An American dream, then a nightmare
After a Norwalk man watches son play in Babe Ruth Little League World Series, an immigration checkpoint changes everything
NORWALK — It was a trip that was at first euphoric, and then disastrous.
Jose Vasquez knew the risks. He understood that a trip to the U. S.- Mexican border area for someone in his situation could have serious consequences. He spoke to friends and family about not making the trek in August at all.
But whatever fear he felt was outweighed by a desire to see his older son, also named Jose, play with his Norwalk baseball team in the Babe Ruth Little League World Series in Eagle Pass, Texas.
“I found out where exactly the games were taking place. I knew it was so close to Mexico,” said Vasquez, who was born in Venezuela and came to Connecticut on a visa 17 years ago. “But I had to go because I didn’t think my son would’ve performed the way he did if I hadn’t been there.”
The team placed third in the tournament, and his son earned a spot on the all- tournament team for his play in center field. He was the only player from New England to receive the honor, and
the boy credits his father as a valuable teacher from the sidelines.
“I notice him a lot when he’s there, telling me what I did wrong, what to do better. He’s a good coach,” said Jose, a 14- year- old freshman at Brien McMahon High School, sitting in his living room at home on North Taylor Avenue with his father and his younger brother, Alan, 11, who clung to Vasquez as they recounted the events of that weekend.
After the games had finished and the awards were distributed, the younger Jose boarded the bus with his team headed for San Antonio International Airport. His father and younger brother were on a separate flight. It was early in the morning of Aug. 17, and the younger Jose nodded off during the more than two- hour bus ride. He was awakened by flashing lights, and saw that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer had boarded the bus and was asking all the passengers if they were U. S. citizens.
Immediately after the officer left and the bus rolled on, Jose called his father.
Seeking safety, stability
Jose Vasquez, 39, entered the country legally on a travel visa in 2001. He had a happy childhood in the medium- sized coastal city, Puerto Cabello, where he learned to play baseball as a kid. But when he was 13, his father was murdered. As he got older, Venezuela’s high rates of poverty and crime made it an unstable place to live. It’s gotten even worse in recent years, with widespread civil and political unrest.
“I never felt any direct threat, but obviously I was always fearful something might happen to me,” Vasquez said.
In 2001, a Venezuelan friend who had moved to Norwalk suggested that Vasquez visit Connecticut. He obtained a visa and settled in Norwalk. Within a few years, he was working as a house painter, met his wife and had two children.
“First when I got here, I felt like I fulfilled a dream,” Vasquez said, recalling American movies he had seen in his youth depicting the country as a land of opportunity. But soon he overstayed his visa.
According to estimates from the Pew Research Center, there were a little over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U. S. in 2014, down from a peak of roughly 12 million in 2007. They make up less than 4 percent of the population and, according to Catalina Horak, executive director of Building One Community, a Stamfordbased immigrant service center, the majority come in legally.
“What most people don’t understand is that of the roughly 11 million undocu- mented people in America, more than half of them are undocumented because they overstay their visas, not because they came through the border,” Horak said.
The U. S. State Department issues two categories of visas: immigrant, given to people wishing to live permanently in the U. S., and a non- immigrant, issued to people with permanent residence outside the U. S. here on a temporary basis.
Immigrant visas often require that a prospective migrant already have at least a family member that is a U. S. citizen, or an employer that is willing to petition on their behalf. Of the more than 10 million visas issued in 2017, only 559,536, roughly 5 percent, were of the immigrant variety
The vast majority of people looking to enter the country — almost 9.7 million in 2017 — are issued one of more than 20 different types of non- immigrant visa.
“People who overstay their visas are people who come with a tourist or student visa. When they enter the country, they’re given a stamp and told how many days or months they can stay. If they stay beyond that date, they become undocumented,” Horak said. “That’s Jose’s case. Going back to Venezuela is not an option. The reason why they resort to that is because there are no other legal options for them to apply. You can’t just extend. It doesn’t work like that, unfortunately.”
Because of a 1996 immigration reform bill written by Republican legislators and signed by President Bill Clinton, those who overstay their visas are subject to multiyear bars from entry.
Vasquez’s immigration lawyer, Glenn Formica of New Haven, declined to give specifics about his client’s visa, but said that if Vasquez had overstayed his by six to 12 months, he could be barred for three years. If he overstayed by more than a year, he could be subject to a 10- year bar. If Vasquez were to be issued a deportation order, he’d have to make the difficult choice of moving his family to a country in strife, or potentially not seeing his wife and kids for up to a decade.
“There really is a very narrow path to legal immigration and people don’t realize that,” Formica said. “All the draconian immigration laws that Republicans and Congress say they want to see, they already have.”
Life- changing checkpoint
That’s why, when Vasquez heard his son’s voice that morning in Texas, he immediately became concerned about the checkpoint.
“I was definitely worried since the phone call, because I knew I was going to drive past it,” Vasquez said.
Around 4 a. m., he and his other son Alan, got in the back seat of a fellow baseball parent’s car and started the drive to the airport for their early morning flight.
They were stopped at the checkpoint. When asked his immigration status, Vasquez told the truth. He and his son were asked to exit the car and, concerned about being separated from his son, Vasquez asked repeatedly that Alan remain with him. They were ultimately transported to a nearby detention center, where for 12 hours they sat together in a cell.
“At that point, I didn’t even know how I felt. All I kept thinking about the whole time is my son who was with me, and what my family would do if I was deported,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez noted how professional the ICE officers were. They fed the Vasquezes, let the father use his cellphone and kept the door to their cell open.
“He got very lucky,” said Formica, who was in Texas for a separate matter at the same time. “That particular part of Laredo and Eagle Pass, at least when I was there, it was a really nice group of Border Patrol. They were not like some other places I’ve had to go.”
Vasquez was told by officers, from the beginning, that because his son was with him and it would be difficult for a family member to come and pick up Alan, he would likely be released and allowed to return to Connecticut to fight his case. They were released that afternoon and returned to Norwalk the next day.
“Everybody says my son was my guardian angel that day,” Vasquez said.
In the months since, Vasquez’s community has rallied around him. A GoFundMe page was set up and has raised more than $ 5,000 to cover legal expenses. Horak and Building One Community have taken on Vasquez’s case and introduced him to Formica, a luxury many immigrants aren’t afforded.
“There’s an astronomical number of people who go to immigration court without legal representation,” Formica said.
Together, Formica and Horak are working to keep Vasquez in the country, where the majority of his family lives. But the threat of deportation looms large at the Vasquez house.
“I try to stay very, very positive for my children, so they won’t worry,” Vasquez said. “I’m just living my life. I’m very positive everything’s going to work out.”
For his age, Alan is friendly and warm. He spoke excitedly about the tournament and the success of his brother, who he idolizes, and made cracks at his dad as he adjusted an Eagle Pass baseball hat to fit his pre- teen head.
“This is my dad’s hat. He has a big head,” Alan laughed. “I hope my head doesn’t get that big.”
But when the conversation shifted to the hours after the tournament, and the half- day he spent with his father in a jail cell, Alan went silent. When prodded about the experience, he merely shook his head yes or no. He and his older brother have both tried to block out the more harrowing details of the weekend.
But as the conversation shifted back to baseball, he eagerly ran upstairs to grab his big brother’s trophy and his all- tournament team bat.
“I’ll always remember Eagle Pass from the trophy, the bat and the hat,” Alan Vasquez said.
Jose Vasquez, with his sons, Alan, 11, and Jose, 14, at their home in Norwalk on Wednesday.
Jose Vasquez, with his son Jose, 14, on Wednesday at their home in Norwalk.