What happens when an undocumented minor dies in the United States?

The World
A photo of Jose Lopez Ramirez, 17 shows on a smartphone.

Jose López Ramirez had big dreams. He wanted to be a famous singer and he believed he would be discovered and become a star. But the 16-year-old couldn’t realize these dreams from his rural, mountainous town in Guatemala. He also couldn’t find work in his tiny town of Comitancillo, so he left for the United States.

Ramirez made it to Alabama in May 2016. He found work in construction, and even applied to a performing arts high school. But he was undocumented. And according to his brother, Hageo López Ramirez, he wasn't actually that good at singing.

So the teen worked construction jobs. He sent short videos to his family where he showed off his life in America. In one, he is at work on the construction site, riding a big tractor like it’s a bull at the rodeo. But it didn’t pay very well, so he looked for another job. When he finally found one, he had to drive 45 minutes to get there, so his older sister, who also lived in Alabama, rented him a car.

Jose had to leave at 5 a.m. to make it to work on time. His family says he had never really driven before, but there was no other way to get to work. And then, on his third morning in the new job, Jose was in a crash. 

“Maybe he was nervous,” Hageo says, “but he started to accelerate and the car flipped. He crashed, and died. He was 17.”

Jose's brother Hageo López Ramirez shows pictures of Jose when he was a young boy.
Jose's brother, Hageo López Ramirez, shows pictures of Jose when he was a young boy.Deepa Fernandes

So what happens when an undocumented minor dies in the United States?

In the case of Jose López Ramirez, local police traced rental car information back to his sister and knocked on her door to tell her of her brother’s death. Being undocumented, she did not want the police sticking around and asking her questions, so she listened to the few details they could share, accepted their condolences and called her father in Guatemala.

The family was shocked and devastated to learn of Jose’s death, says his brother, Hageo. They had such little information on how he died. They were told that the crash was bad. The car flipped.

”He broke all his bones, and his face and head were smashed too,” says Eucebio López Perez, Jose’s father.

But they had so many more questions and no one to ask. The family barely has cell phone reception in their home in the mountains, and looking up information on the internet when Hageo could get to a connection, provided nothing.

Then one afternoon in mid-June, a few weeks after Jose had died, they got another call from his sister in America. She said a local church had gathered the money to send Jose’s body home. It was arriving in six hours in Guatemala City. They scrambled.

“Thank God we had a neighbor who lent us his car when we said we had to go and collect Jose’s body,” Hageo says. “Our neighbor really helped us, he even came with us to get him.”

It was a bit of an ordeal for Hageo, his dad and their neighbor. When they got to the airport, it wasn't just Jose's body that had arrived. There were two other bodies that flew in on the same plane from the United States. Hageo had to open the body bag to identify his brother, and then together they heaved the lengthy cardboard box into the back of their neighbor’s car and made the long journey home. The box with Jose’s body hung precariously out of the small car the entire ride.

The long, thin, white cardboard box that held his body still sits in the family’s main room.

Eucebio López Perez, Jose's father
 Eucebio López Perez, Jose's father, in his home in Comitancillo. Deepa Fernandes

Eucebio, Jose’s father, wants to keep it right there in memory of his son, he says. He has a garbage bag of Jose’s clothes stashed in the corner of the room.

“He left these things behind when he left for the US,” Eucebio says. “Now he’ll never be back to use them again.”

Jose also left behind much younger siblings. They’re busy playing, and when one wanders over, Hageo asks her if she remembers her brother, Jose.

“Yes,” she says. 

“And where is he?” Hageo follows up.

“In the United States,” she says.

It’s still kind of hitting them that Jose is dead and not just working in the US. Hageo says they haven't had much time to mourn as they owe a lot of money.

“We’re suffering the consequences of Jose following his dreams, you know, what many people call the American Dream,” Hageo says. “The truth is, we have to pay his debts and my dad and I were just discussing how we both have to work to pay it off. We still owe 30,000 quetzales.”

That’s a bit over $4,000. It’s a fortune in rural Guatemala, where one day of agriculture work, if you can find it, may yield $5. The family owes the coyote who helped Jose get to Alabama. They even owe money to the American rental car company for the car Jose crashed.

Yet, Hageo says, as they work to pay off his debts, at least they’ll be remembering him constantly.

The reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

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