It was just before sunset on the Mexico-United States border, and 7-year-old Lisbeth Valladares was being coaxed by her guide into a floating wheel that would carry her and several other children and adults across the Rio Grande river into Texas.
It was the third time she and her mother had attempted to make it into the United States, traveling on foot from their home in El Salvador, said Lisbeth, who is now 15 and living in Manassas.
On their second attempt, she said she remembers being in a small, crowded boat for 14 to 16 hours before being caught by Mexican immigration officers and sent back.
Lisbeth and her mother were trying to unite with her father in Manassas Park, who left the family when she was 3 to find work in the United States.
“They put me inside the wheel. … I was excited because I knew what would happen after I got off the wheel. I remember we put all our clothes into a black trash bag; I remember laying there with the bag on my lap and my mom holding on to the float and other people (holding on) around it,” said Lisbeth.
The group, led by a guide who seemed to play a Harriett Tubman-like role, floated across the river and scrambled up the muddy banks of the Rio Grande and into the United States.
“Once we got there, I didn’t feel any different,” she said. “When I got off the wheel I was expecting to feel like, ‘Whoo!’ but I was like, ‘It’s over. What’s the difference?’ I didn’t understand the difference yet.”
A New World
The rising high school sophomore now understands how her world changed once she entered the United States, a place where it matters how you got to where you are.
Lisbeth said she's to the point where she’s ready to drive and ready to get a job, but she can’t because she doesn’t have “papers."
“I’m capable of doing great things. It’s just the setback of me not having papers. I know I want to go to college, but I’m scared I’m dreaming of something that’s not going to happen.”
President Barack Obama set administrative policies this month that, in part, temporarily allow undocumented people under 30 years old who were brought into the United States illegally by their parents to stay for two years and pursue a legal path to citizenship if they meet certain requirements, according to Huffington Post reports.
Lisbeth has spent most of her life in the United States living in Manassas Park, where she attended school and mastered English in three years.
The rising sophomore at Osbourn High is now in advanced English classes, but also has a penchant for robotics and math.
Lisabeth said she heard Obama’s announcement about the immigration policy the day it passed, but she is hesitant to get really excited about it even though it directly affects her.
“For a moment I was all excited, but then I was like, 'Wait, there has to be a catch.’ I learned kind of like the hard way — that there's a bad thing after every good thing and a good thing after every bad thing," she said.
Failed Attempt to Cross Over
After Lisbeth successfully made it into the United States on that floating wheel, she remembers walking through a Texas town right after crossing the Rio Grande and being caught by law enforcement and taken into custody.
“I remember just sitting there in a little corner praying the ‘Our Father’ prayer,” Lisbeth said. “We spent the night there. I would hear doors shut, doors open, screaming, pounding on the walls … people arguing with other people, like officers.”
Her mother had to sign several papers and they were eventually released.
“They just said, ‘Go back.’ They pointed in the direction we were supposed to be walking toward and while we were walking, we saw our guide, he was in one of the street crosses. He took us to a hotel," she said.
She doesn’t know what happened to some of the group who’d traveled with them, Lisbeth said. Others met back up with them at the hotel. Lisbeth and her mother never left the United States.
Third Time's a Charm
“It was rough getting here … all the times we tried, we were on land,” she said. “The first time, we stopped at Guatemala because we felt like we weren’t with the right person who was going to guide us. My mom didn’t feel so well about me being such a young age and being brought here.”
“The second time I felt was the hardest because you tried so hard — you tried and you were sent back,” she said.
Just before the third and final attempt, Lisbeth said she was more confident.
“It was me doing more of the supporting. By that time, my [mom's] self-esteem was low and she was like, ‘Do you really want to see your dad? Do you really want to go?’ And I was like, 'Mommy, we can do this.' I was the one pushing her on,” she said.
The teen said she remembers seeing her first white person in the U.S. and the intrigue she felt over his light hair and blue eyes.
Lisbeth said her father drove from Virginia to Texas to pick them up.
It was the first time she’d seen her father in four years.
“When I saw my dad, I didn’t know that was my dad. I would talk to him on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and Sundays too. I would only listen to his voice. I never pictured him to be a little, short man,” she said, laughing.
It was her father who called her out of the bathroom of their Manassas home where she was straightening her hair Thursday and told her about Obama's decision to set an immigration policy that mirrors the Dream Act.
She’s still excited about the possibilities the policy affords, Lisbeth said, and she’s willing to do whatever is necessary to be here legally.