Wednesday, June 5, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Anna Ledesma was well aware she was illegally living in the United States, but she spent most of her teenage years willfully pushing that knowledge to the back of her consciousness.
She had been in the country since she was 7 years old, most of the time living with family in Las Vegas. Except for later in high school, when her classmates got driver’s licenses and started looking at out-of-state colleges, she rarely confronted the limitations of her status.
In the summer of 2011, Ledesma joined some friends on a trip to San Diego after completing her first semester of nursing school at the College of Southern Nevada.
They were staying on a military base on Coronado Island, where the father of one of her friends was stationed. The girls came and went all weekend until they returned to the base late one night and a guard asked for identification from everyone in the car. Ledesma had a passport and no visa.
When the military police couldn't determine if Ledesma was in the country legally, they called Border Patrol. The diminutive, bespectacled student was in custody for hours while officials determined her status. Agents arrived to pick her up and make their way to a San Diego detention center, where Ledesma felt the full weight of her lack of legal residency.
“(Border Patrol agents) put me in the rear of a Jeep, and it was around 4 a.m.,” Ledesma said. “I just watched as we went over the bridge and I stared at the lights on Coronado Island and from the base where we were staying. I said to myself: ‘Oh, crap.’ I had no idea what I was going to do.”
She had never had a run-in with the law and was working on getting a degree, hoping that politicians would find a way to at least pass a bill targeted at young immigrants, such as the Dream Act, if not full immigration reform.
Ledesma was less than 20 miles from the Mexico border, the country of origin for an estimated 56 percent of all immigrants living in the United States illegally, according to the Pew Research Center. Another 24 percent come from other Central and South American countries.
Ledesma, however, is from the Philippines. She is one of the 2.2 million immigrants living in the country illegally not of Hispanic descent and often overlooked in immigration-reform debates.
Several groups, including community organizations for Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and Africans, have gotten involved in the campaign for immigration reform. On May 29, many came together to host a town hall forum on immigration at UNLV.
“I’d say 60 percent of the immigrants I see are Hispanic, but a healthy chunk of people are from other countries, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and also Africa,” said Rex Velasquez, a Las Vegas immigration attorney who represented Ledesma and also spoke at the forum. “The media tends to focus too much on this being a Latino problem. When people talk about illegal immigration, the first thing they tend to show is a Mexican. The reality is that the undocumented population consists of many other cultures and countries. The result is that we spend a lot of time focused on the southern border and those specific issues and not enough time on the other facets of the system that are broken.”
Yet, many of the reasons for coming to the United States remain the same for most immigrants: to find better school and jobs and reunite with family.
The reality is that immigrants arrive in the United States in a variety of ways, and there is equal variety in the ways in which they find themselves without legal residency. In some cases, the situation could have been avoided, but in many case, circumstances out of their control led to illegal residency and elusive remedies.
Here are the stories of Ledesma and other immigrants who have been caught in the quagmire of U.S. immigration policy:
When ‘home’ becomes foreign
Johann Lindmeier first came to the United States in late 1993 on a visa that allows for short-term stays for business and tourism. The German national brought his wife, Anita, and their three German-born children to the United States under the visa-waiver program, which allows people from certain countries to visit the United States without a visa for tourism.
Johann Lindmeier, a trained pastry chef and baker, was consulting with companies and also looking for long-term employment. In 1994, he went to Canada to explore prospects, but he returned to the United States with his family while he worked on securing the necessary paperwork to take a job with Baker’s Delight, an international chain of bakeries based in Australia.
The family went to Hawaii for a short stay while they awaited word from Australia that all of their paperwork was cleared. Anita Lindmeier was six months pregnant and started having contractions. Doctors managed to stabilize her and prevent an early delivery, but she was told that she could not fly until the baby was born.
While the Lindmeiers waited in Hawaii, all of their papers — passports, visas, Johann Lindmeier’s Social Security card, their checkbook — were stolen. Then their first daughter, Maria, was born. They had no papers and a new child who needed to get cleared with Australian authorities. The delay sunk the job offer, and the family was stuck in Hawaii without documents.
Between 1994 and 2001, the Lindmeiers lived in Hawaii. Johann Lindmeier picked up odd jobs and the kids went to school. The family struggled to find housing in the tough market and wound up camping on beaches for months at a time.
The Lindmeiers say they spent $10,000 on attorneys to extend the family’s stay and legalize their status. They claim they contacted immigration authorities and politicians and tried to work through both their expired visas and lack of documentation, but they received little help.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they initiated removal proceedings against Johann Lindmeier in June 2001. The rest of the German-born members of the family could be administratively removed without court proceedings because they entered on the visa-waiver program. The Lindmeiers claim immigration authorities came to arrest Anita Lindmeier in 2001, and it was not until her husband went to court that they started proceedings with him.
Johann Lindmeier appealed his removal order, but, as they moved around and often found themselves without an address, he missed two court hearings in two years and was ordered removed in absentia. By 2004, the Lindmeiers had obtained new German documentation. At this point, they had eight children, five of whom were born in the United States. They bought nonrefundable tickets for the whole family back to Germany.
Just before their flight, one of their sons came down with a viral infection, which he passed to several other family members. U.S. authorities thought they got on the plane to Germany, but a doctor had told them not to fly. They missed the flight and were taken in by friends in Colorado.
They spent the next few years in Nevada, including in Sandy Valley and a long-term stay in Pahrump. The children went to school while Johann Lindmeier worked at various places, including bakeries in Las Vegas. Johannes, the oldest son, graduated in 2009 from Pahrump Valley High School. Anita Lindmeier gave birth to their ninth child, Elisabeth. Meanwhile, Johann Lindmeier continued working on adjusting their status, to no avail.
After graduation, Johannes Lindmeier ran into the same problems as other immigrant children without legal residency. He was in ROTC but could not join the military. He could not find work and could not afford college.
In 2010, the Lindmeiers' U.S.-born son David fractured his hand and the family found it difficult to find medical care. It was four weeks before they found a surgeon to perform the work needed.
Finally, after 16 years in the country and several fruitless attempts to adjust their status, the family sought asylum in Canada. Six of their nine children were born in the United States and did not speak German.
In Canada, the Lindmeiers say, authorities convinced them to return to the United States, where immigration officials would help them. The family members say they agreed, only to be treated with hostility once they crossed back over the border. Johann and Johannes, the two adult males, were placed in detention. Anita and the rest of the children were released.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they then initiated the removal proceedings from a decade prior. Johann and Johannes Lindmeier were deported in August 2010, and Anita followed with the rest of the children less than two weeks later.
In Germany, the Lindmeiers' children, especially the U.S.-born ones, have struggled to find work and complete school. Additionally, they have been unable to find permanent housing, due in large part to the size of their family, and were taken in by a monastery for two years.
“We tried moving to Canada to give (our children) a chance to graduate and not be stuck with a foreign language they never really understood,” Anita Lindmeier said from Germany. “That was also the reason why we agreed to come back from the Canadian border to the U.S., because they promised to fix everything and help us. Then our children could have graduated high school instead of being stuck here in Germany without any diplomas, a messed-up education and no hope of a good future. … Our own country has turned into a foreign country for all of us, because in 20 years almost everything has changed here.”
They continue to yearn to return to the United States.
Puna — the Sun agreed to use her nickname because of her concerns over deportation — was born in Western Samoa, now officially called the Independent State of Samoa. Her children, on the other hand, were all born in American Samoa and thus are U.S. nationals — they have entry rights to the United States but cannot vote in presidential elections.
Puna, 52, worked as a tuna packer for the Starkist company in American Samoa for 30 years. After she and her husband divorced and her children moved to the United States, she found herself alone.
In 2010, she secured a visa to visit family, including some of her children, in Las Vegas. Puna also was suffering from kidney stones and received treatment at Sunrise Hospital.
Puna stayed in Las Vegas as she recovered and quickly realized she wanted to remain with her children and other family rather than return to solitude in Western Samoa.
When Puna, who does not speak English, entered the United States, she was given a form that allowed her to stay through April 2011. To extend her stay, she would have to apply before then, but she failed to do so and can no longer apply for an extension.
Now, like millions of other immigrants, she is stuck. She has no legal status. Because she has no valid identification, she cannot fly to see her other children in Virginia and Alaska. If she returns to Samoa, she could be barred for years from re-entering the United States.
“It’s absolutely true all the attention is paid to immigrants from Mexico and South America and their particular issues,” said Puna’s sister Faletolu Spencer, who lives in Las Vegas and is helping Puna work through the immigration system. “Obviously there are more Mexicans, and there is more of a voice in that community for reform because they support each other. But it is more common than people believe for immigrants to be here without legal status from outside those countries.”
Waiting for reform, becoming an advocate for change
Ledesma, 23, came legally to the United States, like Puna and the Lindmeier family.
In 1995, her dad emigrated from the Philippines on a work visa. Two years later, his wife and three children, including a 7-year-old Anna, followed on visas tied to their father’s work visa.
At first, the family lived with relatives in Las Vegas. In 1998, Ledesma’s mother returned to the Philippines with the two older siblings so they could attend high school and college. Ledesma moved to Connecticut, where her father worked as a construction supervisor.
Her father was having an affair, Ledesma said, and cut her off from communicating with the rest of the family. They eventually moved to Fort Lauderdale.
In 2000, Ledesma’s mom returned to Las Vegas and, with her relatives, searched for Ledesma and her father. When they found them, they flew to Fort Lauderdale and persuaded her dad to let Ledesma return to Las Vegas with the rest of the family.
After that, the family lost communication with the father. Ledesma's visa expired in 2001. Without her father’s information, she could not renew it.
Ledesma continued in school in Las Vegas. She loved art, but when she saw her aunt helping others as a nurse, she decided that would be her career, too.
Ledesma joined Key Club and other volunteer organizations. She went through high school sharing her secret with few people.
She received the Millennium Scholarship upon graduation from Centennial High School and started in the nursing program at College of Southern Nevada.
After she was detained in San Diego in 2011, immigration officials started removal proceedings. Her court date was set one year after her arrest. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama announced the deferred action for childhood arrivals program. Ledesma’s case was administratively closed as federal authorities focused on deportation proceedings for criminals, according to her attorney. Ledesma applied for deferred action in August 2012 but has yet to receive her work permit.
Today, she waits. She spends her days studying for her nursing exams without knowing if she will ever take them.
Velasquez, Ledesma’s attorney, believes Congress is closer to passing immigration reform then ever before, thanks in part to more organizations getting involved.
“That town hall at UNLV was the first time I have seen all these communities on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander side come out together and start speaking about immigration reform,” he said. “In the past, my sense was they always felt this was a Latino-dominated issue. They were reluctant to speak out because they felt our issues were so different from Hispanic groups, and they didn’t know how to express themselves. I think one reason for this political critical mass is because the Latino community is trying to lead by example. This is what we’ve done, and you need to do it, too.”
Here since she was a second grader, Ledesma considers herself American and does not want to redo her schooling in another country. She would love to visit her nieces and nephews in the Philippines but risks a 10-year bar from re-entry if she leaves.
“My motivation has been my family,” Ledesma said. “I wanted to work hard for them, and my thought process was just hoping for the best. I would tell myself that they’re not going to deport me because I’m a nursing student and I’m working really hard and I want to make a difference in my community. I’ve remained optimistic and put all of my anxiety into my schoolwork. … All the time, constantly in the back of my head, I think about being deported and having to start over. It’s just that glimmer of hope of even that 1 percent chance of getting the opportunity to move on.”