Almost half of California children have at least one immigrant parent, and about a fifth of immigrants in California are undocumented. The immigration struggles of parents have real impacts on children, including on their education.
In this episode, we bring you the story of a Central Valley dad who was finally able to return to the U.S. last month, after almost four years separated from his family by a Trump-era immigration policy. His return allows his children to work toward college degrees.
- José Luis Ruiz Arévalos
- Armanda Ruiz
- Elena Gutiérrez Ramírez
- Nathan Gutiérrez Ramírez
- Ignacio Gutiérrez Ramírez
- Priscila Ruiz Ramírez
- Erin Quinn, Senior managing attorney, Immigrant Legal Resource Center
Read more from EdSource:
- Family reunited after four years separated by Trump-era immigration policy
- How immigration policy forced a California family apart and disrupted their education
Education Beat is a weekly podcast hosted by EdSource’s Zaidee Stavely and produced by Coby McDonald.
Jennifer Molina contributed to the reporting for this episode.
Almost half of California children have at least one immigrant parent. And about a fifth of immigrants in California are undocumented. The immigration struggles of parents have real impacts on children, including on their education.
A couple of years ago we brought you the story of a Central Valley dad who had been undocumented but went to apply for his green card, and ended up separated from his wife and four kids.
And like, every time you come home, you’re just like, ‘Oh, I feel like something’s missing.’
Today, we’ve got an update to that story – last month, after almost four years away from his wife and kids, Jose Luis Ruiz Arévalos was finally able to return to his home in California. Here’s this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.
Ambi: Bus engine.
A bus pulls up in front of La Esperanza Market in Los Banos. On the curb the four Ruiz Gutierrez siblings are waiting anxiously. Thirteen year old Priscila is carrying a bunch of balloons – red, white and blue for the colors of the American flag.
Elena: “Somos los unicos que tienen globos”
Her older brother Ignacio holds up a big handmade sign. It says Bienvenido a casa Jose, and the number 1,366: the number of days their dad has been in Mexico.
As José gets off, Priscila jumps forward to hug him. And one by one, the older siblings join: Nathan, then Ignacio, then Elena.
ELENA: Once I saw him in the bus I was like, wow, this, this is real. Like everything I hoped that would happen, it happened.
Priscila pipes in.
PRISCILA: It was unbelievable.
This is Education Beat: Getting to the Heart of California Schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week: A family reunited.
This family has been separated for almost four years. Back then, the youngest, Priscila was 9, in third grade. And the oldest, Elena was a freshman at UC Merced. She was the first to go to college…a huge deal for her family. All her parents’ hard work had paid off. That first day…her whole family came to drop her off in the dorms: her three younger siblings, her mom, Armanda, and her dad, José. He’s actually the three oldest kids’s stepdad, but he’s helped raise them since they were little.
I think of him more like a dad. Because he’s always like helped me with like homework or stuff like that. Um, when I’m like sad or anything, uh, I call. He’s always reliable.
Her whole freshman year, the family visited regularly, about an hour from their trailer home in Los Baños. And then, that spring, everything changed. And then, that spring, José went to Mexico, for the final step to apply for his green card. He thought he would be able to come back in six days. And for him, even six days seemed like a lot.
Nunca nos habíamos separado. Si ibamos por un galón de leche íbamos todos en el carro…
We had never been separated before, José says. Even if we went to get a gallon of milk, we would all go together in the car. And I thought six days… what am I going to do without my family?
He never imagined they’d end up being separated for almost four years.
José thought he had all his green card paperwork in order. He had lived in the U.S. without papers since he was 17, some 30 years. It’s hard to get a green card if you crossed the border without papers, even if you’re married to a U.S. citizen, like José. So he and his wife Armanda applied for a special waiver saying without Jose’s income and emotional support, she would experience “extreme hardship.”
Yo no tenía ingresos. … por tener dos hijas deshabilitadas, una con problemas de salud mental y la otra por su nacimiento prematuro…
Armanda explains she can’t work because she has a full-time job caring for two children with disabilities. One of her kids, Nathan, struggles with severe depression. Her youngest, Priscila was born prematurely with major medical problems.
Pasariamos sufrimiento tremendo si el no esta ayudandonos en la economia del hogar.
Without José, she says, they would suffer tremendously.
In 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved the waiver. But when José went to his appointment at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, officials asked a new set of questions authorized by the Trump administration. They wanted to know if Jose or his U.S born kids had ever used public benefits.
José never had, but his kids did. Priscila has disabilities, so she gets Supplemental Security Income. All the kids had gotten food stamps and Medi-Cal. Because of that, the consulate told Jose he was ineligible for a green card. And suddenly, he was stuck in Mexico, far from his family.
At UC Merced, Elena’s life was turned upside down.
I was just devastated. I… Because he was the only one working at that time. So I didn’t know…
Elena didn’t finish that sentence …She didn’t know what would happen. But here’s what did. She dropped out so she could work to support her siblings, even send money to José, who was struggling to find work in Mexico.
The kids stayed in touch with their dad by video call.
FAMILY VIDEO CALL AMBI: [Ringing]… Papi!!! Como estas? Bien. Eso…
Cómo le explico a mi hija que es autista las leyes de inmigración?
Armanda says how could she explain the immigration laws to her daughter Priscila who has autism?
ARMANDA: …Él no puede regresar. No entiende el por qué…
Armanda says, He couldn’t come back. But Priscila didn’t understand why. She always drew pictures of the family all together. So, she says, the damage wasn’t just done to José, but to the whole family.
… Nos lo hacen a todos.
José’s absence affected Ignacio and Nathan too.
And like, every time you come home, you’re just like, ‘Oh, I feel like something’s missing.’
Nathan went to community college while working part time. Ignacio was a top student in high school, courted by Harvard and Yale. But he chose to stay close to home and attend UC Merced, in part because José was gone.
José was torn apart by how it was affecting his kids. I talked to him on Zoom from Sonora, in 2021.
Y lo más feo que siento, pues que le echan ganas a los estudios ellos. Y les estoy cortando las alas…
The worst thing is that they really put their heart into their studies, he says. I feel like I’m clipping their wings.
The Biden administration reversed the Trump policy in 2021. But José had to apply for a new waiver…get another green card interview…and it took almost a year and a half due to backlogs from the pandemic. In January, when José’s new visa finally arrived in the mail, he almost couldn’t believe it.
…y en ese mismo instante me fui a comprar el boleto del carro del camión.
In that very instant, José says, he went to buy a bus ticket. He told them, Give me the soonest ticket available so I can be with my family.
When José told Priscila he was coming back, this is the first thing she said to him.
Me dijo papi, quiero que vayas a mi graduación.
Papi, I want you to come to my graduation.
José had missed four of his children’s graduations while he was in Mexico. Priscila graduated from elementary school. She’s now in seventh grade. Nathan and Ignacio graduated from high school. And Elena graduated from community college.
If José had been able to come back in 2019, Elena would most likely have graduated from UC Merced last year. Instead, it took her three years to finish a two year degree at community college. She also worked part time jobs at a tomato packing plant and as a cashier at Big 5. Before José came back, she was starting to panic, trying to figure out how to get a well-paid job without a four year degree.
So to me it’s like, okay, now I don’t have to stress out this year and be like, okay, like let’s just jump into law enforcement. Let’s just jump into like construction. …It’s more like, okay, now I can slow down, think about what I like …before I jump in.
Now she’s thinking about maybe studying communications or Spanish at a four year college. For now she’s just enjoying her family being together. After José returns, the whole family celebrates.
Ambi family meal: Aqui en este comal, si alli nomas, dale vuelta alli, Esta caliente! …
José’s aunt ladles out pozole she made, and Jose and Armanda slice up pizzas they warmed in the oven. The kids play with a cousin’s baby.
Ambi: baby playing sounds.
Nathan and Ignacio can hardly believe their dad is really home.
I feel shocked right now cuz I’m not used to this. So I think all of us are just like, this is a fever dream and it’s not real.
Literally the day that he got his visa, I had a dream where he got his visa and I woke up crying because I had that dream.
Nathan’s finishing up community college now and hoping to transfer to UC Merced this fall, where Ignacio’s a freshman. Ignacio says what got them all through this separation was staying together,.
You always just got to keep striving for it, even if you fail. And that goes for a lot of things, and you can even say maybe persisting and going after changing immigration laws to improve others’ conditions. Because it’s not just us that’s going through this, it’s a lot of other people.
Before the Trump changes, only about 3,000 people a year were denied entry because officials doubted they would be able to support themselves. In 2019, the year José got stuck in Mexico, – a record 21,000 people were denied.
That number’s gone down since the Biden administration reversed the Trump administration’s policy. But the Trump era rules had a chilling effect. Immigrants are less comfortable leaving the U.S. to apply for green cards.
But importantly, what we’ve really seen is a long-term impact from the rhetoric and negative policies under the Trump administration.
This is Erin Quinn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. She says many undocumented immigrants are now less comfortable leaving the United States to finalize their permanent residency applications. And some families are less willing to apply for services that their U.S. citizen children are eligible for, such as subsidized housing, food stamps, and health insurance.
We’re now in a post-Trump rule landscape, but the chilling effect is still with us. In March of 2021, when the Biden administration rolled back the Trump era rules, a polling showed that only a quarter of immigrant families on the ground even knew that that had happened.
In José’s case, his wife Armanda never let up. She contacted elected officials, made sure the application was moving forward. But she knows not everyone who was affected by Trump’s public charge policies are in the same position.
José pudo regresar, pero aún hay esas 20,000 personas que quizá todavia ellos no han regresado.
José was able to return, she says, but there are still those 20,000 other people who perhaps have not returned.Music transition
On his first morning back, José wakes up in the family trailer in Los Banos for the first time in years, feeling like the time away was all just a bad dream.
Y sentí como que nunca había salido de allí. Y como que haya sido una pesadilla.
Jose’s trying to make up for the four years he lost. The first thing he does that morning is make pancakes for Priscila. Later, they play one of her favorite board games, Mustache Smash.
Ambi bigotes game: Papi… the black, the black, no, es tuyo es tuyo, you got it, I got it…
On weekday mornings he walks her out to wait for her school bus
Ambi: School bus pulls up.
He holds her hand, then waves goodbye as she climbs aboard.
Ambi: Bus engine revs.
It’s these little things that José missed most – the day to day of parenting.
Porque se levanta uno y ve uno que ya crecio un poquito…
He says you get up and you see they’ve grown a little bit, or they did something new, or learned something new. They’re just little details, but they stay with you as a father.
Jose can’t ever get those four years in Mexico back…when he felt he clipped his children’s wings. But now, he’s hoping to watch them fly.
Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat: Getting to the heart of California schools. A production of EdSource.
You can find my story about the Ruiz family, and a video produced by Jennifer Molina, at EdSource dot org.
A version of this story will air this Friday on The California Report magazine, produced by KQED. Thank you to Katrina Schwartz from KQED.
Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks this week to the entire Ruiz – Gutiérrez family, for sharing their story with us. Our CEO is Anne Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by Sobrato Philanthropies.
I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week. And subscribe so you won’t miss an episode.