My brother committed suicide last week.
Osvaldo was a talented painter and a sharp wit. He was a brother, a son and a loving uncle to sixteen nieces and nephews.
He was also an undocumented immigrant. And in the end, this became all that mattered.
Osvaldo was born in the rough northern Mexican city of Culiacán. He had a happy early childhood spent running through the streets with his friends. By his own account, he was outgoing and brave; he told us that he once mouthed off about one of the local narcotraficantes and was hauled in by his henchmen.
When he was thirteen he was hit by a truck speeding down the steep hill outside his house. The accident severed his spine, paralyzing both legs and leaving him without the use of his right hand. Osvaldo came to the United States on a medical visa for treatment. While he was undergoing his treatment, his mother died, leaving him in a foreign country without a parent or caretaker, and without a home to return to.
My family adopted Osvaldo when he was sixteen. He continued his rehabilitation, attended high school, learned English, and began to paint. Art was an outlet for Osvaldo, his way of coping with disability. His early works drew from his heritage, splashy luchadores and depictions of obscure Sinaloan folk legends. Those evolved into abstract figures, portraiture and symbolic works tackling political issues. Toward the end, he painted snapshots of the unnoticed beauty in everyday scenes—leaves scattered across wet asphalt; telephone lines tangled against an orange sky.
Adoption gave Osvaldo a new family, but not legal immigration status. Although he was a minor, he was too old for an adoptee’s green card, and his orphan status was rejected because he entered the country legally. However, our lawyers said that if he waited a few years he could apply for a discretionary exemption. Given his situation and our family’s ability to provide for him, we were reassured that it would almost certainly be granted.
He waited the due time, and submitted his application. But by then the law had changed, and required that he submit himself for detention and deportation before applying for an exemption. Osvaldo withdrew his application, and began an indefinite wait for the law to change.
While the rest of us went off to college or jobs, traveled the world, and started families, he remained at my parents’ house. He kept painting but refused to risk art school or apply for a job. He believed, perhaps rightfully so, that he would not survive deportation back to a country where he had nothing and no one, where he faced dismal prospects as a severely disabled man.
In the early years, he could travel domestically. He flew to the East Coast and we drove across the country together, visiting sights like Yellowstone that found their way into his art. But after September 11 air travel became impossible, and his world became smaller. In the end, he became afraid of even the short train trip to San Francisco.
He retreated, spending most of his time in his room, painting. Finally, even with the brightest prospects for the immigration reform in decades, he lost hope. He took his life, leaving a note saying that he had waited nineteen years, and could not continue to wait even another year.
He came here legally, as a child. He stayed because he had no other option, but also because he was promised that our laws would allow him to do so. He educated himself, learned our language, and prepared himself for a productive life—a rich life in which he would have contributed richly to our community and our culture. When political vagaries took away that right, he waited, because this country was his home, and we were his family.
He waited for change. He waited as he listened to the ugly words of our political leaders, telling him he had broken the rules and that the only life he knew was stolen from those fortunate enough to have been born here. He waited as long as he could, and then he could wait no longer.
Our immigration laws are deeply disconnected from the realities lived by my brother, and by the eleven million other undocumented human beings among us in the United States. They must change, and must change now. With every day that passes, change comes too late for some of them.
We cannot keep waiting.
This piece was written by Michael Ng in loving memory of his brother, Osvaldo.