Crystal Canterbury

Ocracoke resident Freddy Contreras was once a teenage illegal immigrant; now he's a U.S citizen.

Immigration has been a hot topic of debate for a long time. President-elect Trump ran a successful campaign due in part to his pre-election stance on illegal immigration, how to prevent people from entering the country without documentation, and deporting millions of people. But is the road to citizenship as easy as we think? I began wondering what it’s like to emigrate from another country, and why people would do so illegally.

After writing a story about an undocumented immigrant last year I came under some scrutiny by people horrified that I’d placed this person in danger, and by others who criticized me for even writing about this person; this kind, caring, creative, selfless human being was attacked online because he should’ve “done it the right way” just “like the rest of us” have done.

Now, I’m not going to delve into a lengthy history about how our country was colonized and then established. I think by now we all know how the European settlers came here and destroyed the lives of Native Americans across the board. Is that what people mean when they refer to people gaining citizenship “like the rest of us”? You’ve heard this before I’m sure: Unless you’re a Native American, you came from an immigrant. There’s validity to that statement.

Being an immigrant isn’t easy. I have often wondered about the inhumane living conditions, or how corrupt their nation’s government must be, and how impoverished people must be to decide that leaving their loved ones and friends to trek hundreds or thousands of miles, potentially swimming across a river, to gain access to a country where they essentially don’t exist, where they are afforded no protections and no rights, are basically starting over from scratch, and how all of those things are better options than staying where they were born. I’ve read accounts of immigrants coming here to work so they can afford healthcare to keep their loved ones from having to endure painful and life-threatening illnesses. Others work tirelessly to earn a savings so their children can have a chance to go to college and live long, prosperous lives, things many people – including myself – took or take for granted. Many of these people go years upon years without seeing their loved ones. I miss my parents terribly when I go a few months without seeing them; I can’t fathom how difficult it would be to go years.

I reached out to Ocracoke resident Alfredo "Freddy" Trejo Contreras for an interview about his immigration story. Over a number of texts we arranged to meet, and along the way I learned his wife Courtney is also an immigrant, born in South Africa. When I went to their home on a Saturday I was greeted by Courtney, who smiled and invited me in as if we’d been life-long friends. We walked upstairs where I met Freddy; he too engaged with me as if we’d known each other for years. I didn’t have many questions lined up because I wanted him to tell me his story, and simply by looking at him, you’d think his path to citizenship was easy, that he’s lived an easy life devoid of any hardships or struggles.

One Man's Path to Citizenship

Freddy decided to come to the United States because he wanted to see something new and do new things. His father and sister were already here, and Freddy was, “…ready to get out of my hometown.” Freddy’s hometown in Mexico is small, smaller than Ocracoke with about 200 or so residents, and doesn’t present a lot of opportunities. In general, Freddy believes large amounts of people leave Mexico for economic reasons.

“Fault lies with the Mexican government,” Freddy explained. “If you’re willing to risk your life, spend thousands of dollars [to enter the U.S.], you have to have a good reason.”

As a fifteen-year-old, Freddy (unbeknownst to his father) began his trek from Mexico to the U.S. Freddy's journey began with a 12-hour bus ride from Hidalgo, Mexico to an abandoned property in the middle of nowhere. From there a truck driver picked them up and drove them to a house near the Rio Grande, then they proceeded to walk for two hours to reach the river. Then they paid someone to take them across the river on a raft, and were directed to yet another abandoned property, this time in the United States. A van picked them up and dropped them in a remote location, and from there they walked for three days and two nights towards Houston.

During this time the group of immigrants was discovered by U.S. Immigration officers, so they ran. Freddy and two other people became separated from the rest of the group and their guide. The three made it to Riviera, Texas. Exhausted and without food or water for days, they continued walking towards Houston. Freddy recounted how the trio walked by U.S. citizens and police, and how surprised he was that no one turned them in or picked them up.

One Man's Path to Citizenship

They finally found someone who would take them Houston. With the remaining money they had (about $20.00), this stranger bought them food. After they ate, the stranger took them to a shed where they hid until the man came back to move them to yet another abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. After spending the night in this abandoned house, the trio awoke to find no one in sight. They waited, but began to realize the stranger wasn’t coming back. So, they began walking. They initially struggled to find out which way led to Houston, finally asking for help. Again, no one reported them. Freddy and his traveling companions began walking north. A motorist pulled over, offered the immigrants a ride, gave them $40.00, and dropped them off at a public bus station. They loaded the bus and Freddy spoke of how welcoming the other travelers were.

They were given vouchers to ride the bus to Corpus Christi, then purchased tickets to allow them to complete their journey to Houston. Once in Houston, an elder was contacted. Freddy and the two people he was with arrived safely and were reunited with their guide. Freddy arranged transport to Washington, North Carolina, and a short time later – and after spending about $10,000 from start to finish – arrived on Ocracoke Island.

“If we could do it another way we would. It’s embarrassing to be here illegally. We sort of feel ashamed by it,” Freddy said.

After obtaining an ITIN (International Tax Identification) card, Freddy began working. As a fifteen-year-old who hadn’t graduated with a high school diploma, Freddy worked multiple restaurant jobs on the island. His ITIN card allowed him to legally work, and taxes were taken out of each paycheck despite his illegal residency.

“Being here illegally isn’t fun,” Freddy told me, “It’s embarrassing. No one is proud to be here illegally.”

Six years ago, and after deciding to remain in the United States, Freddy began the process of becoming a United States Resident. He continued learning English and became a United States Resident, which officially gave him legal status and allowed him to gain all Constitutional rights and privileges except the right to vote or serve on a jury. Interestingly, Freddy (while still a U.S. resident) was called for jury duty, as are many U.S. residents and those with ITIN cards, simply because they have tax ID’s. Immigrants who are not citizens are not permitted to serve on juries, but they do have records of their whereabouts and work history since they are issued those tax ID numbers. So, they are “in the system”, so to speak, and can be notified to serve. It then becomes the responsibility of the individual to notify their local government of their immigration status.

Normally, immigrants become U.S. Residents before they can apply for citizenship. After being a Resident for five years, Freddy applied for citizenship over a year ago. The government conducts thorough and extensive background checks on anyone applying for citizenship, ensuring no criminal activity has taken place. Applicants must also demonstrate knowledge of American history and civics, and be able to speak English. Freddy let me borrow his study guide, which included 100 questions. Of these 100 questions only ten would be on the test, and applicants must correctly answer six or more of the ten questions. (View the online version and quiz yourself here.)

In April of 2016 Freddy became a United States citizen. As a Mexican immigrant, Freddy had to wait longer for citizenship than people who emigrate from other countries around the world. While he waited to be granted citizenship, Freddy accomplished a variety of life-altering and wonderful goals. First, Freddy learned English, and he speaks it fluently. He worked multiple jobs his first summer, then, because of exhaustion, gradually whittled down his work load, eventually staying with one business for nine years. He wasn’t able to attend high school because his schedule was so demanding, but he also stated he had a lack of interest in school due to boredom. He excelled in his classes, but wasn’t challenged, so he focused on working and making a living. Freddy continued by saying his father encouraged him to attend school here, but because he wasn’t an English speaker at the time, he felt he wouldn’t do well.

“I didn’t speak the language. It would be impossible for me to speak the language; that would be awful, so I didn’t [go to school,]" he said. “It took, I want to say, 10 to 11 years to feel confident [speaking English]. And I’m still learning, but I now feel confident speaking in English.”.

One Man's Path to Citizenship

Courtney and Freddy met in 2010 while they both worked at Dajio, a local restaurant. Courtney, who had eyes for Freddy from the moment she saw him, said he was sort-of propelled into learning English when they started dating because, as she stated, “I talk a lot. He started dating a very talkative lady. And that helped.”

“I learned so much from being with her,” Freddy said, “She loves to read, she loves to write, and so I feel like that somehow rubbed off on me. We have gone through emails and text messages from when I first started dating her and we see a huge difference in the writing and the spelling.”

After Courtney finished working the summer season of 2010, she had plans to move to South Africa, her father’s home country. “I had a crush on him long before he noticed me. I gave him my number multiple times and I would invite him to go do stuff with me, but he thought I was just being friendly.” As result, and knowing how much Freddy loves the sport, Courtney invited herself to a soccer match with him. After the match, Courtney said he had intended to take her home, but she wasn’t giving up. They went to the beach, and being the brave person she is, she kissed him. “It was a shock!” Freddy said. “Normally it’s the guy who takes the first step, but…” Courtney continued, saying, “I’d liked him for months, and he finally woke up to it.” Freddy went on to explain all her text messages and communications with him finally made sense in that moment. They have been together since.

A month after they began dating, Courtney traveled to Kansas, where she spent much of her childhood, then moved to South Africa four months later. Between Kansas and moving to South Africa, Freddy came to Kansas to see Courtney, and she then stopped here to see Freddy. Once in South Africa, Freddy went to visit Courtney, but much of the relationship’s growth happened from different continents. After several more months they met in Europe, and then she moved back to Kansas to finish her college education. While completing her course work, Courtney visited Freddy one more time on Ocracoke before finally moving back.

All in all, they saw each other a total of seven times over two years before being together on Ocracoke. “It was really hard. It was rough. It wasn’t easy, but we managed,” Freddy said. Courtney continued, saying, “With long-distance relationships it’s all or nothing. I was like ‘I’m in this because I want to marry you’ – why would you spend two years with somebody that you’re not going to end up with? We went from him not even knowing I had been flirting with him for months to ‘okay, you know what? I want to marry you, so let’s figure this out!’” They eventually got their own place and were married in 2015.

While Courtney was in South Africa, Freddy began working towards earning his GED.

“I had wanted to go to back to school before, but I was finding there were always obstacles. One, I didn’t feel confident enough in myself, but she brought that back; she helped me with that. She’d say ‘you can do it; you’re intelligent, you’re smart, I’m sure you can do it without a problem’. And so after dating her and realizing it was possible, I decided to go back.”

Freddy felt he needed to go back to school, to go to college, that he needed to do something, but he was afraid he wouldn’t succeed. He began taking classes for his GED, and along the way he met Peter Vankevich. Peter was instrumental in organizing a group so English speakers could learn Spanish, and Spanish speakers could learn English. Then Freddy met Gary Davis, and they taught each other their native languages. Gary also helped Freddy learn English outside of the community groups. They would meet at the church and Gary, “would bring magazines: Economist magazine, New York Times newspaper, National Geographic magazines; sophisticated papers with sophisticated writing. He would bring articles from the internet; he would meet up with me and talk to me and would go through passages together. He corrected me, which happened a lot at the beginning, but I learned so much from him. I learned so many words and about sentence structure; he helped so much with my GED.”

Freddy had never attended a school in the U.S., so he wasn’t sure what to expect. Up until this point, his knowledge of English was mostly from small interactions with English speakers, which primarily occurred while Freddy was working in restaurants.

“Gary helped me so much. The GED has five sections: math, science, reading [comprehension], writing, and social studies. My English reading and writing scores were my highest.” Courtney explained that people can elect to take the GED in Spanish, but Freddy took it in English. He scored in the 90th percentile on the GED test, quite a remarkable accomplishment. “I was really proud of that, and I was really grateful for [Gary’s] help because I could really see the results.”

After successfully passing the GED, Freddy enrolled in college, taking classes through College of the Albemarle. He was interested in international relations; however, to find good jobs within that field most people have to go through Doctoral programs. So he changed his path slightly and began taking courses to earn an international business degree. He and Courtney both love to travel, so Freddy wanted to choose a path where they could still both travel, but at the same time be able to earn a good living and provide a positive impact on the community. He switched his education path again, this time focusing on becoming a medical translator/interpreter. They found Davidson College, and Freddy began working towards earning a certificate to become a medical interpreter. In 2015 Freddy completed the program and earned the certificate; now he intends to continue working on the international business degree program.

Freddy's an American!
Freddy's an American!

Freddy began doing an internship at Ocracoke Health Center, providing his bilingual skills to patients and staff. Soon he became a medical translator, helping migrant farm workers on the mainland communicate with medical professionals. He was able to work and do his practicum at the same time, which allowed him to complete the requirements while gaining experience. Now he is the outreach coordinator for Hyde County and, after more schooling, serves as a chief counselor at the clinic. He works three days a week on Ocracoke and two days in Swan Quarter.

But Freddy’s journey and accomplishments don’t end there.

2016 was the National Park Service’s 100th birthday; had it been any other year, Freddy would have been sworn in as an American citizen in Raleigh. When Freddy was approved for citizenship – which happened after spending thousands of dollars, learning a new language, going back to school, and earning a unique position in his community – he traveled to the Wright Bothers’ National Monument in Kill Devil Hills, NC, for the ceremony. Speaking about gaining citizenship, Freddy said, “I had mixed feelings about becoming a citizen in April and voting a few months later in November; it all happened in a short period of time. I worry about what people will think because of the color of my skin, and because I speak with an accent. I don’t worry about it here; this community is not like that, but I don’t know about other places.”

Despite concerns about being stereotyped, Freddy remains optimistic. He’s happy to be with Courtney on Ocracoke, and proud to have achieved such a wide array of successes, including his recent citizenship, and all the rights that come with it.

“Becoming a citizen and being able to vote all in the same year felt really nice, it felt really great.”

Freddy was also on the first annual Festival Latino de Ocracoke committee in 2016, and helped produce the wonderful cultural event sponsored by Ocracoke Alive. In this video link below, you can see Freddy emceeing the evening performances along with Dave Tweedie of Ocracoke Alive (starting at about 11:35.) Shortly after the Festival Latino on November 12th, Freddy agreed to join the Ocracoke Alive board.