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Denton County man, a legal U.S. resident and Mexican citizen, worries about his future

Profile image for Yolanda Flores Niemann
Yolanda Flores Niemann, For the Denton Record-Chronicle

Hugo Ramirez sits with hands folded on the wooden dining table in the modest three-bedroom Oak Point home he shares with his partner, Alicia Vazquez, a woman from Tijuana, Mexico. Their five children are all U.S. citizens. A portrait of a benevolent Jesus overlooks the table a few feet from the small kitchen where supper simmers on the stove.

Ramirez, 45, is a Mexican citizen but has been a legal permanent resident of the United States for 36 years. Shoulders slumped and head down, he looks crestfallen as he talks about an uncertain future during the President Donald Trump era of stepped-up federal enforcement of immigration laws.

"I thought it would get better," he said. "At first, I thought it was just talk during the campaign. But people are looking for someone to blame for everything wrong and we [Mexicans] are getting plowed over."

Hugo Ramirez of Oak Point looks at an award he received from the U.S. Navy for good conduct during his time in the service.DRC
Hugo Ramirez of Oak Point looks at an award he received from the U.S. Navy for good conduct during his time in the service.

Ramirez carries a prized "green card" that allows him to legally live and work in the United States. It has to be renewed every 10 years. Even so, he considers himself an American in every way despite his lack of U.S. citizenship. Ramirez served in the U.S. Navy from 1990-94 during the Desert Storm conflict in the Middle East. He flies a large United States flag on a tall, angled pole a few feet outside his front door every day.

And yet, he doesn't know if he will be allowed to stay in the United States, or if he still belongs here. Ramirez is currently unemployed and is working odd jobs to make ends meet while searching for a permanent job.

"Lack of citizenship is hurting my job search," he said. "I believe some companies are accepting applications only from citizens. I personally know people with less experience than me, who are citizens, who are getting call backs from their applications. I'm not hearing anything."

A series of losses

Life changed for Ramirez and his family when he got laid off from the truck assembly line at Peterbilt in Denton.

"It was my dream job," he says. It fed his unending work ethic and gave him reason to get out of bed every morning. It put food on the table and paid for extras such as the fees and uniforms for his childrens' sports activities. His favorite pastime is cheering them on from the sidelines.

Today, he relies on Facebook and other social networks and posts fliers to advertise his availability for just about any full-time job that's legal. In the meantime, neighbors call on him for all kinds of manual labor — mowing lawns, home repairs, cleaning out storage rooms and taking their junk to the dump.

Hugo Ramirez cuts grass at a house where the renters paid him $200. Ramirez, who was laid off from his job at Peterbilt, works temporary warehouse jobs and other odds jobs just to make ends meet.DRC
Hugo Ramirez cuts grass at a house where the renters paid him $200. Ramirez, who was laid off from his job at Peterbilt, works temporary warehouse jobs and other odds jobs just to make ends meet.

Ramirez has poured over job ads and filled out countless applications over the last year. But he believes his prospect of finding secure work dimmed when Donald Trump became president, riding an anti-immigrant platform and message that some Mexicans were "bad hombres."

Paul Zoltan, Dallas immigration attorney, says Ramirez has good reason for concern.

"There's lots of grounds of deportability; lots of ways people can be tripped up in the system," he says. Even though federal immigration officers appear to be focusing on deporting convicted criminals, Zoltan believes that Trump has created widespread fear that most Mexicans are criminals.

Dr. Mariela Nuñez-Janes, University of North Texas professor of anthropology whose research and community engagement focuses on immigrant rights, agrees with Zoltan.

"We're in a state of incredible fear constructed by the government," Nuñez-Janes said. "It's completely pervasive, and psychologically inundates every aspect of your life."

Failure to become a citizen

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Ramirez is one of 12 million legal permanent residents in the U.S., one-third of whom are of Mexican descent. For 36 years the green card gave him peace of mind that the U.S. is his home. He was a legal permanent resident when he enlisted in the Navy. One of his goals was to become a U.S. citizen while in the military, but it never happened.

Ramirez served as a Navy corpsman, the rough equivalent of a paramedic. He still recoils from memories of young men who lost limbs in war and still empathizes with Vietnam veterans who felt mistreated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and by society in general. He says a series of commanders, in effect, delayed his pursuit of citizenship.

"They kept saying wait until you get to a permanent station," he says, adding that he moved so much during his four years in the Navy that no station seemed permanent. As a result, he left the Navy with an honorable discharge but without his citizenship papers.

Hugo Ramirez opens the refridgerator door at his home as he talks to his partner, Alicia Vazquez.DRC
Hugo Ramirez opens the refridgerator door at his home as he talks to his partner, Alicia Vazquez.

As a civilian, Ramirez says he tried time and again to navigate the immigration bureaucracy, filling out paperwork and paying required fees.

"They cashed my check," he says with a smile, "but I never heard back from them."

It was one excuse after another. First, they told him he needed to give them more time. Then they told him they lost his paperwork, so he would have to start over. With green card in hand, citizenship didn't seem so essential. So, frustrated with the process, Ramirez quit trying to become a citizen.

Now, he regrets that decision.

"I wish I had persisted in getting my citizenship while it was not as difficult as it is now," he said. "I got discouraged. It was like I got my feelings hurt because I did everything I was supposed to do. I knew others were getting their citizenship without doing nearly as much as I did for my country."

In the meantime, his parents and siblings did become naturalized U.S. citizens.

"I'm the only member of my family who is not a U.S. citizen," he laments.

Life on the margins

Zoltan, the Dallas immigration lawyer, warns that citizenship status matters more than ever in 2017.

"Green card holders right now are protected by the law, but they're on the margins at the borders," he says. "I expect people to be treated worse and worse. It wouldn't surprise me if the administration redistributed assets to stall the naturalization process."

The processing of applications for citizenship are backlogged because the government is checking out immigrant backgrounds more carefully than ever, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C. Some types of family-sponsored applications date back to 1993. Employment-related visa applications date back to 2005, according to the institute's data.

Ramirez keeps track of the news and sees few good signs for immigrants. The Texas Legislature's passage of the so-called sanctuary city law earlier this month is yet another sign that immigrants appear to be targets for removal whether or not they are criminals.

Amy Fischer, policy director for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, recommends that Ramirez and others like him regularly carry documents that show they are in the United States legally. She calls it "an unfortunate reality."

"No human being deserves to live in fear," she said. "It's unjust."

Fighting despair and depression

Ramirez was born in Mexico and, technically, is still a Mexican citizen even though he was only 10 years old when his family suddenly packed up their belongings and left for the United States. His memories of Mexico have dimmed with time. All the family he knows — his mother, four siblings, multiple nieces and nephews, along with his own family — live in the U.S. He completed elementary, middle school and high school in the U.S. For all practical purposes — emotionally, cognitively, passionately — he is American.

Hugo Ramirez, left, and Alicia Vazquez help their son, Jesus Curiel, with a homework assignment.DRC
Hugo Ramirez, left, and Alicia Vazquez help their son, Jesus Curiel, with a homework assignment.

But now, his insides are churning. He reports fighting off depression that gets worse with every rejected job application and with the constant onslaught of news about the plight of immigrants in the U.S. He is even contemplating the possibility of moving to Mexico, following the path of more than a million Mexicans who have left their adopted country — the United States of America — in the last six years.

Ramirez listens to and reads any news related to the fate of persons of Mexican descent in the U.S. He regularly peruses Facebook to get a feel for the extent to which he's welcomed in his community. He sees some hate, such as "wetbacks go home," not aimed directly at him but aimed generally at persons of Mexican descent.

He watches the History Channel's regular documentaries on Nazi Germany and wonders whether the current racial climate is analogous to fascist regimes prior to World War II.

"Neighbors turned against neighbors, even when they they'd lived next to one another for years," he says.

Ramirez feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. He could easily get a job in Mexico, where his bilingual skills and knowledge of the U.S. make him highly employable. However, crossing the border has become traumatic and is not as easy as it once was. If he dares to cross, will he be able to return? If he accepts jobs in Mexico, when will he see his family again? Would he ever get to cheer on his children at their soccer games?

Zoltan warns that it has become increasingly difficult to return to the U.S. from Mexico.

"Egregious violations of privacy are happening at border crossings, like asking people for private codes to their cell phones," he says.

Anxiety covers Ramirez like a like a heavy coat. While he has never committed a crime, he still fears getting thrown out of the country. He feels no control over his future. But he tries to stay hopeful. He says the right words, "Everything will be fine. You'll see." One wonders who he's trying to convince.

Where does this situation leave him?

"I want to live where I feel valued and wanted, where I can make a difference for others," he says with a tiny hint of a Mexican accent.

Dejected, he slides his wallet out of his jeans and takes out his Navy identification — the Geneva Conventions Identification card of the Armed Forces of the United States.

"I'm very proud of serving in the Navy," he says. "The Navy helped shape who I am. I am a proud American," Ramirez says. "I am a proud Mexican American."

And the American flag continues to fly outside his home.

FEATURED PHOTO: Hugo Ramirez, 45, has been a legal resident of the United States since he was 9 years old. He also is a Mexican citizen who has to work temporary warehouse jobs and local jobs around the Oak Point area to make ends meet. He says he has a tough time finding work because he believes employers will now only hire U.S. citizens in the era of President Donald Trump.
Tomas Gonzalez/DRC