Immigration Stories: The Cotos

The Coto family seem to be the typical all-American family. They own a business. They pay their taxes. There's just one difference: They're undocumented.

David and Emill Coto at David's shop, Country Tailors in Basking Ridge.
David and Emill Coto at David's shop, Country Tailors in Basking Ridge.
Photo by Axel Dupeux

David and Edith Coto seem to have it all. Business is brisk at their tailor shop in a converted New England-style cottage in Basking Ridge, where David is the master tailor and Edith is seamstress.

Immigrants from Honduras, they live in a rented apartment in Chatham, a suburban enclave touted for its high-performing schools. Their son, Emill, 19, and daughter, Ibhar, 21, are thriving at County College of Morris (CCM). Emill hopes to become a mechanical engineer; Ibhar wants to be a dentist.

“When I came here, I saw the opportunities there were for my children, the possibility for a bright future,” says Edith, 49. “I want them to have a good education, to be professionals, to contribute. That is our American Dream.”

Yet for the Coto family, every day is a tightrope walk—especially since the election of Donald Trump.

They are undocumented.

David Coto grew up poor and learned to make his own clothes. He made the treacherous trip across the U.S.-Mexican border in 2000, after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, killing some 7,000 people, wrecking the local economy and leaving much of the Central American nation in the grips of drug traffickers. Edith and the children followed in 2003.

“There was really no choice,” Edith says of the heart-wrenching decision to emigrate. “No one wants to leave their family, their home, their country.”

Emill and Ibhar are beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 initiative by President Barack Obama that provides a renewable two-year reprieve from deportation for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States under the age of 16. DACA allows these individuals—there are 17,000 in New Jersey—to obtain work permits and driver’s licenses.

But President Trump cancelled DACA in September. His order to rescind the program allows individuals whose permits expire before March 5, 2018, to renew for another two-year period. Emill made the cut, renewing his DACA until 2019. Ibhar was not so lucky; her DACA protection expires in December, at which time she could face deportation.

David, 51, has a work permit that is annually renewed when he reports to immigration authorities in Newark. He was arrested in 2013 in a roundup of people with deportation orders, but an immigration agent agreed to reconsider after learning about David’s ongoing business and the taxes he had paid without fail for each of the past 15 years.

“He made a phone call to a supervisor, and then told me I could get a reprieve from deportation, get a work permit, and that I would have to report every year to the immigration office,” says David. “He said that could go on for 10, 15 or more years.” Edith does not have any such protection.

“My concern is, where does Trump stop?” says Emill. “He’s not supporting DACA, he is targeting us instead of people who are looking to harm this country—criminals and terrorists.”

"Things can change and your dreams won't happen. But we have to...show that we're not the way they try to depict us." - Emill Coto

“Things can change and your dreams won’t happen. But we have to…show that we’re not the way they try to depict us.” – Emill Coto Photo by Axel Dupeux

The family’s fears were aggravated in mid-December, when federal agents in New Jersey arrested about 100 immigrants—including those with only administrative violations—as part of a five-day sweep.

“It’s always there in the back of your mind,” says Emill. “Things can change and your dreams won’t happen. But we have to keep trying, keep working hard, and show that we’re not the way they try to depict us.”

Aware that she is completely vulnerable, Edith turns to her religious faith for strength. “I hope God can touch [Trump’s] heart and his mind,” she says. “I so hope that he has a change of heart and can understand what makes people leave everything they know.”

The Cotos say they love their adopted homeland and have nothing to return to in Honduras. Drug traffickers and gangs prey upon their native province, Copan; it is no longer a safe place to live.

Ibhar is finishing CCM while she works at a pharmacy and hopes to transfer to a four-year college. Emill works about 25 hours a week at an architectural firm in Summit while taking classes at the community college. He maintains ties to his alma mater, Chatham High School, where he is a mentor for the advanced robotics class and helps students prepare for the FIRST Tech Challenge, an international robotics competition. Emill says he is first and foremost an American. It is the only country he truly knows, the place where he and Ibhar came of age. Emill loves Jersey diners. He cheers for the Jersey Devils. He can describe in detail an authentic Sloppy Joe sandwich.

“America is their country,” says Edith, “even if Trump doesn’t think so.”

Immigration advocates hope that Governor Phil Murphy will implement policies in support of New Jersey’s estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants. Johanna Calle, director of New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, says that, despite Trump’s order, the state can pass legislation to provide undocumented immigrants with driving privileges (if not licenses that can be used for identification) and access to state financial aid for college.

“We have a huge immigrant population,” says Calle. “Our policies have to start reflecting that.”

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