For Eduardo Castaneda, 2014 has been a happy year so far.
He’s like any typical teenager — gearing up for the upcoming prom and getting ready to graduate. First, though, he’s got to earn his driver’s license.
Most importantly for Eduardo and his family, he returned to the United States after six months in his hometown in Mexico and a harrowing journey toward legal status and his chance at the American dream.
“I thought it was better than Mexico,” he said. “A better life.”
Eduardo came to the United States in 2009 at 14 knowing no English and without having seen his father in about eight years.
“Part of the problem was he wasn’t getting an education at all (in Mexico),” his stepmother, Amanda Castaneda, said. “On my part, I pushed a lot because I knew what we had here. I knew what Gainesville held for children that come that don’t speak English. They have an amazing program.”
Even facing the unknown, Eduardo wanted desperately to get an education. Within three days of arriving, he was enrolled at Gainesville High School.
“Well, when I was in school in Mexico, I (didn’t) learn a lot,” he explained. “The teachers there don’t really go into (specifics). I learn better here and have more classes.”
Eduardo grew up in Pinos, Zacatecas, a small city in central Mexico. He lived with his mother and older sister on a ranch with around 300 other people, where they worked in the fields picking beans.
It’s a place he wouldn’t mind visiting again in the future, but he plans to spend the remainder of his life making a life in the United States.
“We have more opportunities here than there,” he explained.
In Mexico, students begin what Americans would consider pre-kindergarten as young as 3, and continue through high school to age 17. As in the United States, the quality of education varies from community to community. Eduardo’s stepmother said she knew he wasn’t getting the education she and her husband wanted for him.
After coming to America in 2009, Eduardo spent the next four years learning English, making friends and generally adapting to life in the United States. Some of his favorite moments were spent in art class, where he discovered a proficiency in drawing.
“I like it all,” he said about his art, saying he especially enjoys drawing faces and landscapes. “I got the student of the month in art class (in May 2013).”
A DREAM denied
But once he turned 18 in January 2013, the Castaneda family knew Eduardo’s time in the United States was dwindling. His stepmother at first didn’t think the child she was raising like her own flesh and blood would have the opportunity to become a legal citizen.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, better known as DREAM, was announced by President Barack Obama in 2012 to allow children brought to the U.S. as minors to remain beyond high school. But it didn’t apply to Eduardo as he had not been in the country for five years.
For those who don’t qualify for the DREAM Act, once a person illegally in the country turns 18 he or she has 180 days to return to their home country or face deportation. Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer confirmed that while such cases are uncommon, it does happen to a few students in the city school system every year.
After seeking legal advice, Amanda Castaneda was advised to file a petition form for an alien relative, which would verify her relationship with her stepson. She did, then watched helplessly as his paperwork was pushed back in the backlog of immigration cases.
In July 2013, the paperwork still had not been completed and Eduardo returned to Mexico.
“I (felt) bad because I’m going to lose the schooling here,” he said about that time. “I was nervous.”
He missed Italian food and his friends.
A violent gateway
There was only one place Eduardo could go for a chance to enter the United States legally: Ciudad Juarez, across the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso, Texas.
Amanda Castaneda said she wishes people knew how difficult it is for those trying to enter the United States. Her stepson was lucky, she said, in that she and her husband were able to afford legal counsel. Many people can’t.
There also was another hurdle — the level of violence in the city Mexicans go to apply for citizenship.
Juarez was called “the most violent zone in the world outside of declared war zones” in 2009 by the Houston Chronicle. The U.S. Department of State gives it a “critical” crime threat level, though the number of homicides has dropped since.
The state department’s website links much of the violence to drug cartels, but “in some cases, innocent people are caught in the line of fire or are targeted mistakenly. Americans who travel to Juarez need to guard against robbery, carjacking, theft and burglary.”
In December 2013, a month before Eduardo was to go to Juarez, the U.S. issued a travel warning for the area.
It was a journey he took alone from Pinos in January. After making the trip and waiting there a week while going to the appropriate medical appointments, his stepmother met him there.
“The only benefit that my son had is ... he had a (United States) citizen filing for him,” she said. “It makes a huge difference. And when I say ‘huge difference,’ it can be between six months and 10 years that you’re on a list.
“You’re at the mercy of a very long, drawn-out system.”
Gainesville High’s Mandy Wade, the English for Speakers of Other Languages department chairwoman at the school, knows about the difficulties toward legal status in watching her goddaughter go through the process.
“I know that (Eduardo’s) journey to become a legal resident was long, arduous, dangerous and very costly,” she said. “So many people think it is just a matter of filling out paperwork, which is far from the reality of the process.”
In a heartbreaking moment, Eduardo was originally denied his application that day in Juarez. His initial reaction was confusion.
“After going through so much I think he thought everyone gets approved and gets to come here,” Amanda Castaneda said. “Now we know that’s the farthest from the truth.”
But having traveled the nearly 1,500 miles from Gainesville to a city known for its high homicide rate, Amanda Castaneda was not having it.
She got into another line and admittedly pestered officials there until the decision was reversed: Eduardo became a green card holder, given authorization to live and work in the United States as a permanent resident.
“I don’t think he actually believed it was going to happen until we were at the U.S. border patrol and they (congratulated him),” Amanda Castaneda added. The first thing Eduardo asked for when back in Hall County was for plain cheesecake.
On track to a diploma
Eduardo now is back at Gainesville High School and on track to graduate in 2015. He’ll be 20, but it’s important to him to have the complete American high school student experience, from having a cellphone to walking across the stage at graduation.
Right now his biggest goal is the same as most teenagers — get his driver’s license. He’s still waiting for his Social Security card to be mailed before he can take the driver’s test.
“Eduardo is currently in my English literature class,” Wade said. “I look forward to calling out his name when he is able to finally walk across the stage and get his diploma.
“The road to graduating high school, when English is not your first language, can be very challenging.”
Eduardo was at a loss for words when asked about his feelings about being back in the United States, but his stepmother quickly filled in the blanks.
“Blessed,” she said. “He’s blessed. We’re all very, very blessed.”