A Mexican Man’s Fatal Journey to Reclaim His American Life

A Mexican Man’s Fatal Journey to Reclaim His American Life


Originally published by The NY Times

 Belinda Luna, the librarian in this outpost in Idaho farm country, still shakes when she remembers a visit one day a little more than a year ago to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Idaho Falls. An immigration official informed her husband, right in front of her and their children, that he was being deported to Mexico.

“He told my husband to hug his family one last time,” said Ms. Luna, 41, wiping away tears as she stared at a video of the episode her daughter recorded on a cellphone. “Can you imagine the sadness for a father to be humiliated like that? That was the day my life began to fall apart.”

Her husband, Adrián Luna, 45, was a construction worker who had followed his star at age 18 to eastern Idaho, a bastion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the famous Idaho potato. He worked hard, paid taxes, raised a family. Ensnared in the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown and deported after that day in 2017 to Mexico, Mr. Luna lost no time in planning his return to the place where everything he understood as home resided: Wife, children, residence, job, friends, church. Obligations that did not go away with an order from an immigration court.

His wife got the news from her brother-in-law one day in July: Her husband’s body had been found deep in the California desert. He had made a desperate bid to come home to her, but had not survived the perilous trek. A team of volunteers, along with a reporter and a photographer from The New York Times, had found him.

The story of the Lunas, a family whose roots run deeper in Idaho than they do in Mexico, is becoming a familiar one. Deportations of foreign-born long-term residents are surging under the Trump administration, but as they reach into well-established immigrant communities far from the border, there is often little chance they will be permanent.

More than 15,700 people — nearly all of them men — were prosecuted in 2017 for trying to enter the country again after being deported. Though illegal re-entry is a felony, immigrants with children, homes and spouses in the United States often feel they must try, whatever the risk.

More than 40 percent of new immigration cases brought by the Department of Homeland Security now involve people who have lived in the country for two years or more, up from 6 percent at the end of 2016.

“Adrián was just one of us,” said Chad Harding, 44, a supervisor on the construction crew where Mr. Luna worked. “I know people say we have immigrants who are here illegally, they need to go, case closed. But Adrián supported his family, never made any trouble. What happened with him was wrong.”

At the town library, Ms. Luna works behind a desk near rows of books that include “Mothers of the Prophets,” about the women who gave birth to leaders of the Mormon Church, and “Go Forward with Faith,” a biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, the church’s 15th president.

Born and raised in this part of Idaho, she grew up reading such staples of the church after her father, eager to fit in, converted their family to Mormonism when she was growing up. He was among the first Mexican immigrants to put down stakes here in the 1970s, eking out a living by harvesting potatoes and recycling aluminum cans.

After Ms. Luna’s father benefited from the Reagan administration’s amnesty for millions of undocumented immigrants, the family focused on living as “real apple-pie Americans,” she said.

Adrián Luna had grown up in the state of Jalisco in western Mexico, but having been in the United States most of his life, his memories of his birthplace were receding, supplanted with new relationships and responsibilities. He had been at a quinceañera at the Shilo Inn in nearby Idaho Falls, to which Ms. Luna had also been invited. She asked him to dance. They talked in Spanish, and soon they were dating and dreaming of having a family together.

“He was skinny, kind of shy,” she recalled, “and I just fell for him immediately.”

They married in 2009 and she moved into his small trailer. His daughter from a previous relationship, Emilie, now 17, lived with them, and over the years, Ms. Luna gave birth to four more children: Ebany, 9; Aiden, 7; Dylan, 5; and Jayce, 4.

Mr. Luna remained a practicing Roman Catholic while his wife stayed in the Mormon Church. Like many of his neighbors, he liked to hunt elk and cut his own firewood. He rooted for the Seattle Mariners and pored over Craigslist for old car parts.


Some of Mr. Luna's personal items were sent to his wife Belinda.

They include the prayer book that he carried with him in the desert.

Mr. Luna had a sweet tooth, and would take the family to the county fair to eat tiger ears, a local delicacy of fried dough with toppings like honey butter. On weekends, they would pile into the family’s aging Chevy Tahoe and go to McDonald’s.

For years, she and Mr. Luna had been making routine visits to the ICE office in Idaho Falls in an attempt to regularize his immigration status. They had paid more than $10,000 to lawyers in this quest, and had tried to follow both the letter and spirit of the law.

As the spouse of a United States citizen, Mr. Luna could have been entitled to a green card, but complicating his case was the fact that he had been deported in 1992, and had illegally entered the country again. At what they had expected would be a routine appointment at ICE one day in August 2017, one of the officials told Mr. Luna that his time was up. Mr. Luna protested that he had been tricked years ago into signing the previous deportation order.

The official cut him off. “You entered the country illegally, O.K.?” he told Mr. Luna, as shown in the video of the encounter. “Don’t you try to fool me.”

Mr. Luna was jailed for weeks, then deported. He stayed for months at a relative’s home in San Martín de Bolaños, a town roughly the same size as St. Anthony, in Jalisco.

His wife said he became withdrawn, exhibiting signs of depression. He fretted especially about their son, Aiden, who was born with a heart condition and hearing loss. Sometimes he seemed to struggle to describe what he was experiencing, replying with just a few words to the text messages from his wife.


Ms. Luna at her home. “We weren’t rich or anything but he absolutely loved this country and the life we had built together,” she said.

Mr. and Ms. Luna have four children together: Ebany, 9; Aiden, 7; Dylan, 5; and Jayce, 4.

“No te pongas triste,” Ms. Luna told him in one message, trying to keep his spirits up. “Don’t get sad.”

“No más un poco,” he responded. “Just a little.”

Mr. Luna slowly began planning how to rejoin his family. He had been a much younger man when he originally embarked on a border-crossing odyssey; would he have the strength to do so once again? He thought yes. He bought Mexican presents, handmade belts and leather sandals, that he planned to surprise his children with back in Idaho.

Mr. Luna made his way in March to the border with Arizona, where he tried crossing and was quickly deported once again. Then in April he reached the city of Tijuana, on the California border. From there, he contacted his siblings, some of whom have legally resided for decades in the United States, in Idaho and in California, and told them that he planned to cross the desert near San Diego with a group led by a smuggler.

Mystery shrouds what happened next. His brother, Rafael Luna, 50, who lives in Southern California, said he heard that the group had to leave Mr. Luna behind after he showed signs of severe dehydration and exhaustion. This would not have been unusual: At least 412 migrants were found dead along the border in 2017, reflecting the perils involved as increased security near established crossing points pushes immigrants into more remote territory.

Rafael Luna delivered the grim news to the family back in Idaho. He sent cellphone photos of Mr. Luna’s Mexican I.D. and a prayer card with the image of St. Peter, belongings that had been found next to the body.

“I started crying really bad and fell to the floor when I found out about my Dad,” his daughter Emilie said. “But what could I do, stop my life?” she asked. “That’s not a luxury I have.”


The day after his funeral, Mr. Luna's mother Jesus Maria and his family prayed the "novenario," a traditional prayer delivered to the dead for nine successive days after their burial.

During Mr. Luna's wake, Ms. Luna brought their children up to the casket to say goodbye.

For a while, the family held out hope that the remains found in California belonged to someone else. The body found by the search party, after all, was so decomposed that it was unrecognizable. Wasn’t it possible that Mr. Luna had lost his I.D. card and then somehow became lost himself?

Then one day in July, even those hopes were shattered. Ms. Luna received a call from the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office, which had conducted DNA testing on the remains. At a family gathering over cheeseburgers, she tearfully told everyone the news.

“It was like he died again today,” said Randy Lozano, 40, a sales estimator and Mr. Luna’s brother-in-law. It had been unnerving, he said, to discuss his family member’s deportation with neighbors and co-workers in Idaho who support the government’s crackdown on immigrants. “That’s where we are now. Just think on that.”

Emilie described how fellow students at her school had chanted “Build the Wall” in the run-up to the 2016 election in support of President Trump’s contentious plan to construct a wall along the border with Mexico.

As the family prepared for her father’s funeral, though, she was reminded that she was not grieving alone. She got a text from a high school friend whose father was also deported to Mexico and had tried to return to his family.

“Hey muchacha, I’ve been debating about sending you a message since I found out about your dad,” the message read. “It absolutely broke my heart to see they found your dad but relieved that you and your family got that closure.”

The young man said it had been nearly three years since he and his family had heard from his father, who was presumably lost during a crossing similar to Mr. Luna’s. Since then, he said, they’d been trying to get on with their lives: working jobs, getting married, starting a family.

Getting that message helped, Emilie said. But not entirely.

“Sometimes I think I should be grateful, since finding my dad was like finding a pin in the dark,” she said. “But I’m not there yet.”


Emilie Luna, Mr. Luna's daughter from an earlier relationship, cried over her father's casket during his funeral in St. Anthony.

Friends and family released balloons during the funeral.

Read more:https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/14/us/immigrant-death-crossing-border-smuggler.html


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