Illustrated portrait of Dave Sotelo

Editor’s Note: A diverse group of 10 Kansans from across the state started discussing the topics of immigration and demographic change with The Journal, KLC’s civic issues magazine, late last year. As part of their experience, the thought partners interviewed each other in pairs about their views and experiences related to immigration. The Journal is publishing highlights from their conversations.

Dave Sotelo lives in Hutchinson, where he works as a city official. As a child, he fled Mexico because of death threats against his family. He shared his story with Josey Hammer, Courtland. 

Why is the topic of immigration important to you?

Beyond just my personal experience and the experience of my family, I get a call about six times a year from a teacher or a pastor, or just a caring friend, who wants to inquire about their friend’s immigration status. I get a call constantly about, “How do we help this person?” Usually it is framed as: “I know straight-A student heavily involved in our school or heavily involved in our church. Just an ideal citizen that we need to keep helping. They are undocumented. Is there anything we can do?” I usually will connect them to lawyers. But I know what the answer is, most of the time. I have to say, well, they can either get married or just hope for a miracle. 

I always say, I didn’t get up one day and think, When I was 13 years old, let’s go to J.C. Penney or let’s go shopping in an American mall. I really want to eat a hamburger at Burger King in Hutchinson, Kansas. That was never something that crossed my mind. I loved where I lived. I loved  my community, my school, my friends, my family.

I grew up with my grandmother in Mexico. My parents moved to the States when I was a young kid. My grandmother also raised two other kids: My cousin, whose mother died when the youngest one was born. And then a third cousin, whose father died when she was young. She was raised by her mother, but my grandmother helped a lot. My aunt was a police officer, and moved up through the ranks and became a captain.

Eventually, in 2009, the government becomes more aggressive in how they go after drug cartels in the country. And it just creates a disruption of how communities work. Safe, smaller communities like mine now are seeing more drug trafficking activity. It creates a lot of violence. That starts happening in our community and my aunt being a police officer, and higher up in the department, starts to try to address that. But a local, small police department is not going to address a multinational organized-crime organization. She started getting death threats to stop what she’s doing.

The death threats get so bad and so complicated that now it implicates my family. All of us, not just my aunt. One day, I am walking home from school and the guy that’s going after our family is near our house with weapons talking about going after us. By that point, my aunt had already moved away from town because it got so dangerous. But that wasn’t enough. We knew that we were a target too at that point. 

We decided that the best option for us is to come live with our family here in the States. So then we start trying to figure out, how do we get there? What does that look like? None of us can come here legally, because we’re so young. Our parents are here undocumented, the only one that can come here with legal documents is my grandmother, who’s a business owner. So we decided to cross the border illegally. 

In December of 2009, I crossed the border for the first time, getting detained and sent back. Then, the second time I’m crossing by myself, and I get caught using the ID of another person.I don’t get sent back. I get sent to an unaccompanied-minor shelter. I spent about a month and a half there. Spent my first Christmas there. For a while, I didn’t have any connection to my family. My grandmother eventually found me.

Just thinking about the first call I had with my grandmother when she finds where I am, and the sense of safety and hope that I got at that moment. It was such a hard time for me as a kid. My life was perfect up until that point, and then everything changes, right? I’m in survival mode. 

We eventually learned that I can’t go back to Mexico obviously because my life is in some danger. The U.S. government doesn’t want that. I cannot live with my parents because they’re undocumented here. So, my aunt and uncle here in Hutchinson asked for legal guardianship of me. So I can live with them. It was, like, you’d think, “Oh, well, great; I left the shelter. Now you have stability.” But new family, new school, new town, I didn’t speak English. That process was just as difficult and as long. Eventually, I get my green card.


Sign up for The Journal’s kickoff event on Aug. 17 and learn more about how you can join Younis in making the conversation about immigration and demographic change in Kansas and beyond healthier.

Read more in the Summer 2023 edition of The Journal, which will be published Aug. 10.

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