- Gabriela Vazquez and her husband entered the U.S. illegally five years ago
- They found jobs, had two children and made a home in Montgomery
- Now, they are hurriedly packing to return to Mexico
- With new state law, "They can take me away from my children anytime," she says
Gabriela Vazquez maneuvers through piles of clothes and toys while trying to control her two small children.
"They never stop," she says, while pulling a pair of pants from an almost-empty drawer and deciding whether to toss the pants to the "keep" or "leave" pile. The decision is not an easy one.
Vazquez is attempting to pack five years of her life in the United States into only a handful of bags.
"I crossed over into the U.S. with nothing but my clothes, so I'm taking nothing, only my clothes and my kids," she says.
Vazquez began packing moments after a federal judge in Birmingham, Alabama, last week allowed most of the state's controversial law, known as HB56, against illegal immigration to go into effect.
The law allows police officers to check the legal status of people when suspicions exists, detain them and turn them over to federal authorities. It is described by both its supporters and its opponents as the strictest state immigration law in the nation.
"We expected the judge to rule like the other judges who blocked the laws in Arizona and Georgia," Vazquez says, referring to similar anti-illegal immigration laws approved in those states, with federal judges subsequently blocking the more severe parts of those bills.
"Now, they can take me away from my children anytime," Vazquez says.
Her journey began five years ago when she and her husband left the Mexican state of MIchoacan and headed north in search of jobs.
"In Mexico, it is hard to find a job. I'm 35 years old, and the ads seeking help say they want people between the ages of 18 and 35," Vazquez says.
"It wasn't easy coming over. We left our parents, our siblings, our family, and they didn't know what was going to happen to us."
The couple entered the United States illegally and headed for Montgomery, where they had relatives. They first rented a room in a mobile home with other families until they found jobs. Vazquez's husband, Marco, became a carpet installer while she jumped from job to job in restaurants, hotels and grocery stores.
They managed to save enough to move into their own place. Along the way, she gave birth to a boy, now 4 years old, and a girl, now 2.
"I was not planning on having kids, but here they are," Vazquez says with a smile.
A year ago they bought a mobile home that they renovated themselves. Vazquez proudly shows pictures of the transformation of the dwelling, and points out the kitchen cabinets she sanded and repainted. She also brags about her husband's work replacing the floor and walls, and the brand-new electric range the couple bought after the old gas one that came with the mobile home exploded during the renovation.
"There was a small leak and the thing just blew up," she says.
The final product is a two-bedroom house fully furnished for a family of four. A large wrap-around sofa fills the living room in front of an old model big-screen TV set.
A desktop computer sits on a breakfast bar that divides the living room from the kitchen, where a glass table for six can be found. All those belongings will be left behind unless they find a buyer soon.
Vazquez apologizes for the mess she says is caused by her efforts to pack as soon as possible.
The freshly painted walls have few pictures on them but the nails where many portraits hung a few days ago are still visible.
When her husband arrives from work, the two kids are happy to see their father, especially the little girl, who doesn't want to leave her mother's side.
Marco Vazquez is a reluctant participant in his wife's plan, which calls for her to return to Mexico with the kids while he stays behind to try to sell their belongings before he joins them. He would prefer to have his family wait so they can all leave at the same time.
"I ask her to stay just long enough so we can save the money to take the truck back to Mexico, but she has made up her mind," he says.
Gabriela Vazquez hangs up the phone. She has been talking with her mother in Michoacan, who is already planning for her return. In a matter of minutes she warms corn tortillas on the stove and makes her husband some tacos filled with cochinita pibil -- shredded pork in a red chili sauce typical of southern Mexico.
The little boy comes asking if they can watch a movie. He wants to see "Finding Nemo," but his mother convinces him to watch something else. "Nemo" is already packed away, but she doesn't want to tell him that.
"It is hard," she says. "I've been crying all weekend long and he cried when he saw me. He asks, 'Why do we have to go, why am I not going to school anymore?'"
She decided to pull her son out of pre-kindergarten the same day HB56 went onto effect.
Her fear was that she would be arrested while he was in school and authorities would turn him over to child-support services.
She says the African-American teacher cried when she told her they were leaving,
"I held back tears as she told me about the struggles the black community had fought in this same state," she says.
And she is not the only one to take her kids out of school. According to the Alabama secretary of education, more than 2,000 Hispanic children have skipped school since the law went into effect.
By nightfall, Marco Vazquez is playing outside with the kids. A friend arrives and Marco offers him a room to stay once his wife leaves. The man agrees but says he can only pay $50 a month -- that is, if he can keep his job. Marco agrees and turns his attention back to the kids.
His wife comes out with two bags full of clothes and tosses them in the back of the pickup truck, telling her husband to give them away. He takes a look and sees clothes the kids wore just a few days ago. He also finds a bag full of toys and a couple of strollers.
"Those were expensive," he says.
Gabriela Vazquez shrugs and goes back inside to continue packing for the trip.