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A Life for Sergio

One Chilean family's struggle to save their child's life— and attain legal status in Memphis.



A few days before Thanksgiving last year, Sandra Araya couldn't contain her excitement.

"I'm going to make a big dinner," she said giddily, in broken English. "You know — turkey, sweet potato casserole, green beans casserole, mashed potato. I like to cook!"

Still beaming, she explained she's hosting her entire family, including her 24-year-old eldest son Sebastian and his wife, who no longer live in the family home, as well as a few friends. "It's a big holiday!" she exclaimed.

It wasn't that the Arayas never celebrated an American holiday before. They moved to Memphis 14 years ago and have acclimated to American life. Sergio, the 19-year-old middle son, graduated from Ridgeway High School. They have a comfortable home in East Memphis, and Sandra says they have grown to love "the people, the places, the food" of Memphis.

But the family had never celebrated a holiday before as legal American residents (or a lot closer to becoming legal American residents, in the parents' case) with the ease and optimism that status brings.

The Arayas moved to Memphis from Chile when then 3-year-old Sergio was suffering from eye cancer. The doctors in Chile told him there was nothing they could do. "He's not going to make it," they said. Sandra Araya remembers the doctors saying, "Just give him what he wants — toys, whatever. He's going to die." But the family came to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to see what could be done.

The doctors at St. Jude were able to treat Sergio, and he survived, but his illness left him with lasting medical issues He has only one eye, teeth implants, a thyroid deficiency, trouble swallowing, learning disabilities, occasional memory loss, and a higher risk for developing cancer in the future.

"The medical stuff was and still is very scary. It's just unpredictable, and that's what the scariest part is," said Sergio, whose wide eyes, tiny head, and pronounced features make everything he says sound earnest. The family decided they would do whatever it took to remain in Memphis, close to the doctors who saved their son's life.

But staying in Memphis meant living and working as undocumented immigrants. Though the Arayas came to the United States legally, their tourist visas didn't give them the right to remain here or to work or attend school. The Arayas abandoned their middle-class lives in Chile, where Sandra Araya was a stay-at-home mom and her husband, Adrian, worked in a university administrative office. They would have to work jobs that didn't involve government paperwork.

For their two sons born in Chile, this entailed growing up different from their friends — not being able to get a driver's license, a job, or in-state college tuition. For the entire family, it involved living in constant fear of the authorities and deportation proceedings. (The Arayas' youngest child, Max, was born here and is a United States citizen.)

In the past few years, the Arayas' troubles began to ease, somewhat. Their son Sebastian married an American, got a green card, and secured a stable job.

But the big leap forward came on November 12, 2012, right before Thanksgiving, when they learned that Sergio was among the first group of immigrants in the United States to win the right to work through DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — an executive order granted by President Obama in June 2012 that allows high school graduates who came here as minors and who have lived here for at least five years to work legally in the United States.

Now that their children were accounted for, Greg Siskind, the family's immigration lawyer, assured the Arayas that their time to obtain legal residency would come shortly, as Congress was considering comprehensive immigration reform that would allow them to legally remain in the United States. Or alternatively, if that didn't happen, they could go into deportation proceedings and more effectively argue their case to remain in Memphis.

"For now, I just want to take a big breath and just let everything sink in," Sandra said. "I have this dream that everything is finally settled down."

Sandra and Adrian Araya met in Chile, growing up as neighbors on the same street and marrying at 16. ("It was the sweet 16," Sandra said.) Their family and friends are from Chile, but they feel no attachment toward their homeland.

"Sadly, Chile is not my country," Sandra said. "I have sad memories, because I felt discriminated at every hospital. They didn't treasure my son's life, and I just have sad memories from all of that."

When Sergio was diagnosed with eye cancer, finding him the right medical support in Chile was difficult, at best. The doctor who performed the surgery to remove his eye declared afterward he only had a few months to live. When the doctor told this to the Arayas, Sandra ran from the room crying and screaming.

Then, Adrian Araya heard St. Jude mentioned on the radio, which Sandra considers a "very, very big blessing." They had difficulty convincing their doctor to give them the paperwork needed to fly Sergio to America and get him treatment. "The doctor was saying why would we want to bring him over here in America if he's just going to die? How are the parents going to make it over there if they don't know how to speak English? How are they going to make it economically?" Sandra recalled.

When Sergio finally arrived at St. Jude, he was in terrible shape. He was blind in his left eye and had scars and spots all over his face and body. The cancer was already at Stage 4, and he was given three days to live.

But that didn't stop the St. Jude doctors from trying to save him. Over the next few months, they performed chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and bone marrow transplants that got rid of the cancer. The Arayas moved back to Chile, only to return a year later, when Sergio became sick again. Doctors at St. Jude performed more surgery and saved his life again.

"St. Jude is and was amazing in every way," Sergio said.

Once Sergio was out of the hospital, the family decided to stay in Memphis to be close to his doctors. "I think that they made the decision at that point that they were going to have to work illegally and that they weren't going to be in compliance and just decided to take their chances. They figured that Sergio's health was more important than anything else," Siskind said.

"We had no clue how hard it was as far as immigration and things," Sandra said. "It's been a long road and full of tears and hardships."

Sandra went to work as a housekeeper (a job she still does today), finding loyal families who would pay her in cash and keep her immigration status secret. "I feel blessed because all the people I've worked for. They've been truthful and honest and nice with me," she said.

Adrian Araya has white-collar skills, but in America he was restricted to performing temporary, manual labor — cutting grass, factory work, construction.

There was also the struggle of getting to and from work, since undocumented immigrants don't have Social Security numbers and therefore can't get a driver's license. "I'm always scared of getting pulled over," Adrian says.

Johnna Bailey, an immigration attorney who works for Memphis' Community Legal Center, says many of her clients won't let their spouses drive or even leave the house because of this issue: "That's a real fear in the community. People talk about not letting their undocumented spouse drive or keeping them in the house because of that fear."

In the past year, the Department of Homeland Security has prioritized deporting procedures to target primarily undocumented immigrants who commit a crime. "It's gotten a lot better, definitely in the last few months, but look at the statistics," Siskind said. "This administration has had the highest number of deportations in history. There have been more deportations in President Obama's first term than in Bush's eight years." Siskind added, "I'm a loyal Democrat, but it's been a pretty rough time. There have been many, many cases over the year where people who have nothing criminal in their background have been approached in the middle of the night and taken away."

"It never really sank in that I was illegal, because I never was treated any differently until I got older, 17 or 18. That's when you have to get your driver's license and a job, and you have to go to college," Sergio said. He remembers feeling particularly alienated when everyone in his class had to fill out a slip to order their cap and gown before graduation, and they asked for your Social Security number. Or during standardized tests, when students had to fill out their Social Security numbers on the Scantron form. "I would always feel out of place," he said.

"I think any child, pick a child, and if they are different from their classmates, it makes them feel alienated and estranged," Bailey said. "And that's hard. It's not easy to be the obvious outsider."

After Sergio graduated from high school, he had to turn down a job his friend offered him at Domino's Pizza. And although he had the qualifications to get a scholarship from the University of Memphis, he couldn't complete his application without a Social Security number.

Even after he applied for DACA, he lived with constant anxiety that he wouldn't be accepted: "It was just a big question mark in my head. It was sad. It was frustrating. I didn't know what I was going to do. It was just wait and wait and wait."

The Arayas believe they should be allowed to legally remain in the United States. "It's not like we were coming over here with the idea of trying to work," Sandra said. "We were coming over here with a sick kid, trying to provide the things the kid needed to live."

And many Americans might sympathize with them. Siskind said, "I think the reaction that you get from the typical person would be, they really deserve a break. They work really hard and they are good immigrants and their families are not that different."

The reality, though, is that citizenship is not automatically granted to people with whom we sympathize. "Unfortunately, the compelling story still has to fit within the relief available with the law," Bailey said. "And that's really hard. You sympathize with the reasons they are staying here, but there is nothing legally we can do to help keep them here."

Siskind estimates that there are "tens of thousands of people in this region that are here without any visa status. Within a 200-mile range of Memphis, there are probably 100,000 to 200,000 such people." Prior to DACA, no law existed that would allow the Araya family and others like them to become citizens or even give them the opportunity to work legally.

DACA came at a perfect time for Sergio, because he was just graduating high school and desperately needed a job and Social Security number in order to enroll in college and pay for it. "It was very, very lucky because [DACA] has been talked about for a couple of years, and it just passed when he graduated," Sandra said.

"We had about three months' notice that the change was coming, and so we had time to get the application ready and file it on the very first day the program opened up," Siskind said. "He was one of the first applicants received, and it went completely smoothly."

On the day I interviewed the Arayas, just before Thanksgiving, Sergio had just received his Social Security number. "It feels amazing. Amazing," he said. "I can finally work, and I'm just happy beyond belief."

"Thank you, Obama," Adrian Araya said.

Siskind has created a strategy for the Arayas to live and work in America legally. Their first choice is to wait and see what happens with the comprehensive immigration reform bill. It is expected that there will be a provision giving illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before a certain date some form of legal status. "It could be a long path for [full citizenship], but the main thing is that they would be able to work legally and come out of the shadow," Siskind said.

Of great interest to the Arayas is that, as part of immigration reform, Memphis congressman Steve Cohen is proposing the Compassion Visa for Medical Treatment Act, a piece of legislation that would allow up to two immigrant family members to work while their loved ones undergo long-term medical treatment in the United States.

"It's kind of like an apple pie piece of legislation," Siskind said. "I doubt too many people are going to speak out against it."

But congressional legislation can be tricky (no immigration bill has moved in Congress in the past 10 years), and it's far from certain that any reform will pass. "Obviously, you can't make any assumptions that public opinion or electoral considerations are enough to get things to the finish line," Siskind said. "So we can remain hopeful, but I'm reminding clients that we have a long way to go."

Siskind has a back-up plan: get the Arayas into deportation proceedings and argue their right to stay in America in front of a judge. There are a few reasons for optimism: First, as Siskind said, "We have reasonable judges in this area." Secondly, the Arayas have a son born in the United States, which is a factor the judges can consider when determining whether the parents should stay.

But the courts in Memphis are so backed up that the Arayas could wait up to two years to get a court date. And there is a possibility that the ruling won't go their way. "It comes with some obvious risks, such as the judge will say no and you will get deported," Siskind said.

But if the older Arayas' path to citizenship is still murky, Sergio has already started rebuilding his life. He recently got engaged. He's secured a job in a marine shop in Mississippi that provides a stable income. And he's aiming to enroll in Tennessee Tech University before transferring to the University of Memphis, where he wants to study nutrition. "A few years ago, when I went to St. Jude, I was on the verge of having diabetes. When the lady talked to me, it impacted me. I think it's kind of cool to influence what people do every day and to make them healthier."

After a moment's pause, he said, "I would love to work at St. Jude. I mean, that would be my dream."

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