When Linda first saw Jose, he was hanging from the rafters of her house, working on the roof.

She’d hired the company that Jose worked for to complete renovations on her house. It was a 15-month project. Jose was there every day. The two started dating, and in 2003, Jose encouraged Linda to buy a duplex. Together, they fixed it up and turned a profit. A year later, they did it again.

Linda eventually quit her engineering job to work with Jose full time. Today, she handles the real estate side of the business. Jose handles the labor. There’s no project he can’t complete, nothing he can’t fix, Linda says of her husband.

“Don’t ask me: ‘can I do this or can I do that.’” Jose said. “Just tell me what you want done and it will be done, and it will be done right.”

Today, the couple owns 11 properties, including their home in Bay Park, valued at $800,000. Together, their net worth is $5 million. They have four step children, the youngest of whom goes to school in La Jolla, one of San Diego’s wealthiest enclaves.

In another era, Jose and Linda’s marriage might be the classic American story. The two met through happenstance, kindled a romantic relationship, and together built a life and home that overlooks Mission Bay.

Photo by Vito Di Stefano
Photo by Vito Di Stefano

But despite the financial security, Jose can’t use his real name or show his face in a story about him. Neither can his wife. That’s because Jose has been living in the United States illegally for 23 years. (At the family’s request, we’ve agreed to use pseudonyms instead of their real names).

Groups that advocate for hardline immigration policies argue the only way to discourage illegal immigration is through strict enforcement of existing policies. Failing to do so will result in increased immigration that will further strain public resources.

But Jose and Linda’s story shows that cracking down on unauthorized immigrants will affect more than marginalized members of the community working low-wage jobs. It will also impact those who’ve for decades lived peacefully in San Diego, built houses and contributed to the local economy.

And in some ways, many unauthorized immigrants contribute more to the system than they take.  Jose, for example, still pays income taxes every year, through an individual tax identification number. But he’ll never be able to benefit from the Social Security system he pays into.

In 2007, Jose and Linda got married. Linda is an American citizen, but she said that doesn’t help Jose’s chances of getting a green card, which would allow him to remain in the United States permanently.

Marrying an American citizen remains one of the fastest ways for immigrants to obtain legal status, or legally reside in the U.S. But after 1996, when then President Bill Clinton signed an immigration bill known as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, it became much harder.

Starting then, undocumented immigrants couldn’t change their status if they were already living in the United States for more than six months. The 1996 law also made it easier to deport undocumented immigrants, increased the penalties for those who came here without permission, and made it tougher for immigrants to get legal status.

For Jose, that means that despite the fact he has no criminal record and is married to a U.S. citizen, he’ll never be allowed to change his status and live in the United States legally.

“That’s why the ‘get in line’ argument makes us want to pull our hair out. There is no line. Don’t you think if there was my husband would already be in it?” Linda said.

The broken road to citizenship frustrates and discourages the couple, but it’s not their biggest concern. Until recently, longstanding residents and those without criminal records were viewed by immigration enforcement as a low-priority.

That’s changed. In February, President Donald Trump issued new enforcement policies which essentially did away with the priorities former president Barack Obama had established.

That made every undocumented immigrant a deportation priority. For Jose and Linda, it feels like a matter of time before he’s detained and sent to Mexico.

“When I call him and he doesn’t answer, when I text him and he doesn’t answer, the fear sinks in. Everything could be destroyed in a second,” Linda said.

Locked Out

The first three months of Trump’s administration sent waves of fear through immigrant communities across the nation, including the estimated 170,000 living in San Diego County. Local government agencies are still sorting out what the new administration’s policies will mean for them.

But Jose’s problems started back in 1998, when Border Patrol stopped him at a checkpoint on Interstate 8.

Had he known he was carrying bunk papers, he’d have avoided the checkpoint in the first place. But two years prior, a Catholic charity convinced him he could apply for political asylum and, for a fee, obtain a permit that would allow him to legally work in the U.S.

The application wasn’t valid, but Jose didn’t know that at the time. He showed Border Patrol agents his papers and told them there was no problem. They disagreed.

Border patrol detained Jose in January of 1998 and took him to Phoenix, where he’d await a court date. In May he agreed to leave the country voluntarily, and by June he was back in Mexico.

Had Jose’s case resolved a few months prior, he may not have faced as stiff a consequence as he did. But the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, known by immigration attorneys as “Ira-Ira,” increased penalties for immigrants who had violated U.S. law – whether it was criminal conviction or a violation of immigration law.

Penalties increased based on the time someone had been residing unlawfully in the country. Those who stayed in the United States for six months would have to wait at least three years to return. For those who stay 365 days or more, it’s a 10-year bar.

By the time Jose agreed to depart voluntarily, the time he spent in detention already put him above the 365-day cap. That means that when Jose agreed to depart the U.S., he couldn’t return for 10 years.

But by that time, Jose had three children from his first marriage waiting for him in San Diego. Leaving them to fend for themselves for 10 years wasn’t an option. So, a month after he landed in Tijuana and checked in with the U.S. Consulate, Jose came back.

But when he did, and unlawfully entered the U.S. for the second time, he triggered a permanent bar to reentry.

After speaking with multiple immigration attorneys, Linda believes the fact that Jose crossed the border a second time makes him ineligible for a waiver that would forgive his illegal presence if he can show Linda or their children would suffer “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” should he be deported. Proving that hardship isn’t easy. The fact that family members would be separated isn’t enough to prove unusual hardship.

Local immigration attorney Maricela Amezola says Jose’s situation may be a bit more hopeful than Linda believes. Even though the family doesn’t see it as an option, Jose may still be eligible to return if he spends 10 years outside the country. And if he’s detained by ICE, he may have a shot at relief if he fights the case in immigration court, she said.

The discrepancy highlights the complexity of cases involving undocumented immigrants. Each case is unique and tied to factors that include how long an individual has lived in the U.S and their ties to American citizens.

But on one point Amezola and Linda agree:  Under current law, it makes no difference who Jose married or how much he’s earned while living here.

“Someone could be married to the president and they would still be ineligible. And there is absolutely no sign this law will change,” said Amezola.

To Linda and Jose, those rules are unnecessarily draconian. To others, strict enforcement is the only way to curb future immigration.

“If word got out, from the White House on down, that the goal is to prosecute every single person who enters the U.S. illegally, and we don’t care if you go to jail for an hour or a month, we want the conviction on the record,” Peter Nunez, a former U.S. Attorney for San Diego and a board member of the Center for Immigration Studies, told Fox News.

“That is the greatest deterrent you can achieve to prevent further illegal entries not only by those people but other people.”

Broken Promises

In three separate rooms of their Bay Park house, Linda has hung portraits of former President Barack Obama, the way other families might hang pictures of Jesus or the Virgin Mary.

For eight years, Jose and Linda held out hope that Obama would forge a viable path to citizenship – or at the very least, keep Jose safe from deportation. But by the end of his first term in office, there were signs Obama could not deliver on his promise.

Photo by Vito Di Stefano
Photo by Vito Di Stefano

In 2014, Obama began shifting his focus to deporting immigrants with criminal records instead of long-term residents who had peacefully integrated into communities. “Felons, not families” was the operative phrase.

There were other signs people like Jose would see temporary protection from deportation. In 2012, Obama created a policy that deferred deportation action for certain young people who were brought to the United States as children, a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

And in 2014, Obama pushed to expand that to parents whose children are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Those changes would have protected 4.5 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, including Jose.

But ultimately, that effort failed, too. The matter went to the Supreme Court. But in June, the case ended in a 4-4 deadlock, leaving in place a lower court’s ruling that kept the initiative from going into effect.

Then came Trump, promising a “big beautiful wall” and riding a wave of nationalism all the way to the White House. He quickly went to work trying to make good on campaign promises to remove all 11 million undocumented immigrants from the United States.

In February, Trump issued new enforcement policies which effectively removed the priorities Obama had established for deportation. “All of those in violation of immigration law may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” it reads.

Put more simply, all undocumented immigrants are now a priority.

Vaani Chawla, a local immigration attorney, said in the past three months she’s seen a spike in the number of calls she’s gotten from people who are frightened – including from people who have green cards and are following the law.

“Certainly the fear has increased. Even fear among people who aren’t doing anything wrong,” said Chawla.

“I think there’s a lack of trust in the system – a sense that the rules that were agreed upon for years may no longer apply. It feels like the sands are constantly shifting and that what is true today may not be true tomorrow. And that’s from people who are here legally. So you can imagine what it’s like for people who aren’t?”

Golden House, Golden Cage

Driving is especially tense for Jose. He’s changed his habits. He doesn’t drive to Los Angeles any more for business. He avoids interstate 8, the 5 and any other road that’s likely to have border patrol checkpoints. In fact, Linda and Jose don’t leave the county together much at all these days.

“It’s like I’m not living here,” Jose said. “I feel that way. I can have a house made of gold. But if I can’t leave the door, how much is it worth?”

Should local law enforcement stop Jose for a broken taillight or a routine traffic infraction, he may likely be able to drive away. Thanks to AB 60, which Governor Jerry Brown signed in 2013, Jose has a valid driver’s license. The licenses themselves give away Jose’s status – they’re marked with the words “federal limits apply,” which means federal officials aren’t obligated to accept the license as a form of identification.

But local law enforcement agencies generally leave enforcement of immigration laws up to federal agencies. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department policy is not to inquire as to an individual’s immigration status unless they have reason to believe that person committed a felony.

Undocumented immigrants who are taken into custody have a much greater chance of landing on ICE’s radar. ICE has office space inside county jails and access to records to inmates’ booking information. Agents can also interview individuals they suspect are here illegally and ask to be notified when the inmate is up for release.

David Myers, a commander with the San Diego County Sheriff’s department who’s also running for Sheriff, said the mission of local law enforcement is to keep communities safe – a task that could be jeopardized if local law enforcement agencies are forced to act as an arm of immigration enforcement.

“If someone is in this country illegally, and has a criminal record, I don’t know anyone who works in law enforcement who’d say those people should stay,” said Myers. “But it’s the family that you describe. It’s the college students who were brought here as children. It’s the people who want to report a crime. Those people should not be a priority at all. We don’t need people living in the shadows who are afraid to report crimes when someone is victimized.”

But driving isn’t the only thing that puts Jose at risk. From the patio of their home, Jose can see the boat launch where he used to go fishing with friends.

Even before Trump entered the picture, the boat launch was a risky venture. Twice before, Jose said, he was stopped by plainclothes officers who patrol the coastline looking for smugglers. In both cases, Jose was able to talk his way out.

But he’s not willing to take that chance anymore. Recently, Linda says, they donated the boat to a local radio station. They won’t be needing it for the foreseeable future.

Jose has trouble saying what he’d do should he get deported and land in Tijuana. He worries about what would happen to his family in San Diego without someone to keep it afloat. And he worries about what – or who – might be waiting for him in Mexico if he were forced to return.

“My whole life is here. I don’t have anything over there. The only thing waiting for me there is fear,” Jose said.

With no legal remedy in sight, Jose and Linda have no choice but to accept the uncertainty.

“What makes all this worse is that I don’t know when it’s going to happen,” Linda said.

“Imagine, your life is going to crash and burn. You know it’s going to happen, but you don’t know when. It could happen tomorrow, it could happen in 20 years, it could happen when he’s 70. It’s like a life sentence.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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