From Undocumented to U.S. Career Diplomat

An FSO with USAID shares his story.


I had always been ashamed of my background and never spoke out about my past, but the recent focus on the importance of diversity has chipped away at the stigma and encouraged me to speak about my experiences.

After a meeting to set up a new diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) council for USAID/Somalia, I stayed behind to chat with a local employee. He talked about how it felt to start school for the first time as a teenager and other struggles he had growing up as a member of a minority group in Kenya. I shared something about my childhood, and we were both surprised by the similarities. A story that I had been hiding for decades started rising from deep inside. Before that time, I had only shared it with my wife when we began dating. I wanted her to know everything.

With the inspiration of many conversations and articles in this publication, I first told it as a bedtime story for my 4-year-old daughter. After she fell asleep, I stayed up for hours writing it down.

I grew up going back and forth across the border between Calexico, California, and Mexicali, Mexico. I was born in Mexicali, but with one parent from each side of the wall, I felt at home on both sides. It wasn’t until my mom had brain surgery in 1992, when I was 11, that my parents decided to settle on the side with better health care. Dad lost everything to take care of Mom. He scattered the kids with family members in Mexico while Mom relearned how to walk and speak.

Slowly, all her memories returned, and in six months she was ready to reunite the family. But we didn’t have a place to live, so Tía Lupe, from El Centro on the American side, offered to convert her stand-alone garage into an apartment. Tía Teresa, an architect from Mexicali, sketched plans to fit our family of six.

The day before construction started, the whole family came to celebrate cousin Luís, who was leaving for Army boot camp. He was 18 years old. I heard the grown-ups reason that if he was old enough to go to war, he was old enough to drink alcohol. So he did. He was hungover the following day when Tío José Luís assigned us to cut the two-by-fours. I measured and marked, and he handled the circular saw. I also had to take the wood scraps to the dumpster, so I held the scrap ends while Luis cut. On the last piece, Luis dropped the saw on my hand, and my severed ring finger fell into the palm of my hand.

I squeezed it with two remaining fingers and ran to tell Tío José Luís. He gave me a towel and ran to start the car. I was wrapping my hand with the towel when I met Mom on the way to the car. I did not want to worry her and pretended it was nothing. She saw the drenched towel and instinctively devised a tourniquet with a sock and a stick. I sat on her lap in the front seat of my uncle’s Astro van. My hand was burning and pulsating, and it took all the conviction I could muster to hold back tears on the way to the hospital. I did not want to distress Mom, who was still recovering from surgery.

Tío José Luís decided to take me to a hospital in Mexico that was at least 30 minutes away, not counting the wait to cross the border. He was concerned that converting his garage into an apartment without permits would create issues with his home insurance and the city’s building department. And besides, he said, “El niño no tiene papeles [The boy doesn’t have papers].” That was when I learned I was undocumented.

The officer denied the permit to go to Los Angeles, confiscated my border crossing card, and deported me to Mexico.

My great-grandparents migrated from Mexico to Chicago in the 1920s when my grandfather was a kid. They were legal residents. In 1936 the whole family, except for my grandfather, was deported. As the Great Depression saw unemployment sweep across the country, hostility to immigrant workers grew, and the government deported up to 2 million Mexicans, including citizens and lawful residents, between 1929 and 1939 through the Mexican Repatriation Act.

Grandpa followed his family to Mexico, settled in Mexicali, and went back and forth to California to work in newspaper press rooms. He married, and his children were born in America. The family stayed on the Mexican side to be near the deported relatives who could not return to America.

Although my father has birthright American citizenship, and all the rights enshrined in the 14th Amendment, I was born in Mexico and did not. At that time, the law was that citizenship only passed automatically if the citizen parents could prove they had resided in the U.S. for one year before the child’s birth.

In the mid-1980s, my parents hired someone they believed to be an immigration attorney in Calexico to process immigration documents for Mom and the four kids. Mom got her permanent resident card, but we kids were denied for using the wrong forms. Thousands of dollars went down the drain. We did not have enough money to reapply until years later.

The surgeon in Mexico did the best he could to save my finger. But the following summer, Mom took me to a community clinic in Calexico to see if they could fix my hand. They referred me for surgery at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Los Angeles. The nonprofit hospital even offered free transportation from the border to Los Angeles.

On surgery day, we went early to the U.S. Customs Port of Entry in Calexico to request a permit to cross the Salton Sea border patrol interior checkpoint. I had a border crossing card, a type of visitor visa, and was not allowed to go beyond 50 miles from the border. The immigration officer quickly found that we, indeed, lived in California, in El Centro. The officer also decided that I did not have the right documents to reside in America and that I could not live with my family. The officer denied the permit to go to Los Angeles, confiscated my border crossing card, and deported me to Mexico. (Whether or not the deportation was legal is another story.)

Mom pleaded, but the agent threatened to take her green card and deport her, too. I had to pull her in tears across the border into Mexico. The Shriners shuttle left without me (and it was 25 years before I got hand surgery).

It took three months to get smuggled back home to California. It was the peak of summer, when temperatures top 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the Imperial Valley. Crossing through the desert was out of the question, and I have never been a good fence-jumper. The weekend before starting high school, an aunt picked me up in Mexicali. She had my brother’s border crossing card and a few cousins in the car. We all crossed the border as if going to McDonald’s any other Sunday after church.

Dad hired a “coyote” van to take me across the interior border patrol checkpoint from Calexico to Irvine.

Now back in El Centro, I was genuinely undocumented. I had no pretensions that having a U.S. citizen parent could protect me from deportation. I avoided going out to play for fear of being separated from my family again. When most of my friends went out to play, I stayed inside our studio apartment reading. I worried every day about the border patrol taking my siblings or me.

By the time I was a freshman in high school, Mom had saved money to pay for immigration applications and lawyer fees for the four kids. (It wasn’t enough: We were evicted from our studio apartment for missing rent the month after we paid for the applications—but that is yet another story.) I remember the day we went to submit the forms in the Downtown San Diego immigration office as if it were yesterday. We left El Centro at 3 a.m. We were sure we were going to be the first in line. To our surprise, a dozen people were in front of us when we arrived at 4:30 a.m. After submitting the applications, all we got was a receipt that looked more like an old bodega cashier’s register receipt than an official acceptance of the applications.

I was always a good student but did even better with all that indoor time to avoid the border patrol. Still, Mr. Benson, my academic counselor in high school, advised against wasting money on university applications, saying kids like me are not allowed. I applied anyway to the three University of California campuses closest to my hometown and went to Irvine. I had a complete aid package with grants and loans but no ride to Irvine. Dad hired a “coyote” van to take me across the interior border patrol checkpoint from Calexico to Irvine. I jumped into the back of a van with no windows, with nine men who had just crossed the border illegally, and we headed north through back roads.

I arrived at my new life in the dorms, where I pretended to be an ordinary college student who parties and studies. I only understood how I slipped through the university gates a couple of weeks before the end of my first academic quarter, when I turned 18. I received a letter from the admissions office that explained I had derived residency from my father; but as an adult, I no longer qualified to be a student there. My world crumbled.

After classes that day, I took three buses to the Santa Ana train station. I took the last Pacific Surfliner Amtrak train to Downtown San Diego. Then I walked a few blocks to the Greyhound bus station and took the last bus to El Centro. I arrived home before midnight and went through the family files looking for the receipt, which had the application case numbers and a phone number to get status updates.

Armed with the “bodega” receipt, I searched for my application in every Naturalization and Immigration Services office in Southern California. It turns out that my application was archived by mistake and had been lost for a few years in a San Diego field office. To my great relief, I received interim papers just days before I was to be expelled from school.

I empathize with and relate to refugees and USAID’s beneficiaries because I have been in their shoes.

Those documents gave me the right to dream and the hope that those dreams could become real for the first time. I dreamt of going on a study abroad program. Unfortunately, I did not have the resources or the type of papers to study overseas, so I did the next best thing. I volunteered to build homes and schools across the border in the slums of Tijuana.

After graduating, I joined the private sector as a civil engineer. I worked on billion-dollar construction projects in Southern California but never felt I was using my skills to make a difference. Working to reduce someone’s commute through Santa Monica by 15 minutes doesn’t compare to working to end extreme poverty while furthering America’s interests abroad.

By then, I had my U.S. citizenship and all other requirements to qualify for a federal government job. Volunteering in Tijuana gave me enough overseas experience to eventually qualify for an interview for a Foreign Service officer position with USAID. I got an offer—no doubt, America is the land of opportunity. Today, after 12 years and five Foreign Service tours, I have worked in 17 countries. I count my blessings because many undocumented friends never got an opportunity to pursue an education and dreams.

I am better off for the struggles I went through. I think my life experiences make me a better development professional. I had slept on the floor, been homeless, used subpar health facilities, and been separated from my family as a kid. I empathize with and relate to refugees and USAID’s beneficiaries because I have been in their shoes.

It speaks eloquently about the power of the American Dream that someone that the government deported, a descendant of someone that the government expelled in the mass deportations of the 1930s, could be entrusted by the same government to dispense international aid and conduct diplomacy on its behalf.

Jesse Gutierrez joined the Foreign Service with USAID in 2010. He is currently serving at USAID Mission Somalia in Nairobi. He recently completed a Master of Legal Studies degree at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He also holds a B.S. and M.S. in civil engineering from the University of California, Irvine, and California State University, Fullerton. He is part of a USAID FS tandem couple and has an energetic young daughter.


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