Katerina Karrys Barron packed her two toddlers in the back seat of her gold Honda sedan and set course towards Mexico. She hadn’t slept all night, and it seemed like the months her husband was detained were an eternity.
Still, his deportation came sooner than she expected.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see him,” she said, as she got on Interstate 19, the highway that leads to Nogales, Arizona. She was in the last hour of a 180-mile drive to the southern border from Phoenix.
Katerina is 28 years old and was born in the US. She barely speaks Spanish. The last time she was in Mexico, she was 17, vacationing with her family in a beach town. This time, she was headed to Nogales, Sonora, to reunite with her husband who was deported hours earlier. She wore a pastel-colored, patterned dress with an open back and rushed to put on some makeup in the car after she pulled over at McDonald’s for the children to go to the bathroom. She carried some of her husband’s clothes in a duffle bag and a few of his toiletry items in a backpack. That would be just enough to keep him going before the family’s next move.
This is the third time that Jesus Barron has been deported from the US. But this is the first time the Barrons are going through it as a family.
Katerina knew her husband had a criminal record for driving while intoxicated when she married him in October 2015. He didn’t serve his full sentence because he was deported in 2013 before he could complete it. She fought for two years to help him close the case so they could keep the life they built together in the US. It took time for the couple to realize that — even if they followed the letter of the law from here on out — the only outcome would be deportation.
Jesus’s case underscores how undocumented immigrants get caught in a cycle of incarceration that goes from a local jail to federal prison as the government expands the prosecutions of immigration-related offenses.
In April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at the Nogales border outlining his plans. He opened with remarks about gangs and drug cartels. He said that federal prosecutors will be “required to consider for prosecution” cases of migrants illegally entering the country after having been removed “and a priority will be given to such offenses, especially where indicators of gang affiliation, a risk to public safety or criminal history are present."
Sessions’ plan is not unlike the Obama-era Operation Streamline program, which put people slated for deportation into the criminal justice system. But the Trump administration is looking well beyond border states, which means that more people with illegal re-entry on their record — not an uncommon charge for those with family ties in the US — could spend time in prison before they are deported.
“For those that continue to seek improper and illegal entry into this country, be forewarned,” Sessions said after touring the US-Mexico border. “This is a new era. This is the Trump era. The lawlessness, the abdication of the duty to enforce our immigration laws and the catch-and-release practices of old are over.”
Sessions' plan is a setback to criminal justice reform to reduce the federal prison population, said Carl Takei, an attorney at the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It essentially replaces the federal war on drugs with a federal war on immigrants,” said Takei. “Immigration enforcement officials can reach in and interfere with somebody's efforts to make things right within the criminal justice system.”
Over the last eight years, Jesus has spent over 180 days in jail, immigration detention and prison. Part of his time incarcerated was for breaking the law and another part was for following the law. In addition to the DUI, he has illegally re-entered the US twice. He didn’t show up in court when he was supposed to. And in trying to rectify his errors, he faced more prison time and deportation.
Cases like his, immigration attorneys say, are not uncommon.
“Unfortunately, most of this has been the result of decisions he made without seeking proper legal advice,” said attorney Ayensa Millan, whom the family contacted when Jesus was detained earlier this year.
Jesus was deported to Nogales, Sonora, on June 6, three months after Sessions gave his remarks at the border. He was among more than 18,400 people — close to half of them in Arizona — charged for re-entry from October 2016 through May 2017, according to an analysis of government data by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
By the time he reached his last court appearance, Jesus had spent four months in a privately run detention facility for re-entering the US illegally. And by then, he just wanted to get out of prison. He promised the federal judge that he wouldn’t return to the US. Katerina wrote a letter to the court saying that she would make sure Jesus didn’t return because she was prepared to move her family and build a new life in Mexico with him.
Judge John J. Tuchi told her in court during her husband’s sentencing that it was a remarkable thing for a spouse to give up her privileges to be in her country “for the sake of family unity.”
As he walked out of the courtroom in an orange uniform and shackles, Jesus glanced at his wife who was wearing a blue dress and a small smile. It was both sad and humorous, Katerina thought. Jesus’s brown hair had grown long into a kind of mullet. Katerina could make fun of him about it when she saw him again.
Recently, during a phone conversation from prison, Jesus told her, “When we get to Mexico, you can cry for two weeks and I’ll hold you.”
“It made me fall in love with him all over,” she said.
As she reached Nogales, Arizona, Katerina saw the bars of the border fence that divides Mexico from the US, for the first time.
“We’re almost to Mexico. That’s the border right there.” She pointed it out for 4-year-old Adero, who sat in a car seat in the back with his little sister, Sedona.
“Mom, are we almost to Mexico? The Mexico that Dad’s in?” he asked. “How many more minutes?”
‘We need to get you citizenship. I don’t want you to live in fear.’
On the drive to Nogales, Katerina recalled the day that changed everything.
It was a summer night in 2015, in the town of Payson, Arizona. Katerina and Jesus drove to a Circle K convenience store parking lot to dump trash they cleaned from their car. Seconds later, a sheriff's deputy pulled up behind them. They didn’t know that it is illegal to throw your trash away on someone else’s property.
Jesus remembered the chills he felt when encountering police officers on other occasions, the adrenaline that invaded his body. First, they ask for your name. Then, they ask for ID. Later comes the question: Are you a US citizen?
Jesus, 31, was living in the US as an undocumented immigrant. His family brought him from Mexico when he was 5 years old. In 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that might have given him temporary protection from deportation. But he was ineligible because, in 2009 at age 23, he was charged with an extreme DUI, which is considered a class one misdemeanor. He had crashed his car into a power box. According to police records, he said he had had five beers at a friend's house and fell asleep behind the wheel.
But Katerina didn’t fully understand her husband’s fears about police until that evening at the Circle K. She was almost seven months pregnant and watched him talk to the officer from the passenger seat of their Honda. She imagined how this encounter would end up.
“I literally saw my husband being taken away from my family,” she said.
Before Jesus could answer the officer’s questions, Katerina blurted out the truth to the deputy: Her husband had no license because he was an undocumented immigrant.
They got lucky. The deputy said he had no interest in deporting him and let them go with a ticket as long as she drove them back home. After that scary night in 2015, Katerina had a serious conversation with Jesus.
“We need to get you citizenship, I don’t want you to live in fear,” she said.
At first, he didn’t want to talk about it, but a week later he finally did.
“Now we have a baby on the way, and all of a sudden the fear of me going back to Mexico is more intense because now I have a family,” he told her.
After he got the DUI, Jesus showed up for his first court hearing in 2009. But he feared being deported, so he didn’t go back to court again. That triggered a municipal judge from the city of Gilbert to issue a warrant for his arrest.
“He didn’t want to be where he is at today,” said his mother Catalina Barron in Spanish. “I told him: ‘Son, you have to go [to court]. This is going to have consequences.’”
In order to have any hope of legal status, Jesus knew he would have to open up his 8-year-old criminal case and face the consequences.
“I thought we could fight it,” Katerina said. She thought, “Everything is going to be OK. We’re going to take the straight-and-narrow law route, and you’re going to face the music and everything is going to be fine because we did the right thing.”
But everything wasn’t going to be OK.
‘We were ‘Instagram perfect’’
Courtesy of the Barron family
After two years of trying to close his case, Jesus was detained when he showed up to a municipal court hearing on Feb. 10, 2017. The next day, he was sent to federal prison where he was charged with illegal re-entry.
At the time, Katerina was a teacher at an elementary school, and Jesus had a job at a restaurant and did yard work. But after Jesus went to prison, everything changed. Katerina moved out of their home in Mesa, Arizona, to live with her parents in Payson. She left college — she was pursuing a degree in special education — to focus on the kids because they were having a hard time without their dad.
“We were painting the house that we were renting and getting cute furniture. We both had good jobs,” Katerina said.
On an afternoon in April, Katerina visited her mother-in-law in Mesa. She was breast-feeding her 18-month-old daughter, Sedona, with her straight, blond hair pulled from her face into a ponytail, while she waited to talk to Jesus.
The phone sat on the sofa next to her as she waited for the call from the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex. The Barrons spent about $900 in phone bills over the four months he was in prison. Calls from inmates are made using calling cards purchased from the facility, which is privately operated by CoreCivic (formerly called the Corrections Corporation of America). Katerina put in $50 of credit every week in order to talk with Jesus for about 30 minutes a day.
A corner table displayed a picture of Katerina and Jesus, with her then 2-year-old son Adero, all three wearing shades of red.
“We were ‘Instagram perfect,’” Katerina said.
Adero, now 4 years old, roamed around the dining room and played with an iPad. It was hard for Katerina to explain why his dad was not around.
“I told him, ‘Dad wasn’t born in this country, and he was brought here when he was little. Grown-up problems happen, and now the government is telling him that he needs to go back to where he was born.’”
Adero countered, “I was born in Payson. Would I have to go back?”
Katerina grew up on the outskirts of Payson, a conservative town over an hour north of Phoenix. Her mom was a nurse, now retired, and her father is a firefighter. Many families in the neighborhood are Christian — Katerina’s side of the family considers themselves spiritual — and she says she was taught to embrace all cultures.
So, when they moved to Mesa when she was 16 years old, she made a lot of friends from Mexico. Including Jesus. It was during a Halloween party when they were in their 20s that they looked at each other “under a different light for the first time.” She was dressed like a dinosaur, and he put on a fake mustache.
“He was always there, and I’d always had this draw to him,” Katerina recalled. “And he didn’t talk. I’ll sit down next to him and be like, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ and he would literally not say a word to me, and I would tell him, “I just love these deep conversations we have together.””
Jesus grew up in Mesa, a city with a large population of Mormons, and he was baptized in that church even though his family isn’t part of the faith. As a kid, he went camping with the members of the church and had mostly white friends, his mother, Catalina, recalled.
He grew up oblivious to the limitations of his immigration status until he was in high school and kept being turned down for jobs. He didn’t have steady work so he wanted to go to college to better his chances, but higher education seemed out of reach. When he was 20 years old, a new Arizona law required undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition, three times more than what residents pay.
“Growing up and not having as many opportunities takes a toll on you,” Jesus said on a call from the prison. “It breaks you down, realizing that you can’t go to college or get a license or get a bank account. Simple things like that just take a toll on you.”
His mom, Catalina, said he was angry then. He just wanted to be like the other kids.
In 2011, Jesus decided to return to Mexico on his own, to Villa las Nieves, Durango, where he was born.
“I thought I could go to school, just go down there and everything would be easy,” he said. “But once I went to Nogales and crossed the border, I realized I had made a huge mistake.”
Most people his age had left Villa las Nieves. And those who lived there treated Jesus — with his limited Spanish — as an American outsider. After trying for a few months, he found no work opportunities and illegally crossed the border to return to the US. He was detained and deported for the first time.
But he was desperate to return to his mother and siblings. He tried again and eventually made it across.
The second time he was deported was in 2013. He had been drinking with friends in Phoenix and, instead of driving, slept in his car. A resident of the neighborhood reported him to the police, and the old warrant for his arrest popped up.
A judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail for his pending DUI charges. He was also ordered to go to alcohol counseling and pay close to $48,000 in restitution to the electrical company for damaging a power box back in 2009. After 60 days, though, he was deported, which prevented him from paying the fees and going to counseling.
That failure to complete his sentence triggered another warrant he didn’t even know existed.
After this second deportation, Jesus and Katerina started to chat for hours on Facebook. With no prospects there, Jesus returned illegally to the US again.
Jesus started dating Katerina in 2014, 12 years after they first met. Things got better when they got together, said Catalina.
It only took a few dates for Jesus to include Adero, just an infant then. The trio went to a baseball game. Six months later, the couple was already talking about getting married.
“He told me he always wanted a family. He never saw the point in dating just for fun. He wanted something bigger,” Katerina said. That’s what she wanted, too. Jesus is not Adero’s biological father, but Jesus raised him as his own child.
They got married in October 2015. That same month, their daughter Sedona was born.
‘He has been permanently barred’
After their encounter with police at the Circle K in 2015, the Barrons began the process of trying to clear Jesus’s record.
“Let’s not be scared, let’s go to the courthouse and do it,” Katerina told him. “Let’s face our fear, and let’s just do it.”
Jesus felt the uncomfortable adrenaline again.
“I wouldn’t have faced this warrant if it wasn’t for my kids and my wife,” he said. “I would have probably just tried to dodge it for a while, for as long as I could.”
They thought that if his record was clean and if they sought proper legal advice, he could apply for legal status in the country. He is, after all, married to a US citizen.
It took them two years to accept that this was impossible.
First, they paid for the property damages from his 2009 accident. Jesus’s mother Catalina had been making monthly payments of $190 for two years. Katerina’s parents remortgaged their house to get a loan to help them pay the remaining $37,000. (The Barrons now pay about $200 in interest each month for that loan.) And Jesus paid $180 to take the court-ordered alcohol counseling class.
Then there were all the other expenses: attorneys, jail fees and $2,400 in bonds for the times he showed up to court to follow up on the case and was released.
A judge sentenced him to one more day in jail as punishment for not having taken the counseling before he was deported. But almost every jail in the state would turn him over to the federal government for deportation. Sedona was just born and in and out of the hospital because she had a structural abnormality that caused her to have a urinary reflex, and Katerina suffered from postpartum depression. Jesus needed an extension so that he could care for his family before serving the sentence. The paralegal working for their attorney told them she filed it.
A year and a half later, Jesus found out the extension had not been filed. On Feb. 10, 2017, he showed up again in front of the same judge knowing he could be arrested for not following court orders. According to court recordings, their attorney admitted that their paralegal — no longer working with the company — had made a mistake, but it was too late.
The judge had Jesus arrested so he could serve two days in jail, but he only spent one day there.
At about 5 a.m. on Feb. 11, Katerina got a frantic call from her husband that Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked him up from the jail. But he wasn’t being deported — he was being turned over to federal custody for prosecution. They charged him with re-entering the country illegally as a “previously deported criminal alien.”
These were the kinds of cases Attorney General Sessions would talk about re-opening at the Nogales border two months later.
That’s when Katerina went to see attorney Ayensa Millan. But there was nothing Millan could do to help them.
Because Jesus illegally re-entered the US after being deported, immigration law provides him no exception for coming back, explained Millan. “He has been permanently barred.”
If he had had proper legal advice at the time of his DUI, he would have been able to apply for an exception and potentially qualify for DACA, she said.
Katerina’s world crumbled. Days later, her ears rang with the questions from her own relatives: “But you guys are married and have kids. They can’t just take him away.” “Why isn’t he a citizen? Aren’t you guys married?”
She joined a local immigration activist group and confronted local senators about state immigration policies. But none of that could help Jesus.
“I was fighting for something that had no fighting chance,” she said. And Jesus worried that he was going to lose his family.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
He didn’t have to ask, she said. She reassured him, “Don’t worry, I’m coming with you.”
‘We all basically have what I will call ‘ripped-apart trauma’’
And just like that, the air changed. Instead of struggling to keep their life in Arizona, they started to dream of a new life together in Mexico.
They chose San Miguel de Allende, a town outside Mexico City that is known for being an enclave for Americans.
Katerina’s American parents have been practicing Spanish together with an app on their phones. Adero has been practicing, too. But it hasn’t been easy for them.
“We all basically have what I will call ‘ripped-apart trauma,’” said Lucy Karrys, Katerina’s mother. “If they were going to immigrate and just move to San Miguel, it would have been a glorious thing. But the ripped-apart feeling is devastating.”
Katerina found an apartment online for $400 a month and paid the deposit.
Friends and families donated $10,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to help the Barrons start over. But Katerina has only $3,000 left; she used much of the money through the months Jesus was in prison. Still, it’s not the financial strain that is most difficult.
“I feel it’s been easier for us. I have family members that are middle class,” Katerina said. “It will be harder culturally because I’m an American.”
She worries about her son Adero the most because he’ll have to start kindergarten in a foreign language. In a way, it’s like the reversal of her husband’s experience when he came to the US and struggled to learn English.
“All of my plans have changed. I don’t know if I want to be a teacher in Mexico,” Katerina said. “I prayed a lot for God to show us our path. I thought it was going to be different. But the end result for me was always to not live in fear anymore.”
She might explore becoming a doula, something she was always interested in. Maybe Jesus can go back to school and study to become an architect, she said.
Katerina parked a few blocks from the border fence, near the cybercafe where her husband had been communicating with her via Facebook. She crossed the street to meet him at a restaurant called Leo’s and looked around for a few minutes. Then she saw Jesus walking toward them. A manila envelope in hand. A brand new haircut. A couple of “I love yous.”
Jesus and Katerina hugged and finally, she broke down in tears.
“You can’t break down until we get to San Miguel,” Jesus said, joking.
It felt strange for him to be back in Nogales, Mexico, but this time at least he had his family.
“It’s weird,” Jesus said. “Being down here, I’m an outcast and being up there I’m an outcast.”
He knows he made mistakes that have brought him to this point. But he also feels he was in a battle he couldn’t win.
“The way they treat immigrants in the criminal system, they are set up for failure,” he said. “When I did pay for [the DUI], they left me with a class I couldn’t take. When I tried to settle that, I got deported again. It’s one thing after another, it’s frustrating. Nothing has ever been easy.”
Katerina interrupted him.
“I always tell him he belongs with me, so that’s all that matters,” she said. “I’m a realist. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be doable.”
Valeria Fernandez is an Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative fellow, part of the International Women’s Media Foundation. The foundation is supporting her upcoming reporting from Mexico.