned and logical points of view to just about every political point he argued. I admired Bernie for his articulate and well-informed conversational ability. I was convinced Bernie was headed for greatness because he made it known to me that he aspired to be an attorney someday. I thought he was well-positioned in his life to become an excellent lawyer. I could not be any happier for my cousin.
Signs of Immigration Trouble Emerge
Short of college graduation in 1975, the first signs of immigration trouble began to appear in Bernie's life. The truth was that his immigration status was never clarified. His mother Victoria was actually an American citizen by birth, but Bernie's status was never established. Victoria had mistakenly thought that her American citizenship would automatically extend to her son. It did not.
Without an America birth certificate to prove his legal standing, Bernie was hard-pressed to prove he belonged in the U.S. Undeterred, he quickly embarked on what he thought would be a fairly uncomplicated process. An immigration attorney he hired assured him his application for citizenship would be expedited by virtue of his mom's citizenship. But that too was wrong. In order for the documentation to be filed properly, Bernie was informed he would be required to go back to Mexico and apply through the proper channels. That's a process that would have taken several years to accomplish.
Needless to say, Bernie was crushed to learn that in the eyes of the federal government, he was deemed to be an undocumented immigrant subject to deportation at any time. Bernie confided in me at the time that he was afraid and worried.
Things became even more unsettled when he learned that without a resolution of his immigration status and without an American birth certificate, there was no way he could further his ambitions.
A Career in Insurance Appraisal
Conscious of his illegal status, Bernie sought employment anywhere he could find it. He lucked out when he was hired as an independent insurance appraiser for a firm in San Antonio. Assuming he was an American citizen, the company's human resource office never asked him about his immigration status.
For almost 20 years, Bernie enjoyed a successful career as an insurance expert performing insurance appraisals for several firms in both San Antonio and Houston. His salary was more than he ever dreamed of and he lived, loved, worked and played as if nothing was amiss. He even bought a car and a home in Northeast San Antonio. The house was a fixer-upper for which he paid cash and which he lovingly restored over a period of several years.
By all appearances, Bernie lived the American dream. But in reality, he lived in a state of immigration limbo not knowing what turn his life would ultimately take. He often expressed fears of being deported to a country he knew little about and where his security, hopes and dreams would certainly go to die.
Hope For Resolution
By the 1980s, immigration issues in the U.S. had become a major political fight. A huge
But a sudden burst of hope appeared when Reagan announced that he would grant amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country. Again, Bernie made an attempt to establish his American citizenship. He hired an immigration attorney and restarted the process for full legalization. For Bernie, this was the gift he was hoping for. He thought with absolute certainty that he was finally headed down the path toward full citizenship only to see his dreams dashed once more.
A key provision in Bernie's formal application for citizenship was a critical signature from his mother Victoria. For reasons that to this day elude us, Victoria declined to sign the documents needed to push the process forward. Numerous times, Bernie begged and pleaded with his mother to help him but she refused to sign.
No one knows why Victoria betrayed her own son this way. I have often speculated that perhaps she mistakenly thought her own immigration status would be affected negatively if she signed. Sadly, the mystery has never been solved and attempts to speak with Victoria about her decision have always failed.
Without Victoria's signature, the process stalled. The deadline to apply for amnesty passed and all hope for a final resolution faded. Bernie was devastated. Once more he was left with little or no hope of ever becoming an American citizen.
Living in Hopelessness and Despair
Bernie continued to live and work under the constant threat of deportation. He was heavily burdened by a lack of opportunities due to his illegal immigration status. His inability to fully function in his community weighed heavily on him. With no proof of U.S. citizenship and no credit rating, there was little more he could achieve. It became clear that his inability to accomplish anything for himself would continue to limit his dreams.
One day, he learned that his work as an insurance appraiser was over. The firms for which he worked may have learned of his unsolved immigration status and he suddenly found himself unemployed.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Bernie barely survived. He worked variously doing odd jobs and at one time worked as a clerk at a convenience store. But again, his questionable immigration status led to unemployment.
Finally the worst thing that can befall any human being happened. Due to his inability to pay his property taxes, he lost his home and he became homeless. Living in his car, his existence turned to abject misery and hopelessness.
Bernie's Self-imposed Isolation
Sadly, our family was unaware of the desperation that had entered into Bernie's life. Many of us assumed he was doing fine. But without a telephone, cell phone, internet account or even a physical address, my family had no way of communicating with Bernie.
At one point, I contacted my sister Etna in San Antonio and asked her to make a visit to his last known address. We couldn't find Bernie and we feared the worst.
For weeks, we searched for Bernie. We scoured his old haunts. We called police departments, hospitals - even morgues - from San Antonio to Houston, all to no avail. I even contacted the U.S. Border Patrol to find out if perhaps he might have been deported.
I concluded that Bernie did not want to be contacted by family members, ashamed of how far he had fallen in life. Throughout this horrible ordeal, his pride stood strong and not once did he ask anyone in our family for help. I understood the sentiment but I wanted desperately to talk to him and offer my help.
Finally, after several months, we learned from my cousin Ruben Martinez that Bernie had been living with a friend in self-imposed isolation somewhere in San Antonio. His friend had taken pity on him and offered him a bedroom in her house. But Bernie's life had not improved.
An End To A Life Once Filled With Promise
|Tragically, Bernie died penniless and homeless on|
May 1, 2015. He was buried at a pauper's cemetery near
Von Ormy, Texas.
On the afternoon of May 2, 2015, I received a heart-wrenching phone call from Etna. Between sobs, she informed me that Bernie had passed away the previous night at the home of his friend. We later learned that a bad tooth infection had spread to his heart and killed him.
For most of us, serious health issues are normally resolved through access to proper health care. But for someone like Bernie who was forced to live in the shadows of society, there is no protection from the threat of even the most curable of health conditions.
It was the end of a life that was once filled with endless hope and optimism.
I was devastated and cried all afternoon.
How Our Country Failed Bernie
After nearly three years, I still cannot fathom Bernie's unnecessary and untimely death. Beyond that, I am angry that he was systematically deprived of the happiness and security he richly deserved.
Cousin Bernie was a product of the best of what America had to offer. He made all of the right decisions for himself and his family. He educated himself and he worked hard. He paid his taxes and he became a productive, contributing member of our community. He was honest and kind and never committed a single crime in his life. He was an incredibly smart and compassionate man. Those of us who knew and loved him are better human beings for having known his spirit.
But our country failed him. In my heart, I know that our government has it in its power to correct a monumental failing in the way it treats good people. Immigrant children who were brought into this country through no decision of their own should be granted full citizenship if they exhibit good character and contribute positively to the fabric of our nation. To me, it is what has always made this country great.
Just as the Dreamers of today are fighting for the right to pursue happy, productive lives filled with hope, liberty and a chance to help make the world a better place, Bernie tried desperately to overcome the political limitations that were so arbitrarily and so cruelly placed upon him. He tried as hard as he could to make things better for himself and everyone around him. Bernie was as much an American as those of us who were born in this country. The fact that he was born on the other side of an artificial political line on a map means nothing.
Bernie was a good man and he deserved much better.
Roy Ortega is a retired journalist and media specialist living in El Paso, Texas. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.