A long journey from undocumented immigrant to legal resident
When Samuel Garcia first came to the United States in 1999, he paid a “coyote” to help him sneak over the U.S.-Mexico border. In the middle of the night, he crossed the Sonora Desert into Arizona with hopes of finding better paying work than was available in his hometown in Oaxaca.
On April 19 of this year, Garcia became a legal U.S. resident. He lives in Santa Cruz with his wife and 1-year-old daughter—both U.S. citizens. However, Garcia’s path from undocumented immigrant to legal resident has been difficult and complicated, not unlike the experience of many other immigrants to California.
Garcia comes from the town of Sola de Vega in the southern part of Oaxaca—one of the poorest states in Mexico. He is the second oldest of nine children, and grew up in a home with dirt floors and no electricity. Economic opportunities for Garcia and his family were virtually non-existent. Garcia estimates the average salary in his town to be about $5 a day. “In Mexico, it is hard to live with a big family,” he says. “Everything is expensive.” A strong desire to provide for his parents and siblings led 17-year-old Garcia to make the dangerous trek north.
After arriving in the United States, Garcia followed the path of many undocumented immigrants and worked in the agriculture and food service industries. He worked two seasons picking crops and driving tractors in the fields in Salinas before finding a job in the kitchen of a Capitola restaurant.
It was here that Samuel first met Jennifer, a U.S. citizen who worked as sales person for the business and the woman who would eventually become his wife.
At first, the two rarely spoke to each other, but one day Jennifer was washing spilled food off her hands, and Garcia walked over to turn off the tap for her and give her a paper towel. Jennifer was impressed by his courteousness. “I literally told him later that day, ‘You are the boy of my dreams,’” she says, laughing, “and I asked him, ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’” The two went on their first date a few days later.
Over the next few years, the couple grew closer and closer, despite Jennifer’s concerns about Garcia’s immigration status. She knew it would be tricky to get him legal residency, and this was a major hesitation she had when thinking about marriage.
Individuals like Garcia, who come to the U.S. because of the demand for cheap labor in the agricultural or service industries, often find themselves creating new lives for themselves here. They fall in love and start families, but have the fear of being found out and sent back to their country of origin.
Douglas Keegan, an attorney and program director at Santa Cruz County Immigration Project who did not work on Garcia’s case, but whose organization helps nearly 4,000 people each year, says he has seen many people in comparable situations. “I’m virtually certain that the facts of [Garcia’s] case are similar to so many other [cases] in Santa Cruz County, because currently there are very few options available to people who want to become legal residents and who have arrived here without documentation,” he says.
Almost the only way for an undocumented immigrant to gain citizenship is to have a close relative who is a U.S. citizen or be married to a U.S. citizen. Without this connection, most immigrants are out of luck.
The U.S. citizen must petition for his or her spouse or relative, and, then, if the person is from Mexico, the case is sent for processing to one of the world’s busiest U.S. consulates in Ciudad Juárez. Just south of the border from El Paso, Texas, Juárez is frequently in the news for the gruesome, drug-related violence that plagues the city. “It’s a scary experience,” Keegan says, but Mexican immigrants seeking residency in the U.S. have no choice but to go there while they wait.
Returning back to their countries of origin is a difficult decision for many undocumented immigrants. “If the person has been here in the U.S. for more than a year without permission, the moment they leave the country, they trigger a 10 year penalty,” Keegan explains. “What that means is once they leave the U.S., they are not allowed back for 10 years. And the ironic or catch-22 aspect of this is that they don’t have any choice—they have to go to Ciudad Juárez.”
Overcoming this penalty requires the U.S. citizen to show “extreme hardship.” The family member has to prove he or she “will experience an unusual level of hardship or pain or will be severely affected by his absence,” Keegan says.
Waivers tend to be granted if, say, the U.S. citizen has a health problem and requires care from their partner, or if the two have a business together that would collapse without the other person. “It’s all these very dire scenarios that you have to come up with in order to qualify for the waiver.” Keegan says. “Sometimes the waiver is decided in a matter of weeks. Sometimes it takes up to a year, during which you have to wait outside of the U.S.”
The complicated process reflects the ambivalence in the United States toward undocumented workers. Many argue that undocumented workers who are contributing to industries that depend on cheap labor should be able to legalize their immigration status. However, there is a fear of legitimizing or providing incentives for illegal border crossings—hence the 10 year penalty.
Garcia and Jennifer got married in late 2008 and found a lawyer to help them build a case for the extreme hardship waiver. In the interim, their daughter Paloma was born.
On Jan. 26 of this year, Garcia left for his first visa appointment in Juárez to confirm he was eligible to apply for a waiver. He underwent blood tests and urine tests to check for any indications of drug abuse. He was also given a physical exam in which he had to strip naked so nurses could check him for gang tattoos or track marks.
After the exam was complete, Garcia had to wait in Juárez over the weekend for his first appointment at the U.S. consulate. “It’s dangerous,” Garcia says. “I was watching TV sometimes, and every day five or six people die. The whole time I was in the [guest house]. You don’t go outside.” Garcia also says that criminals in Juárez prey on the people who are in the city waiting to get their papers processed and will attempt to steal visas, passports, and the money they come with for all the processing fees.
“It’s expensive, too,” Jennifer adds. “[The guesthouse was] $45 a day plus his food. It adds up. It wasn’t like he was making any money while he was away, so we were only on my income. It was hard to manage.”
Garcia was found eligible to apply for the waiver and he returned on April 7 to deliver the case. The papers he, Jennifer and their lawyer had put together argued extreme hardship based on a multitude of factors—a blood condition Jennifer has that sometimes causes her fatigue, and emotional distress she would suffer without her husband. Jennifer also applied for graduate school because it would make a stronger case that she would need Garcia if she pursued further education.
“We’ve talked to so many people who got an automatic 10 year penalty,” Jennifer says. “It just depends on your luck and your case that the lawyer builds for you.” When asked what they would have done had the waiver been denied, Jennifer and Samuel exchange a pained look. “I think probably I would have gone to Mexico to live with him and wait,” Jennifer says.
A week later—and after incurring a total of about $10,000 in fees and costs—Garcia’s case was approved. By April 19, he had the residency visa in his passport. He got his visa stamped at the border, and then went to collect his things. When he returned to cross the border, no one checked his passport as he walked—this time legally—into the United States.
Garcia caught a flight back to California later that night and was reunited with Jennifer and their daughter. “Now I feel safe and not afraid of being separated,” Garcia says. “It was a terrible ordeal,” Jennifer adds, “but in the end it really is all worth it.” In three years, when he becomes eligible, Garcia plans to apply for U.S. citizenship.
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