MEXICO CITY—Barcenas sometimes returned home so tired he could hardly speak.
"I felt his head one day. He had a bad fever," Xochitl Barcenas recalled. "I thought, 'This can't last.'"
He was thinking the same thing, even after he left asbestos work and began the graveyard shift at a Northbrook bread factory, a $14-per-hour job that allowed him to see his family only briefly during the week.
By then, Xochitl Barcenas had found work as a hairstylist in Evanston, which brought in a bit more money and allowed the family to move to a new apartment in West Rogers Park. Things were looking better, and Luis Barcenas was happy one day to accommodate a foreman's request that he train a new young worker from Mexico.
It turned out the worker was the foreman's nephew. A few months later, a supervisor's position opened up, and the nephew was promoted ahead of Barcenas. It was another lesson that the U.S. was not the meritocracy he envisioned.
"That boy who I taught, he rose ahead and took the position that was to be mine, and I had to accommodate myself to the same salary, the same station (in life)," he said.
Then came two events that finally prompted the couple's decision to move back to Mexico.
The first was the poor health of Xochitl's father, Jose Chiapa, whose diabetes led to the amputation of his right leg.
Then their eldest son, Aldo, was accepted into the prestigious Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center in the North Park neighborhood. It was good news, but Aldo let his parents know that he understood how, without legal status and money, his good grades were no guarantee of a bright future.
"What's going to happen to me after?" his father recalled his son saying. "Are you going to be able to pay for a university?"
"That touched bottom," Luis Barcenas said. "Without a Social Security number? Without permission to work? We realized it's hard."
Even so, the couple agonized over their decision to return to Mexico, especially for what it would mean to their sons. They had constantly emphasized to their children the American ideal of using a good education to climb as high as you can in life.
Both boys — Aldo, 14, and Andy, 12 — are gifted students who could one day have been put on the path to citizenship through the federal DREAM Act legislation, an 11-year-old proposal aimed at students and military personnel brought into the country illegally as children.
More immediately, the boys were eligible for an Obama administration program implemented just before they left the U.S. in August. It grants two years of temporary protected status to students who arrived before they turned 16 and have lived in the U.S. for at least seven years.
Their friends said the family was making a mistake.
"Specifically, the mother of one of my son's classmates called me anxiously on the telephone and said, 'Don't go! Don't go! You don't know the harm that you're doing to your sons!'" Xochitl Barcenas recalled. "One who is a mother, obviously, gets frightened, and you think, 'Well, what am I doing?'"
But the couple had carefully weighed their options and made their decision. With their combined incomes in the U.S., they could not afford to send both children to a good American college.
They concluded that the whole family would have a better future in Mexico, where the boys' diligence in school and fluency in English and Spanish would likely get them into a top-tier Mexican university with a more affordable tuition.
In an increasingly global economy that is less dependent on the U.S., they told their children, success is possible anywhere.