LAKE LEELANAU — For many, Christmas is a time for holiday songs, presents, family feasts and sacred ceremonies.
But it also can be a painful reminder for some that they can’t go home for the holidays — or perhaps ever.
So said Beatriz Cruz, who works with Parenting Communities. Cruz is an advocate for Hispanic families and makes home visits to eight Leelanau County families, although the number has been as high as 37 when her agency’s funding was higher. She doesn’t ask about the families’ legal status, but some talk about not being able to go home.
“I ask them, ‘What would you do if your parents fell ill or passed away?’ They tell me, ‘We came to this country knowing we might never see them again.’ I can’t imagine that,” she said. “It’s not like they’re coming here not knowing what they’ll go through. Maybe the knowing helps them a little bit, leaving everything behind and never returning.”
Cruz knows firsthand what they go through. Before her husband gained legal status, he couldn’t return to Mexico for five years, she said.
“I know during the holidays, it was very sad and depressing for him,” she said. “We were all celebrating and happy; my brother and parents were here. He had no one, so he was always like the Grinch.”
Cruz recently translated for a local Hispanic woman who illegally crossed the Mexican border 11 years ago, leaving behind three siblings and her parents. Three other brothers live in Florida.
The woman lives with her farm laborer husband and two children, ages 4 and 8, in a small, weathered apartment on a windswept road outside Suttons Bay.
“If it was up to me, I would go back,” said the woman, 36, who sat at a small kitchen table. “But it’s not just me now. I have to think about my two children.”
The woman said her children speak with their grandparents by telephone every Christmas and look at their pictures. But they’ve never met them. Her parents have health problems and the woman worries about them.
There once was a time when many undocumented workers would cross the border for holiday visits, but heightened border security is making the risk too great, said the woman, who has never made a return trip.
She misses her family celebrations of fireworks, staying up until four in the morning and going to the beach the next day. Close-knit family members live in a cluster of homes they call a ranch.
Now her small family often celebrates alone or with single migrant workers, if they need company.
“We had so much food last year, but there was just a lot left over,” she said. “Something is missing no matter how much we try. I am happy with who’s here, but there is still something missing each year. If I could just quickly go and come back.”
The woman was interviewed on a frigid, wintry day, too cold it seemed for her husband to be away pruning cherry trees.
“If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid,” she said, adding she’ll return to vineyard work in March.
The woman and her husband hope to gain legal status after their daughter turns 21 and is able to petition for them. But that’s 13 years away and a lot could happen, she said.
There has been some action. The U.S. Senate has proposed a reform bill that would provide a path to citizenship for migrants who illegally entered the United States prior to Dec. 30, 2011. Republican leaders in the House rejected the bill and are expected to create an immigration reform bill with tougher terms.
The ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.