Marco Nateras lives in exile in Morelia, Mexico — 2,000 miles from his family in Chicago.
But every other day he calls his daughter Monica Chiarelli in Downers Grove.
“We miss him so much,” Chiarelli says.
She says her father, who barely speaks Spanish, “sticks out like a sore thumb” in Mexico, where he was deported in late 2015 after spending most of his life in Chicago.
Nateras, 53, is the kind of person President Donald Trump is vowing to keep out of the country — an undocumented immigrant with a violent crime on his record, though he stayed out of serious trouble for nearly a quarter of a century after serving his time in the 1990s.
A doting father and grandfather, he’s also an example of the devastation that such deportations can wreak on the law-abiding families left behind.
“I worry about him every day,” Chiarelli says. “The conditions are harsh. They treat him differently because his Spanish isn’t as fluent as theirs. He was on the right track, spending time with his parents here, going to work and taking the train to see his grandkids. Now, that’s all gone.”
Nateras, who grew up on the Southwest Side, is a repeat felon who was kicked out of the United States in 1996. He sneaked back into the country in 2000, moving in with his parents in Chicago.
Using fake IDs, he held a variety of jobs and watched his grandkids grow up in the suburbs. Then, in 2010, he was busted for a minor drug offense, which led to his banishment again in 2015.
Nateras knows he’ll probably never be able to return to Chicago. So his phone is his lifeline to the place he still considers home.
Recently, he and Chiarelli tried to set up a video chat on their phones but gave up in frustration when the signal kept crashing. They wound up talking on a regular phone line.
Nateras talked to his daughter about his latest hardships of living in Morelia.
Chiarelli reminded him to call his ailing mom, who worries about him.
He said he missed watching his grandchildren take part in wrestling, baseball and other sports.
“I want to see all their trophies in the room,” he told her. “They must have a whole box already.”
In an interview, Nateras says he always gets choked up after these conversations.
“I am 53 years old, and I bawl like a little kid because I miss them,” he says.
Nateras was born in Mexico but came to Chicago with his parents when he was just 8 months old in 1964.
His family lived in Pilsen and Back of the Yards, gritty neighborhoods where they prospered. His father and brothers became U.S. citizens and worked for the railroads. His mom and his sister also became citizens and worked in schools.
Asked why his parents and siblings got the American dream while he was thrown out of the United States, Nateras says it goes back to when he was 7 years old and was sexually assaulted by an older boy under the L tracks in his neighborhood.
“If that didn’t happen, my life would have been different,” he says.
Nateras says he began drinking and using drugs in his early teens to “self-medicate” and fell in with the Two-Six street gang.
“At 13, I left my house,” he says. “I got a paper route to get a gun, so no one would hurt me. I had a kid die in my arms and stuff. He told me, ‘Don’t let me die,’ and I couldn’t do nothing.”
Nateras says he was drinking for a week straight before he was arrested for a stabbing that put him in prison in 1990. But he says he took the rap for another gang member who threatened to harm him and his family.
Soon after being freed, he was arrested again, this time for burglary, and went back to prison.
Behind bars, he obtained certificates in welding, auto technology and building maintenance through MacMurray College.
But his chance at the American dream was over. On Aug. 5, 1996, U.S. government officials drove him to O’Hare Airport, put him on a plane to Mexico and told him: Don’t come back. He settled in Morelia, where he struggled for four years.
Nateras says he crossed the border in Laredo, Texas, in 2000 after persuading authorities to let him attend his niece’s 15th birthday party there.
“My mom was crying and crying” with joy, he says.
Nateras was able to see his brother Hector, who died later that year. He didn’t go back. Nateras remained in Chicago and mostly stayed out of trouble the next 10 years. He got busted several times for possession of marijuana but was never convicted and managed to stay off the radar of immigration officials.
Using a false green card he said he got from an ID mill in Little Village, he obtained an Illinois driver’s license and other documents, allowing him to work all sorts of jobs, from welding to custodial work.
He says he even persuaded a government job interviewer to let him work temporarily for the U.S. Postal Service as a laborer one Christmas holiday.
Nateras says he regularly saw his grandchildren in the suburbs. He watched them play T-ball and dance in ballets.
Then, on Oct. 14, 2010, his luck ran out. Chicago cops caught him smoking pot outside a building on the Southwest Side. He says they told him they’d let him go free if he led them to a house with guns or drugs, but he refused, so they called immigration officials.
The next day, an immigration agent was waiting at the Cook County courthouse at 26th and California. Nateras’ drug case was quickly dismissed, but federal authorities charged him with illegal re-entry into the United States — a felony. He pleaded guilty on July 19, 2011.
Before his sentencing five months later, his daughter Monica Chiarelli wrote the judge, saying: “There is nothing for him in Mexico. I do not know how I would explain or tell my children that they could not see Grandpa possibly ever again.”
His parents also begged the judge for mercy. “We are all U.S. citizens except for my son,” his mother wrote. “We are old and we desire to die in peace and for our son to be close to us. We ask God and you for a miracle.”
Judge William Hibbler sentenced Nateras to 66 months in federal prison. Nateras’ father died of cancer while he was behind bars.
After completing his sentence, Nateras was deported in late 2015. He was taken to Tijuana, Mexico, and flown to Michoacan state, where he was born more than half a century earlier.
“I’ve made it a year,” Nateras says. “But it’s been a really hard year. I can’t adapt. I don’t really socialize with anybody.”
Though he didn’t get into serious trouble after he got out of prison and was making a living at a series of blue-collar jobs, Nateras doesn’t have any compelling legal argument to ever be allowed back into the United States. He’s not a refugee. He never served in the military. His criminal re-entry case was black-and-white.
Deporting violent felons is a priority for the United States. It is under Trump, and it was in the Obama administration, too.
Still, Nateras represents the smallest category of deportation cases in Chicago and across the country. From 2010 through 2016, only 469 people, including Nateras, were charged with immigration crimes in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Most of those cases were for illegal re-entry, and most of the defendants had at least one felony in their backgrounds.
By contrast, more than 23,000 civil deportation cases are pending in the federal government’s separate Immigration Court system in Chicago.
Claudia Valenzuela, detention project director for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, says criminal prosecutions under U.S. immigration law are “indeed tragic, especially for folks who have lived here all their lives.
“Some of the cases are really old, and the person has shown rehabilitation in the interim,” Valenzuela says.
She worries that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “could really ramp up these prosecutions.”
Nateras and convicted felons like him aren’t protected by the 2006 ordinance that made Chicago a “sanctuary city.” Under the ordinance, police and city agencies aren’t supposed to inquire about immigration status or contact federal officials about immigrants who don’t have proper documentation.
But there’s an exception for people like Nateras who’ve been convicted of felonies, are gang members or who have pending criminal cases. Some civil rights advocates have said they’d like Chicago’s City Council to change that.
In 2011, Cook County passed its own sanctuary ordinance, barring the sheriff from honoring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers that put a hold on inmates who are illegally in the country. Because of the county ordinance, immigration agents no longer go to bond court at 26th and California every day to screen for defendants who are illegally in the country, though they still do spot-checks there from time to time, according to an ICE spokeswoman.
Illinois isn’t a sanctuary state, so the state corrections system turns over all illegal immigrants to the federal government after they complete their prison sentences, officials say.
About 6,179 state prisoners — more than half from Cook County and 80 percent of them born in Mexico — were transferred to the federal government for deportation between 2010 and 2016 after serving their sentences, records show.
That’s what happened to Nateras in 1996 — the first time he was deported.
Now back in Mexico, Nateras says he looks for any job he can find. He was a security guard, stationed in a shack he kept warm by kindling a small fire inside. He says he worked 24 hours straight, then had 24 hours off. His daily pay: 74 pesos, or almost $4.
He says he bought a welding machine with help from his family and was installing solar water heaters, but his boss skipped out without paying him.
He also works construction. He says he recently moved two tons of gravel, two tons of cement and two tons of sand in one day for about 150 pesos.
Nateras says he’s been sober for about nine years and attends group meetings in a shelter for alcoholics and drug addicts, where he lives in a small room with two other men.
“My Spanish isn’t really good,” he says. “There is discrimination over here. They make fun of you.”
Nateras says he still feels patriotic toward the United States.
“To me, the American flag is my flag,” he says. “I see a football game on TV and see the flag, and I get emotional. I don’t even know the anthem down here.”
Though he has little hope of being allowed to return to the United States, Nateras hopes one day to see some of the money he contributed to Social Security while working in Chicago.
“Down here, you work to pay the rent and eat, and that’s it,” he says. “I don’t have anything to back me up.
“My mom is really sick, and I won’t see her again. She’ll get buried there, and I won’t be able to go to her grave. My brother is buried there. I don’t have nobody down here.
“This isn’t the United States. What am I going to do here?”
MORE IN ‘THE THIRD BORDER’ SERIES:
In Immigration Court, few criminals, far more minor offenders, Feb. 12, 2017