Photo by Barbie Porter
Jose Urbala recently became a U.S. citizen. The Perham resident first entered the country illegally as a 17-year-old boy, before figuring out life would be better if he did things legally. 

By Barbie Porter


When Jose Urbala crossed the U.S. Mexico border for the first time at the age of 17, he did so with the help of a coyote. 

A coyote is not a canine down south. It is what they call a person who is paid to smuggle migrants into the U.S. Urbala arrived in the land of the free with intentions of working hard and making money.

As is the story of many ill-gotten youthful adventures,  Urbala learned if he wanted to live the American Dream, he needed to play by the rules. The first step was obtaining a work visa, then a Green Card; then becoming a U.S. citizen.

The Perham resident recently passed his test to become a U.S. citizen and New York Mills native Jamie Teberg couldn’t be more proud.

Road to stability and family began with a good work ethic

Urbala grew up in the farm fields of Mexico plucking tomatoes and beans under the unforgiving sun. While working in the field as a teenager, he examined his parents. They worked hard every day to put food on the table, but getting ahead was not in the cards. Unless he took a drastic measure, Urbala believed he was looking at his future.

Having the same reliable and hard work ethic as his parents, he saw possibilities north of the border. When a get rich scheme presented itself, a 17-year-old Urbala took it and landed in California.  As an illegal immigrant, he had no rights; no safety net and lived in the shadows with a constant fear of being discovered and sent back to Mexico. 

He said finding work in the U.S. was easy, but the good pay and benefits belonged to those with legal documents, such as a work visa or Green Card.  

With time came wisdom and Urbala realized the err of his lifestyle. He returned to his homeland and took the necessary steps to enter the U.S. legally.

“I returned to California and worked in the fields picking peaches, plums and nectarines,” he said. “It was so hot; everyday it was 90-to-100 degrees. We started at 7 a.m. and finished between 3-and-4 p.m.”

But work is work, and good pay is a reason to stay. That was until Urbala learned about the vast opportunities manufacturing companies were offering in northern Minnesota.

“It was 2004 and I heard about Minnesota,” he recalled. “I heard you work inside, so no more 90 degree days or worrying about rain. I heard they pay well, too.”

His first job in the Perham area was picking eggs. As he became more confident with his English, he applied for work at manufacturing companies and is now an employee of Shearers.

He worked hard and found promotions and opportunity available. As his work life flourished, he also found love and welcomed three children into the world. 

While Urbala’s relationship with Jamie Teberg’s daughter couldn’t stand the test of time, the 1986 NY Mills High School graduate is thankful his grandsons have such a strong role model for a father.

The son of NY Mills residents Gayle and the late Butch Teberg summed it up, “Things didn’t work out with my daughter, but he is a good person; a good man. My grandsons are lucky to have him as a father.” 

As Teberg encouraged Urbala to become a citizen, he looked into it and found it would be costly. However, he also knew his Green Card could be revoked or not renewed at any time, for any reason. 

In his imagination, Urbala let a scenario play out where he was sent back to Mexico and complications were put upon his sons, two of which live with him. In that moment the daydream shifted to a nightmare. It was then he knew the time had come to take the next step in his journey. Urbala sought out a lawyer to assist him on his last leg. 

“It was expensive and my money ran low,” Urbala said, adding he eventually asked the lawyer to lay out a plan of what he needed to do so he could go it alone. “He said that I can’t make it by myself; I needed a lawyer. I told him I had no choice, so he helped me over the phone.”

Contributed photo
Jose Urbala is the father of three boys, two of which live with him (Ryan, 16, and Angel, 14). His children were the inspiration he needed to go from having a Green Card to becoming a U.S. citizen.

In addition to paperwork, Urbala had to take an exam. While he is usually the one helping his sons, this time they helped him. Holding the study guide, they quizzed him daily for months.

“There are 100 questions, but they only ask 14,” he said. “But, if you get six in a row right, the questions stop right there.”

While Urbala was working hard to ensure his family has the security of never being unnecessarily split up, he kept it a secret from just about everyone.

“I encouraged him to take the citizenship in the past, but when I learned he was doing it, that took me by surprise,” Teberg said. “I didn’t know he was studying, then suddenly he was going in to take the test. That gives me a huge amount of pride for him. Many come here as refugees, on work visas or Green Cards and live with that status their whole life.”

Teberg added legal entry is good, but those that take the step to join the U.S. as a citizen are “treated different by the government.” 

“I also see it as a major accomplishment,” he continued. “Jose (Urbala) is a one of a kind human being who is an amazing father to my grandsons. He has seen his struggles, but he always succeeds.”

After passing the citizenship test, Urbala waited for the lawyer to process the necessary documents. He recalled sitting in an office, waiting to be told he was a citizen. 

“At first nothing showed on the screen,” he said. “I was so nervous. Then they found what they needed; all checked and passed.”

Urbala’s smile was so wide it was obvious the tears forming were of joy. 

“I tried to get outside without crying,” he said, noting he walked passed two guards holding back his tears, but when he saw his cousin and wife waiting in a truck in the parking lot, the levy broke. “I cried and when they saw me, they cried, too. I was so happy I don’t have to worry about my family (being split up). I see a better future.”

At 49-years-of age, Urbala looks forward to attending the U.S. Citizen ceremony. He said when the invitation arrives, he knows it will be a proud  moment for himself and his family.