Family Portrait: Claudia and Mike
Posted June 2021
This is the second photo essay in Emerson Collective’s Family Portrait series spotlighting real families who are affected by our broken immigration system.
This photo essay was first published in 2018. In May 2021, Claudia shared an update:
“At the beginning of the year, I was a month without work because my work permit was late. It was not a very nice experience because it reminded me what it was like to be without DACA — I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t work. But, we also just bought a house in New Jersey! Thanks for sharing my story.”
Claudia Paz and Mike Llewellyn had been dating for several months when he came to her with a proposition. He was planning to move from Miami, where the couple met, back to his home in central Pennsylvania to be closer to his family. Would Claudia go with him?
Claudia was born in Honduras and spent all of her adult life in Miami — a city defined by its vibrant Latin culture. Her mother and young brother were there. Though she’s fluent now, Claudia didn’t learn English until she was a teenager. The transition to rural Pennsylvania, with its cold winters and traditional Amish community, would be a big one.
“We hadn’t been together that long, but I knew it was something serious,” Mike recalls. “The situation was a little dicey. I wasn’t sure if she was going to move.” But to both of their delights, Claudia agreed to go.
A couple of years later, they’re married and renting a one-bedroom apartment minutes away from downtown Lancaster.
“The weather’s different, the culture’s different, but we’ve loved Lancaster,” Claudia says.
They cook dinner at home most evenings, and they host game nights with friends (where Claudia’s inner competitive streak comes out). On weekends they go to the movies, take the train to visit museums in Philly, or drive to Baltimore to catch the Orioles or the Ravens (Mike’s favorite pro sports teams).
A natural caretaker, Claudia immediately got involved in the local community. She began nannying for a young family with a baby boy named Henry — he would later toss out flower petals at Claudia and Mike’s wedding. She dove into volunteering to help kids with behavioral and emotional issues. Today she’s part of an organization that advocates in court on behalf of foster kids who have been abused or neglected, and she plays a strong leadership role in a social and support group for young immigrants.
It wasn’t until the 2016 presidential election that Claudia and Mike began worrying about her immigration status.
"Oh My God, We're Here."
Claudia was born in Honduras and came to the United States with her mother when she was 14, making the heart-wrenching choice to leave her three younger siblings behind in hopes of finding education and jobs that would allow them to send money back.
The journey north was harrowing. They walked for days at a time, repeatedly handed off between often-cruel coyotes who smuggled them with other refugees. They were instilled with paralyzing fears of la migra, the immigration police. Claudia was separated from her mother. She was ransomed for money. She fainted from fear and exhaustion. She was threatened with sexual violence. Kidnapped. After a month, she finally made it to the United States.
“I remember seeing the American Flag,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, we’re here.’”
But as horrifying as her experience was, Claudia’s story is not unique — and it’s certainly not enough to deter others from making the same journey.
“My story, believe it or not, is not that bad,” she says. “These stories, they do come back to Honduras. But for a lot of people, either you die there, or you die on the way to a better life.”
After making it to the United States, Claudia lived in Texas for a year, then moved to Miami. After high school, her undocumented status limited her opportunities, so she ended up working a series of odd jobs for employers who routinely prey on undocumented workers by withholding pay, denying time off for months on end, and other abuses. Without “papers” and legal status, she was unable to fight for better treatment.
When President Obama introduced the rigorous Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, Claudia earned the temporary relief. Finally, she had status that would allow her to work and live without fear of deportation — though that fear was so deeply ingrained that she still had panic attacks at the mention of immigration authorities in the vicinity.
"This is Affecting American Citizens"
When Claudia and Mike met in 2014, she told him about her immigration status: she was a Dreamer. She had DACA. He didn’t think much of it.
“I didn’t know it would become such a central part of our story, and such a stress-driver in years to come,” he says. “Then, in the lead up to the election, we paid more attention to it.”
In September 2017 the Trump administration ended the DACA program, and Congress has been famously unable to secure legislation that would provide a permanent solution. This has left hundreds of thousands of young immigrants completely in the dark about their futures once again.
For Claudia and Mike, this uncertainty weighs heavily, but it’s their new normal. Marrying an American citizen affords Dreamers like Claudia a small amount of protection from deportation, but contrary to popular belief it does not automatically grant an undocumented person U.S. citizenship. To apply for citizenship, one must prove authorized entry into the country. And since Claudia crossed the border as a kid and never left, she doesn’t have a way to do that without leaving and coming back — a huge risk for both Claudia and Mike in today’s anti-immigrant climate.
As the Trump administration operationalizes more workplace raids and abandons prioritization of dangerous criminals for deportation, Claudia’s mother is also at greater risk. Claudia’s 10-year-old brother Carlos is an American citizen. If anything happened to their mother, Claudia and Mike would become surrogate parents for Carlos in the blink of an eye.
“If I could say one thing to the public, I would say that this is affecting American citizens,” Claudia says. “Americans have married Dreamers. You are going to church with us. We grew up here with you. We need a solution, now.”
"I Cannot Lose My Family"
As the country — and indeed parts of Pennsyvania — battles anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, Lancaster’s immigrant population enjoys wide support from community members and from local elected officials.
“There’s a really strong Mennonite tradition here,” says Claudia, and that contributes to a strong atmosphere of acceptance and welcoming. “They really believe in treating neighbors, everybody, as you’d want yourself to be treated.”
Claudia has become an activist, often speaking at rallies and town hall meetings on behalf of Dreamers like her. When communities across the country erupted in opposition to the Muslim Ban last year, she spoke in front of a crowd of around 2,000 people. (“I was shaking!,” she says, but Mike assures her that she did well.)
Claudia and Mike have hope that progressive candidates will affect immigration policy for good, beginning with this November’s midterm elections. In the meantime, they’ll organize, volunteer, and canvass. They’re also working with immigration lawyers to figure out the best path forward for their family.
“I cannot lose my family,” Claudia says. “I can’t give up family. I won’t give up my family. It’s what has saved me. It’s my everything.”