Before continuing her story, Esther left the picnic table for a moment to get something from her car. Back she came lugging a big plastic tub. “These are the documents,” she said. “All the paperwork that we have gathered and presented to the government officials on Luis’s path to legal status and citizenship.
Inside the tub were 10 matching white binders, each carefully labeled and filled with documents and certificates and official papers, each in its own plastic sleeve. There were copies of letters to and from her attorney; all the receipts, itemized by category; photographs of their wedding and photographs of Luis at her bedside moments after Alexander’s birth and again, holding newborn Maximo several years later.
“A marriage license isn’t enough,” Esther says quietly. “They need ‘proof’ that it isn’t a marriage of convenience — not a marriage just to qualify Luis as a spouse of a U.S. citizen. It can take up to 30 documents to prove that you have a bona fide marriage.”
Presumably, the journey from “undocumented” to “legal status” is easier for the spouse of a citizen. “I didn’t think much about it before we were married and before we started our family,” says Esther. “And Luis seemed not to worry about his status. He’s more carefree than I am. I don’t think the dangers seemed very real to him before he became a father.”
One of the many itemized documents they needed was a record of all Luis’s employment for the past 10 years! “Before I met him — when he first came into the United States — he worked in the fields. Two weeks here, two weeks there. Wherever workers were needed. He had no idea who his employers were. But miracle of miracles! He had kept all his pay stubs!”
Esther determined that they would do as much of the work as they could, themselves, before they involved an attorney. She spent many hours online, reading about the process and learning what kinds of documentation would be needed. “Lawyers cost anywhere from $250 to $350 per hour and the paralegals — the ones who do a lot of the ‘leg work’ — cost from $90 to $125 per hour. I knew that I could save us a lot of money by doing as much as I could on my own.”
One of her binders holds the month-by-month receipts — the costs for forms and copies of documents and for the two-and-a-half years they finally had to involve an attorney: June - $636.46; July - $1,347.00; August - $56.25 — and on it went. “By the time we were through, it had cost us $20,000 in bi-weekly payments — and that’s with me doing a lot of the research and gathering of material.”
“Of course, we needed an attorney for consultation and to review the documents we would eventually submit to the Department of Homeland Security. I gave authorization so that our attorney was sent copies of every single document we received—birth certificates, medical reports, employment documents, everything — so that he could check them over for discrepancies. All it takes is one clerical error; one wrong date…”
Esther and Luis worked hard to earn the money and to gather the documentation. “It wasn’t easy, but we were determined. The first step was to complete the I-130 Form — ‘Petition for Alien Relative.’ For that I had to prove that I was qualified to sponsor Luis and that we were legitimately married. I had to supply my birth certificate, my U.S. passport, two copies of passport-style photographs for both Luis and myself, our marriage license, birth certificates of our boys (with both our names on them). There were 50 pages of family evidence, alone!”
“We submitted all that in February 2013 and received our approval Feb. 12, 2014. What the approval said, essentially, is ‘Your marriage is now confirmed. You can move forward.’ We were onto step two — the ‘I601-A Application for Provisional Unlawful Presence Waiver.’ All that was required,” Esther laughs ruefully, “was patience, time, organization and money. What we were asking for was that Luis be able to continue pursuing his quest for legal status from here in the United States. Otherwise, he would have had to return to Mexico for 10 years.”
Three full binders hold the paperwork for that part of their process — 200 pages. “As his wife, I had to explain two possible scenarios. First, why I would suffer hardship by being separated from my husband for 10 years while he went to Mexico to pursue his quest for U.S. citizenship; second, why it would be a hardship for me to follow him with the boys. Not how Luis or our sons would suffer, mind you. How I would suffer.”
This was where her habit of documentation became useful. “Remember how I was overwhelmed with stress when I began at the University of Washington — way before I met Luis? I had taken advantage of the free counseling that was offered and I kept copies of all the reports. Then, Maximo was diagnosed with a heart murmur when he was born; Alexander has obstructive sleep apnea. Again, I sought counseling for stress.
All in all, Esther had 150 pages of evidence to submit regarding the medical condition of the children and how that was adversely affecting her — how she needed to be close to their doctors here and how she needed their father here, as well. “We also had to prove his family ties to the United States — the naturalization or proof of citizenship of my parents, his parents, all our siblings. Oh… did I say that somewhere along the way, his parents and sister decided that they, also, would like to become permanent residents? So, I helped them through their process, too.”
Their final step was to go to Mexico so that Luis’ application for Permanent Residency could be acted upon at the U.S. Embassy there. “It was not my first trip to Mexico. When I was a young girl, we had gone several times as a family — my parents and brother and I — and I loved it! I thought I would feel the same way when Luis and I went after Alexander was born. We went to Luis’ village so his parents could meet their grandson.
“There was nothing familiar to me about the lifestyle in that village — carrying the water, taking care of the farm animals, traveling 45 minutes on a bus to the nearest town on unpaved roads. And the dust! At times, it was hard to breathe it was so dusty! And it was so primitive. That’s when I realized that perhaps I had misspoken when I had fallen in love with Luis — when I ‘told him that I’d follow him to the ends of the earth!’” she smiles. “Now I thought, maybe not. Maybe not to his village in Mexico!”
The last requirement in this part of Luis’s process was for him to go the U.S. Embassy “in his country of origin” and “ask for forgiveness.” “That’s the legal term — ‘forgiveness’.” Again, that rueful smile. “Before we left Seattle, he had to do the ‘biometrics’ part — be fingerprinted. They did that again at the Embassy in Juarez. I was worried every minute because I knew that no matter how good our documentation was, there were no guarantees. It’s not an automatic ‘yes.’ There is always the chance that the applicant has not crossed a ‘t’ or dotted an ‘i’.”
This part of the process only involved Luis. “He could have gone alone, but we went to Mexico as a family because it might have been the last time we would all be together for many years. I bought a round trip ticket for me and the boys, but only a one-way ticket for Luis. Just in case.” At this point in her story, Esther’s smile told it all.
“Our situation worked out perfectly. Luis has his permanent residency now. In two and a half more years, he’ll be able to apply for U.S. citizenship. I don’t think I’ll really rest easy until that step is over. It’s been so hard. So very, very hard.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Increasing immigration enforcement since the inauguration of President Donald Trump is an important story in Pacific County and elsewhere in the nation. But it’s a difficult story to tell, because the people most affected — undocumented immigrants — are often afraid to speak to authorities, including the news media. Chinook Observer columnist and retired teacher Sydney Stevens is writing this series, “Stories from the heart,” in an unconventional way that will mostly avoid specifically identifying the people she is reporting about. Their quotes are real, their stories are real. We hope it will help illuminate this issue that is having profound impacts on Pacific County’s families, culture and economy.
A Lawyer Speaks
The path to legal status and citizenship is highly structured with elaborate documents, deadlines and formalities required of immigrants. It would be intimidating for anyone, but for someone with limited skills in English and, perhaps, with little formal education, it can be a daunting process. The burden of proof lies wholly with the applicant. Every criteria must be met comprehensively and in a timely fashion.
Traditionally it was the Treasury Department that dealt with immigration issues. Since 2003, however, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has come under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security. ICE is now the second-largest criminal investigative agency in the U.S. government after the FBI. Even an experienced practitioner can have trouble navigating the overlapping jurisdiction of the various federal agencies. The task can be overwhelming for first-time applicants or casual observers.
Not to be discounted among the difficulties of attaining legal status, applicants frequently come from countries where government officials and legal authorities can be arbitrary, corruptible, and even violent. There is an inherent distrust of authority among migrant communities. The language barrier, too, adds immeasurably to the difficulties of the average immigrant hopeful. In addition, the process is costly, time consuming and increasingly restrictive. And, of course, there are never any guarantees.