Henry Cejugo

The Arizona Republic- Unfairly pinned with 'anchor baby' label, Olympic-gold winner sets sights on another medal - and citizenship for Mom

By Richard Ruelas, The Arizona Republic 

After he won his Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Summer Games, Henry Cejudo ran around the Beijing gymnasium floor, waving a U.S. flag, looking as if he were ready to fly, before falling to his knees and wrapping himself in it.

So, as the son of a Mexican mother and father who sneaked across the border illegally, he feels wounded by the most recent battleground in illegal immigration, the one that targets what proponents call "anchor babies," saying they are unworthy of citizenship at birth.

"That's ridiculous," he says. "Are they going to take my gold medal back?"

Neither Cejudo's citizenship nor his medal is at stake. And given that his mother said she became a legal resident before his birth, he would escape the label of anchor baby. Still, the issue angers Cejudo. While discussing it, he measures his words carefully. He doesn't want to delve too deeply into politics and risk alienating any of his fans.

But he wanted to address the issue before he moves later this year to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, as an employee of the U.S. Olympic Committee, he would feel less free to speak about political issues.

"People don't understand," he says. "People see a Mexican-American as just a Mexican. I'm trying to change that. I'm an American, first and foremost. I love this country. I would die for this country. 

This winter, the issue of birthright citizenship threatens to become a major issue. On Jan. 7, four Republican Congressmen filed a federal bill that would deny citizenship based solely on location of birth.

Several state lawmakers, including leaders in Arizona, have proposed legislation that would deny state citizenship to infants who do not have at least one parent who is a citizen or legal resident.

Either law could invite a court challenge to end the interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which says anyone born on U.S. soil is a citizen.

Though immigration reform has been debated for years, Cejudo was surprised to hear Sen. John McCain call for hearings on birthright citizenship. After all, it was McCain who shortly after the 2008 Olympics told Katie Couric on "CBS Evening News" that Cejudo was someone he would like to have dinner with.

Cejudo is still waiting for his invitation. And it would be easy to arrange now, as he and McCain live in the same Biltmore-area high-rise.


But today, Cejudo is dining with his mother at her Phoenix condominium, where Nelly Rico serves a hearty plate of red-chile chicken, rice and tortillas.

"They can call us whatever they want," says Cejudo, who returned from the Olympics to hear people on Phoenix talk radio calling for his mother to be deported, even though she had received her green card in 1986, a year before Cejudo's birth.

"We've seen their negativity. It doesn't faze us. . . . The people who say, 'You're an anchor baby'? They have no idea."

Cejudo struggles to explain the term anchor baby to his mother. He has the vocabulary to translate the literal words, but finds it hard to get her to understand the true meaning.

As the latest phrase used to describe children of illegal immigrants, it supposes that the babies are purposefully being used by parents to keep themselves grounded in this country. Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce told Time magazine that so-called anchor babies are part of an "orchestrated effort by them to come here and have children to gain access to the great welfare state we've created."

Pearce and other foes of birthright citizenship argue that the 14th Amendment - originally adopted to guarantee citizenship to freed slaves - has been misinterpreted by the courts to apply to children of illegal immigrants. Stopping the practice, they argue, would lessen the incentive for people to cross illegally from Mexico. 

But when Rico crossed at age 16, it was more an impulsive adventure. She did not plan to have a family here.

"You come with a dream," Rico says. "At that time I didn't think about children. I didn't think I would have children."

Rico grew up outside Mexico City in a home made partly from the sides of a barrel. But she didn't spend much time there. Her mother "gifted" her to neighbors. She eventually learned her mother was in an abusive relationship and had sent her children away so they wouldn't witness the violence.

By her teenage years, Rico heard about the wonders of life across the border. She and two cousins made plans to cross and went to see relatives in Tijuana. 

Rico's naivete about her journey was on display in her wardrobe. She and her cousins got dolled up in high heels and dress clothes, their hair up and makeup done.

"Like we were going to a party," Rico says. "That's how we went."

The first time, at least. When caught by border agents on that attempt, they were disheveled and muddy. But getting across the border grew in importance to them. They would try again six more times before getting through, then traveling to Los Angeles crouched in the hollowed-out section of a van's floorboard.

Rico found work cleaning the floor of a butcher shop. Then she worked as a seamstress, making pillows. Outside a nightclub, she landed a side job rolling marijuana cigarettes.

She met her future husband in LA, and the two started a family. It wasn't part of a master plan, Rico said. At the time, she didn't know the details of immigration law, didn't realize that at age 21, one of her children could petition to make her a citizen.

"If I knew that," she tells Henry with a smile, "I would have had you a long time ago."

Cejudo is the sixth of seven children, five of whom were born to parents who didn't have authorization to be in this country. Or, as proponents of the law would call them, anchor babies.

'Good citizens'

Rico often told her children how lucky they were to be U.S. citizens.

"I told them you should thank God that you were born in this country," she says.

She knew they would have opportunities that she did not. And she pushed them to make the most of those.

"In my house, I tried to raise good citizens," she says. "I fussed over them. I fought for them. I tried telling them, 'You can grow up and be president someday.' "

Cejudo never felt lucky. He shuttled among cramped apartments or shared houses, his father largely absent. Inspired by the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, which he watched on a fuzzy TV in his family's trailer, Cejudo pushed away the temptations of gang life and dedicated himself to sports. He would make a name for himself on the wrestling mat, making the Olympic team out of high school, a rare feat.

Cejudo rarely gave any thought to his mother's immigration status, but as he prepared for Beijing, he realized she could not go with him. Though Rico, who returned to her maiden name after her husband died, had become a legal permanent resident in 1986, she had given little thought to becoming a citizen. She never had the time.

"The only thing I did," she says, "was take care of my children." But that meant she could not get a U.S. passport. Cejudo didn't want her to leave the country and then not be able to return.

During the Beijing Games, Cejudo lied to reporters, telling them his mother stayed in the United States to help take care of his brothers' children. He didn't want to make her immigration status a bigger deal than it already was.

Even so, her absence partially tarnished his achievement.

"It's like I'm living my dream," Cejudo says, "and the lady who helped raise me, who instilled hard work, dedication and determination, can't see me win a gold medal because she doesn't have a piece of paper that says she's a citizen."

Attaining citizenship

That's why part of Cejudo's preparation for the 2012 Games will be getting citizenship for his mother. He wants her to get a passport to ensure she has no issues attending the London Games.

Rico is studying U.S. history and government, including what the stars and stripes on the U.S. flag represent. At age 51, under federal policy, she will not have to learn English. But Rico is working on it. 

Cejudo tells her that reporters in London will want to interview her after he wins a second gold medal. She laughs and gets out a semi- English line.

"Soy muy happy," she says.


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