The Death and Life of Frankie Madrid
The U.S. had been his home since he was 6 months old. When he was deported
to Mexico 26 years later, it was more than he could bear.
Frankie couldn’t come back across the border, but his ashes could. They traveled in a small red wood box. His brother Beto put them inside a carry-on bag, and they cleared the metal detector at the port of entry in San Luis, Arizona. The box sat next to him on the ride back to Flagstaff until he placed it in his mother’s arms.
Beto had made the 500-mile journey to Hermosillo, Mexico, hoping that he would find Frankie alive, but he knew his mind was playing tricks on him. It wasn’t until he opened the casket at the funeral home that it hit him: Frankie was gone. There were scratches on the side of his neck, ears, and face, and the undertakers had dressed him in a buttoned-down white shirt with a black bandana pattern that Beto knew Frankie would have hated. Beto gave him a hug and a kiss with a soft, “I love you.” Outside the funeral home, relatives whom Beto barely remembered rushed to hug him and give him condolences in a Spanish he couldn’t grasp.
When Francisco “Frankie” Madrid took his life on October 2, 2017, he was just a few weeks short of 27. The death certificate listed acute respiratory failure, acute pulmonary edema, and cardiac arrest as the cause of death, but Beto didn’t need to see any papers to know his brother had committed suicide. Frankie had tried and failed the week before with vodka and Klonopin, posting a farewell message on Facebook. The day before he died, he and Beto had spoken by phone for an hour. Beto pleaded with him, but he feared he was too far away to reach him. I’m doing heroin, Frankie told him, because I want to kill myself. Not because I want to get high.
Frankie had been deported from the United States because he was an “illegal alien,” but he was an alien in Mexico, the place where he was born. He knew he wouldn’t see his daughter grow up or his mother grow old. He wouldn’t be there to babysit his nieces and nephew. He wouldn’t be there to tell his older sister, Dulce, that she could make it through anything or remind his younger brothers, Johnny and Beto, that their U.S. citizenship comes with privileges. The leaves would turn colors in Flagstaff, his hometown, and he wouldn’t be there to hike the mountains or organize volunteers at the Pride festival or speak out at the City Council or drop in on the mayor. In Flagstaff, he was Frankie. In Hermosillo, he wasn’t anymore.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation bus transported Frankie to Nogales, Sonora, right across the border. It had rained so hard that the streets were flooded. He carried a sheet of paper with phone numbers, email addresses, and Facebook accounts that inmates had given him with messages to share with their families. (“Call his dad Santiago. Ask him to apply for phone calls.”) A cousin by marriage, Norma Alicia Fonllem, came to pick him up with her husband and daughter.
Frankie was exhausted and slept for most of the three-hour ride to Hermosillo. When they reached the city, he asked Norma, “What would people think about me if I’m gay?” Frankie was scared about being gay in Mexico. Would he be shunned? Harassed? Beaten up? Norma told him it didn’t matter.
He joined a gym just a few blocks from Norma’s house. He said he was getting sexy and meeting new people, and he thought there were some sexy people in Hermosillo. Norma drove him to government offices, where he picked up his birth certificate and Mexican ID. He quickly landed a job at Intugo, the call-center company that caters to English-speaking customers.
He was self-conscious about his Spanish — he had learned it at home, speaking with his mom. In Mexico, people called this type of Spanish pocho — which also means a Mexican who has lost his culture — and family members would correct him. Sometimes they would speak too fast for him to understand, and there were moments he would just blurt out sentences in English. To distract himself, he binge-watched 13 Reasons Why, the Netflix series about a high school girl who leaves behind a box of cassettes that explain why she took her life.
He rented an apartment, a one bedroom in a lower-middle-class colonia north of downtown. It had a single window and a front door with bars. It looked like a little jail. With money from friends and family in Flagstaff — they had started a GoFundMe campaign — he bought a 2005 gold Nissan Altima. He could have used the money to pay someone to bring him back across the border, but he didn’t want to live his life always looking over his shoulder. If he was arrested, he would end up back in prison, and he never wanted to be there again.
One day, on his way to work, his car broke down, and he was stranded. Even though Flagstaff had a population of 72,000, Frankie always thought it felt like a small town. A stranger there would have come to his rescue. Hermosillo, which was ten times larger, was noisy and confusing, and passersby either ignored his appeals for help or told him to get out of the way.
Frankie’s mood would change abruptly. Anytime something bad happened, he hated Mexico. Anytime something good occurred, he told himself he was going to get through it. On Facebook, he shared a picture of a coffee mug with the words “Britney survived 2007, I can handle today.” That, at least, is what he wanted others to think, but the reality was that he was depressed and anxious, hoping for only one thing: to return to the U.S.
The news from the United States, though, was not good. His 54-year-old mother, María, who suffered from a heart condition, had tripped and broken five ribs. She didn’t want Frankie to know, but he found out anyway. Frankie would call Lee Phillips, his attorney and friend in Flagstaff. I’m never going to see my mom again, and she may die in the hospital. There were days he would phone in the middle of a panic attack. Tell me the truth. I have to know. Am I ever going to be able to come back? Phillips spoke to colleagues who specialized in immigration law, and the answer was always the same: Frankie was barred from ever returning to the United States. There was no letter of support that could be written to bring him back.
Frankie walked down the hallway on his way to the Coconino County courtroom in Flagstaff, his arms and legs chained. As he passed Dulce, he gave her a brief smile. Having already spent a year in jail and facing ten more in prison, Frankie had accepted a plea agreement for criminal charges of shoplifting and possession of dangerous drugs and drug paraphernalia. The prosecutor dropped the charge for possession of a gun. Frankie would serve four additional months and then be deported.
When the judge handed out the sentence, he noted that Frankie had sought drug rehabilitation, had served the community, and had no prior record. All Dulce could think was that Frankie’s life in the United States had shrunk into a one-hour sentencing. It’s hard to be this perfect citizen we have to be, she thought. The system doesn’t help you to be perfect. It’s expecting you to fail.
María pleaded with the judge to allow her to hug her son, but he denied the request. Frankie gestured that it was OK and blew her kisses. The last thing she saw was his back. The judge then did something Lee Phillips had never seen. He got up from his bench and walked over to María, extending his hand. “I’m sorry,” he told her. “I can’t do anything because immigration has him, and I don’t work with immigration.”
Frankie and Dulce were having an argument they had had many times. She told him she didn’t want to ever see his backpack in her house, because if her kids opened it up, they could stab themselves with a needle. Frankie had been staying with her off and on, insisting that this time he really would get clean. He promised he would throw away everything inside. When he left for Walmart to buy groceries for their mom, Dulce told him not to return if he still had the backpack.
As Frankie was leaving the store, an employee accused one of his two companions of stuffing sewing needles and an oven mitt down his pants — about $4 worth of merchandise. He denied he had taken anything, and the three walked out. Minutes later, the police pulled over their car. An officer ran a check on their IDs, and an arrest warrant came up for Frankie for unpaid shoplifting fines. The officer asked Frankie to step out of the car. “Do you have to arrest me?” Frankie asked as he was being handcuffed.
Searching the car, the officer found an unloaded semiautomatic pistol in the map pocket of the door beside Frankie. The other passenger said it belonged to him. The officer then looked into Frankie’s backpack and found a sock stuffed with seven $100 bills, unused syringes, 21 grams of heroin, a pillbox that contained three morphine pills, one buprenorphine pill (used to treat opioid addiction), one naloxone pill (used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose), and a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. He never found the sewing needles and oven mitt.
One afternoon, Frankie showed up at Coral Evans’s City Council offices. Evans, who would go on to be elected mayor, had known Frankie since he was 10 years old. He was one of her kids in the I Am Youth group, which she oversaw as the executive director of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association. Its goal was to train young people to be community leaders. Frankie, she liked to say, was “sunlight walking” — the kid who helped cover graffiti with a mural at a preschool, who handed out gloves and trash bags for a neighborhood cleanup, who volunteered on food drives, who collected other children’s cellphones when it was time to meet. He was just a natural-born leader.
Evans hadn’t seen him for a long time and was shocked. We’re going to lose Frankie, she thought. “You don’t look healthy,” she said. His glow was gone, and he seemed scared. He confessed he’d been shoplifting. “That’s not even in your character, dude,” she told him. She asked who he was hanging out with, even though she knew the answer. “You’re not a bad person. Why are you hanging out with them?”
“I’ve got to get money,” he said. “My mom is sick.”
Frankie said he was working as a housekeeper at a hotel, barely getting by, and without papers it wasn’t easy to find jobs that paid more.
“Frankie, dude, what can we do to help?” Evans asked.
“What can you do?” he said. “I don’t have a Social Security number. I don’t have any of that.”
Evans wished she had something different to say. When Frankie walked out the door, she felt she had failed him. How is it that the community he helped all his life is letting him down? she thought. How is it that we can’t help this kid?
Lee Phillips asked Frankie if he was nervous. “Yes, I’m shaking,” Frankie responded. Frankie was testifying on behalf of Beto, who had been indicted for murder in connection with a fight between the city’s east-side and west-side gangs. Beto admitted that he had witnessed the fight but said he had not taken part. Seventeen years old at the time of his arrest, he had been charged as an adult and was facing life in prison. It was Frankie who had persuaded Phillips, one of Flagstaff’s most prominent civil-rights attorneys, to take on Beto’s case pro bono. It was Frankie who had served as Phillips’s eyes and ears in the Latino community, finding and interviewing witnesses.
Frankie, Phillips said, believed that he was the only one who could preserve the family, that his mom would die if Beto was convicted: “He believed Beto was innocent when no one else did. Beto was the person who Frankie first came out to, so there was a special bond between them. I mean, he was not only trying to save Beto’s life. He was trying to keep his own life together.”
The gallery was packed with the victim’s family and friends. Only a few in attendance were there for Beto. The trial had divided Flagstaff’s Latino community so severely that security had been increased in and around the courthouse.
Phillips thought Frankie could counter the prosecution’s attempt to paint Beto as a gang member. Yes, there were gangs in their neighborhood, Frankie told Phillips, but he and Beto had never been recruited into one. Beto had dropped out of high school and worked as a painter to help support their mother. As he testified, Phillips could hear whispers of “Frankie faggot” and “you’re lying” from the gallery. In the streets, it wasn’t any different. Frankie had known the victim’s friends. He had tutored kids on the west side. He had spoken out against a developer who wanted to kick out Mexican families from a trailer park on the west side. But after Beto’s arrest, he was pushed aside. He felt that everyone hated him. He felt he couldn’t be seen in the neighborhood. He felt rejected and that he could be jumped. Seven days after Frankie’s testimony, a jury acquitted Beto.
Frankie was at a party with his friend Rudi Manson when he tried painkillers for the first time. It was Vicodin. “We thought it was fun,” Manson said. “We thought it was just for the night.” One night turned into every week, every week turned into several times a week, every day turned into all day every day. When it became too expensive, they switched to heroin.
For a while they avoided each other, so they wouldn’t trigger the other, but that didn’t last. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. That didn’t stick, either. Frankie saw rehab clinics accept Manson, but when he tried to register, they would turn him down because he didn’t have any insurance or papers. After three days of being clean, Frankie would sit in the car with Manson and cry. “He wanted to stop so bad, but he said that he couldn’t,” she said. “He just wasn’t himself anymore.”
Frankie finally found a clinic, the Southwest Behavioral Health Center, which put him on methadone. Every day at exactly the same time, he received his dose. He was also randomly tested for drugs. He was 23, and, as he fought to stay clean, he tried to be Frankie — the Frankie who was sunlight walking. He coached a friend in math and geography. He walked in the Fourth of July parade on behalf of a local candidate, pushing his niece and nephew in their stroller. For months, he watched over a neighbor’s husband, who was bed-ridden with Alzheimer’s.
Dulce would often drive him to the clinic. She always knew that Frankie experienced anxiety and depression since he was a child, but it had gotten worse as he got older. Whenever his immigration status got in his way — with work, with college, with getting therapy — Dulce saw him go into a dark place. The clinic diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, a condition that leads some people to self-medicate. Dulce knew little about it except that it was characterized by extreme mood swings. Maybe he was finally understanding what was going on with him, she thought. When Frankie was 10, he had told María that he had been sexually abused when he was younger. She tried over and over to get him to talk about it. When? How? Who? But Frankie would run to his room and slam the door. Dulce found out about it later, but he wouldn’t answer her questions, either. He just shut everybody out.
For a brief time, Frankie knew what it felt to have what he’d always wanted. A cousin introduced him to Sabrina Price, an immigration attorney who agreed to take on his case if he would occasionally translate for her Spanish-speaking clients. She filed an asylum application on the grounds that Frankie was gay and would be persecuted if he was deported to Mexico. As the case made its way through the court, Frankie got a taste of what it was like to be a citizen — to belong. On October 25, 2011 — he could always recall the precise date; he’d just turned 21 — he received his first work permit. A few days later, he was issued a Social Security card. He passed the state background check and was hired at an eldercare facility. He enrolled in Coconino Community College and began studying to be a nurse. He got a driver’s license.
That same year, Frankie found out that he was the father of an 11-month-old girl, Kayleigh. Her mother was his girlfriend in high school. Frankie had suspicions that he was the father and asked to take a paternity test; when it was established that Kayleigh was his, he told everybody he wanted to support her. Frankie had always talked about having a family and loved being a father. Dulce had never seen him so happy. He bought a car and moved into his own apartment, which had a room for Kayleigh. He gave her a Disney princess bed set and a pink Barbie Jeep.
Then, just as quickly, it all vanished. When Frankie applied for a promotion at the eldercare facility, his employers found that his work permit had expired and fired him. Frankie had missed a court date for his asylum case — Price called him the day of the hearing, too late for him to drive to Phoenix. She told him to lie and say that he’d had car trouble. He was now at risk for deportation. He expected her to submit a DACA application — if he qualified, he could remain in the States and regain his work permit — but she never did.
Frankie phoned Price over and over. When she didn’t answer, he drove to her offices in Sun City two hours away and discovered she had disappeared. (In 2014, Price was disciplined by the State Bar of Arizona for a “pattern of misconduct” and indefinitely suspended from practicing law. She declined to respond to questions.) The only piece of good news was that Homeland Security asked the immigration court to dismiss his deportation case, an option often used under the Obama administration to halt a deportation when the person didn’t have a criminal record.
Dulce could see that he was scared, exhausted, and defeated. He couldn’t afford a new immigration attorney, and he was now playing a work-without-papers roulette. He would work for a stretch until the facility found he didn’t have valid documents, then work at another, and then another. He started picking up jobs at motels for less money. He quit college. He accumulated traffic tickets for driving without a license. He could no longer pay the rent on his apartment and moved back in with María. The mother of his daughter told him they were moving to North Carolina, and he couldn’t fight for custody.
Frankie stood in front of the Flagstaff City Council. His black hair was neatly spiked up, his eyebrows perfectly plucked; a rosary, the one he always wore during public appearances, hung from his neck. He introduced himself as a board member of the Northern Arizona Pride Association and as part of the Dreamer movement. A shy smile crossed his face. It takes courage to share that he’s undocumented and gay, thought Evans, who was watching him from the dais and was nervous as he stumbled, then proud as he found his way. He was there to ask the council to approve a resolution in support of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was before the U.S. House of Representatives.
He told the City Council that he had been educated with taxpayer funds, he was part of the community, he had no criminal record, he had done everything he was expected to, but that wasn’t good enough. He still couldn’t go to college. He still couldn’t pursue a career. “I feel like I’m on a street with just constant speed bumps, just constantly all the time,” he said.
DACA,which President Obama had recently established by executive order, didn’t go far enough, he went on. Arizona treated undocumented immigrants especially harshly. Governor Jan Brewer had issued an executive order barring DACA recipients from getting a driver’s license, and a state law barred them from receiving in-state tuition for public universities and colleges. Social service agencies and health providers could be criminally charged if they failed to report an undocumented immigrant who requested a public benefit. Police were required to turn someone over to ICE if they had reasonable suspicion he was in the country without documents.
“There are many of us,” Frankie said, “who have done everything that we possibly can to live the right life and to just continue prospering and contributing to our community, and Immigration doesn’t allow us to do that.”
For most of Frankie’s senior year in high school, Coral Evans didn’t see him. He just stopped showing up at the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association center. Then, one Friday, right before the regular I Am Youth meeting, he returned and was beaming. He had to talk to her about something. “So you know, I’m gay,” he told her. He’d always thought he was different, but he didn’t want it to be true. He kept on denying it. Not anymore. Evans was relieved; she had been waiting for him to find himself. Frankie had told Dulce. She wasn’t surprised, even though he had always shown up with girlfriends. María wasn’t surprised either. She said she’d known since he was a little boy and wouldn’t love him any other way.
Evans introduced Frankie to her friend Kathryn Jim, a Native American LGBTQ activist. Frankie was timid at first, but “when he was ready to go, he was ready,” Jim said. He started wearing mascara and foundation. He wrapped himself in feather boas and shiny scarves, wore colorful rimmed glasses, and was constantly trying something new with his hair, like dyeing it yellow. “He was fluorescent,” Jim said.
Even though Frankie considered Jim to be one of his closest friends — they called each other sisters — he never told her he was undocumented. He had long been in the habit of lying about where he was born: If you said you were from Mexico, too many people took it as code for “illegal immigrant.” Jim found out only after she helped him get a job at a clothing store where she worked. Two weeks in, he was fired. She was furious — she had put herself out for him — until Frankie explained it was because he didn’t have papers.
One winter they drove to Palm Springs for an LGBTQ rights conference, and, for the first time, she began to understand the fear permeating his life. “They’re going to get me,” he told her when he was in the car. “They’re going to take me back.” He was so afraid ICE would find him and deport him — in Arizona, a routine traffic stop could mean deportation — he insisted that Jim take back roads to avoid the interstate. A few miles before the California state line, when signs for a border protection station started to appear, Frankie’s hands began to shake. He smoked one cigarette after another. He put on his sunglasses. Only after they reached the station and saw that it was an inspection site for agricultural products did the panic subside.
The first nights after María’s open-heart surgery, Frankie stayed with her at the hospital, sleeping on a chair by her bed. In the weeks after she was sent home, he made sure she took her medicine and cleaned her wound as he bathed her. María was embarrassed that he saw her naked, but it didn’t bother him. He told her that he was her nurse and to think of him as a professional.
Since his mid-teens, Frankie had been part of the underground economy of undocumented immigrants who take care of aging white people. One of his closest friends was an older woman, a caregiver named Amy Phillips. They worked together at a nursing home and often dreamed about opening their own facility. What Frankie had, she believed, was God-given. This job isn’t easy. It takes an emotional and physical toll. But for Frankie, it was almost spiritual, she thought. He gravitated toward those in the memory unit who had no family. He would talk to them as people, not like they were hard of hearing. He would listen carefully to piece together stories of a past they had forgotten. He’d tell them jokes and make them laugh. He spoon-fed them when they didn’t want to eat. He changed their underwear or their diapers. He held their hand when they cried.
“Sometimes you’re all they have,” Phillips said. “You have to watch them die, and you try to help them die.” When that happens, there’s an urge to pull away. But not Frankie. He was the one who would pull in close. That’s why she often wondered if there was anything in his life that drove him to care in the way he did, or maybe he was just born that way.
IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, Frankie signed his mother up for English classes. “If you are in the United States,” he told her, “you need to learn English.” María was reluctant. Between babysitting and cleaning houses and taking care of her children, she was exhausted. Frankie insisted, saying he had registered her and would be embarrassed if she didn’t show up. María went to classes for a while — she even received an award for perfect attendance — but she said she didn’t learn a word.
It fell to Frankie to be her interpreter. He spoke with the vocabulary of a grown-up, so people thought he was older than he was. He accompanied María to the health clinic almost every week. If she became too anxious during a consultation and stepped out for a smoke, he would stay behind and ask questions about the medicine she was supposed to take, what signs he should look for. He’d bring home the brochures and study them. He was with her when she reported to the police that the manager at the Carl’s Jr. where she worked had groped her. He accompanied her when she talked with teachers at the school open house.
After his stepdad left the family, Frankie got a job arranging fruit at a nearby market. Thirteen years old, he would go after school and work until 11, bringing home as much as $100 a week, which would help cover utility bills and school supplies and Christmas presents. Every evening, María would wait outside the house and watch him walk back through the park across the street.
A family member carried Frankie through the U.S. port of entry. He was plump and had wide, round eyes. He was either 4 or 6 months old — María doesn’t remember exactly because she was frightened so much of the time. Drug dealers had kidnapped her when she was pregnant. Frankie’s father had been involved in a deal that had gone bad, and, in retaliation, they came for her. After she was released a day later, María knew she had to leave the marriage and leave Mexico. She waited until after Frankie was born on October 21, 1990. She was 28, a first-grade teacher, and knew she would be starting her life all over again. But it would be worth it, she thought. In the United States, no one would be able to take Frankie away.