Disillusioned Young Immigrant Kills Himself, Starting an Emotional Debate
By MANNY FERNANDEZ/New York Times/Published: December 10, 2011
MISSION, Tex. — On the last night of his life, Joaquin Luna Jr., 18, filled the pages of a spiral notebook with goodbyes. In brief letters to relatives, friends and teachers, he asked one of his brothers to take care of his nephews and his niece and told a friend he had left a memento for her in his Bible.
In the days since Mr. Luna took his own life last month and since some of his writings became public, his story — of an illegal immigrant who suddenly lost hope of becoming the first in his family to go to college — has evolved into something more. To the immigrant rights movement in Texas, Mr. Luna has become a symbol of the psychological toll that being in the country illegally can take on young people. To others, he has become a political pawn, with his death being used by those who support the passage of the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who go to college.
Still others have questioned what role, if any, Mr. Luna’s immigration status played in his suicide. Although his relatives claimed that he committed suicide because of the pressure he felt, none of the letters mentioned his illegal status. In his letter to Jesus, he suggested that another issue was troubling him, saying he was “fearful to fall in any temptation,” though he did not elaborate.
But beyond the reasons for his death, Mr. Luna’s suicide has had an impact far past the border towns of the Rio Grande Valley. It has given other illegal immigrants in high school and college the courage to speak out about their own depression.
It has also thrust a low-income family of immigrants into the national spotlight and put a troubled teenager’s final letters at the center of the immigration debate, with relatives, activists, politicians and reporters dissecting them seeking evidence for or against the family’s claims.
Mr. Luna was a shy, lanky young man who played guitar in church bands and helped care for his diabetic mother near the border in Hidalgo County, one of the poorest counties in America, where 35.2 percent of the population lived below the poverty level in 2009. His neighborhood is a rural, ragged place, with run-down trailer homes and graffiti-tagged street signs. The skyline is dominated not by tall buildings but by windswept palm trees that tower over dirt yards, stray dogs and citrus groves.
Mr. Luna, who was born in Reynosa, Mexico, and came to the United States as an infant, was not like most teenagers in Mission. He drew the blueprints that were used to build his mother’s new house and spoke often of becoming either an architect or a civil engineer. He joked that he did not have time for a girlfriend, spending many weekends mowing lawns to pay for his electric guitar and lessons. At Benito Juarez-Abraham Lincoln High School, he was ranked 89th out of 467 students in the senior class.
In recent weeks, administrators at the school and several people close to Mr. Luna said he had given no indication that anything was wrong. But on Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, he put on a maroon shirt and a tie, lay down next to his mother and told her he was sorry he was never going to be the person he wanted to be, relatives said. Then he went into the bathroom, put a handgun underneath his chin and pulled the trigger.
Mr. Luna’s family told local reporters that he had killed himself because of the despair he felt over his immigration status as he was applying to colleges and that he had been affected by the Senate’s failure to pass the Dream Act last year. At that point, relatives had not read Mr. Luna’s letters because the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office had confiscated them as part of its investigation.
The story was quickly seized on by supporters of the Dream Act. College students in Austin painted posters reading “I am Joaquin.” At a vigil honoring Mr. Luna in Los Angeles, mourners listened to a message recorded by his relatives. In Washington, a Texas congressman, Representative Rubén Hinojosa, a Democrat from Edinburg, spoke of Mr. Luna on the floor of the House and urged Congress to pass the Dream Act.
Guadalupe Treviño, the Hidalgo County sheriff, said that Mr. Luna’s death had been ruled a suicide, but that investigators had not established a motive.
“I’m very disappointed that some folks, and even some of our elected leaders, have exploited and politicized this young man’s ill decision to take his own life, especially when we have found no evidence that points to any particular motive,” Sheriff Treviño said. “Nobody knows why he did it. Only he knows for sure why he did what he did.”
The sheriff’s office provided the letters to the family on Dec. 2. Relatives said that even though the letters failed to mention the issue, they continue to believe that Mr. Luna committed suicide because of his immigration status, based on their conversations with him and the references in the letters to his failure to realize his dreams.
“We lived with him, so we know, and it doesn’t matter what other people say,” said one of Mr. Luna’s brothers, Diyer Mendoza, 35, a truck driver who has become the family spokesman. “Every time he would put in an application, the first thing that would pop up was ‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’ No. ‘Resident?’ No. ‘Social Security number?’ No. It was all just mounting and mounting on top of him. I truly believe that if that Dream Act would have already passed, he would still be here today.”
As it became clear that the letters mentioned neither immigration nor the Dream Act, immigrant rights advocates went on the defensive as their conservative opponents attacked their handling of the issue. On its Web site, Americans for Legal Immigrationsaid the claims about Mr. Luna’s suicide had been “proven as a hoax by desperate and unscrupulous illegal immigrant invasion supporters.”
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which organized the vigil there, issued a statement saying it believed that the family was not being dishonest and was not exaggerating.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Hinojosa said he stood by his remarks because of statements the family made to his staff. “The congressman has no reason to doubt what the family has said,” said the spokeswoman, Patricia Guillermo.
Greisa Martinez, a senior at Texas A&M University and the coordinator of the Texas Dream Alliance, said the contents of Mr. Luna’s letters had not reduced the effect his suicide had on students who are in the country illegally. “We can all share in that pain and that angst that he felt at that moment, because we’ve all been there,” said Ms. Martinez, 23, who is an illegal immigrant.
One of the colleges Mr. Luna applied to was the University of Texas-Pan American, in nearby Edinburg. For a school project, he wrote that he wanted to attend the university because it was close to home and inexpensive. Mr. Luna was accepted, but he never found out: he died before his admission became official.