“I miss my mommy.”
Maria is 12 years old. She’s a sweet, skinny brunette trapped in those awful years between childhood and high school, facing all those hormonal changes that make middle school the worst time in any child’s life. She speaks softly. She’s still very shy and the pre-teen rebellion hasn’t set in yet, her stepfather says. She’s a good kid and a help with his other children, Dominic, 5, and Darien, 3.
But Darren, Maria’s stepfather, is a little lost himself, working long hours as a cable technician to put food on the table and clothes on his children’s backs. He’s a deeply committed family man who grew up in South East Denver and graduated from George Washington High School. He comes from a typical middle-class Jewish-American family, all hard workers themselves, and a tight-knit bunch at that. When Darren Gordon told them he was marrying a Latino woman, an immigrant from Mexico, they didn’t bat an eye. They welcomed her into their family with wide-open arms, and he was welcomed into hers.
Alma is Darren’s wife. She’s the mother of all three children. She’s a beautiful woman, with chestnut hair and engaging, almond-shaped eyes. When she talks, she too speaks softly. But she also speaks directly. She’s unafraid to speak her mind. She has the quiet confidence of someone who has known hardship and grown from it.
But this latest hardship has been the toughest. Alma’s been living in Colorado since B.N.E. …Before-Nine-Eleven. She got on a bus in Mexico with her then husband and came here to visit. It was back when the borders weren’t rife with gun-toting loons looking to count coup on the people trying to eke out a better life for themselves (speaking to vigilante citizen militia groups, not the U.S. Customs and Border Agents). She split with the man soon after, and found herself alone, child in tow.
Alma found a job at a Country Buffet. She made up some of the information on the required forms (eventually, she did apply for and gain a legal tax ID number) so she could start working. That’s where she met and soon fell in love with Darren.
“She’s been my rock. She’s been everything to me,” Darren says. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, many things have been an uphill battle for Darren. He’s been medicated on and off for the condition through the years.
“…But Alma’s stood by me through everything. Through the very darkest times. She makes everything so much better.” His eyes mist over as he breaks eye contact. “It’s just…so tough.”
“I was her manager, and she was my employee,” Darren says, recounting how they first met. “That was…gosh it must be 9 years ago now.” Alma already had Maria then. Maria’s biological father is going through the same thing Alma’s going through. “Maria doesn’t have a biological parent in this country now,” Darren says. When Darren and Alma met, both were coming out of bad marriages themselves. They were wed Jan. 26, 2008.
In April of 2008, Darren and Alma decided that it was time for her to become a legal citizen. It’s something she’s wanted to do for years, and they figured that it would be a small hurdle to manage since they were happily married, Darren was a natural born citizen and already had two children with each other. “We didn’t get married to try and fool the system,” Darren says. “I’m in love with her. She’s in love with me. Hell, since 9/11 (just getting married) doesn’t work anymore anyway. We just want her to be able to be a part of this culture. For her to be able to find a better job if she wants. To be able to visit her family in Mexico and be able to come back.”
So they began The Process.
“I’ve regretted this decision ever since,” Darren says.
The Process is capitalized for a reason. The act of trying to explain The Process literally takes Darren an hour. If you take this process out of context and hand it to Jon Stewart, it becomes one of those entire Daily Show segments with Rob Corddry or Samantha Bee as the “Senior Immigration Process Navigation and Frustration Correspondent.” Such is the absurdity of the amount of money spent and the collection of hoops the Gordon family has been forced to jump through.
“You start with a lot of forms. We went to one of these places where they do tax preparation and immigration form assistance.” The first visit cost $300.
“The next thing that happened was we got a response from the National Visa Center several weeks later asking for a whole bunch more documentation. Birth Certificates, proof of residency, income, tax returns, all that stuff,” Darren says. At that point, Darren admits, they figured they might need some help.
“The number of forms is overwhelming, and if you make a mistake on any of it or miss a deadline, you basically have to start over from scratch.” They decided to secure legal representation. Darren and Alma called Miguel Martinez, a lawyer in Denver, for assistance. “We knew it was going to cost us more money, but we figured better safe than sorry.”
And it did cost more money. All told, the Gordons have spent several thousand dollars between legal fees, travel costs and form filing fees throughout this process. And the expenses continue to stack up. “And, from what we’ve heard, it’s not even that much compared to what some other people have spent.” Meanwhile, with several thousand out the window, the door remains shut to Alma. (Requests for an interview with Martinez were not granted).
“As a citizen, I’m ‘sponsoring’ Alma for her to be able come here,” Darren says. “Basically, we have to show that Alma wouldn’t be a burden on the state; that we could afford for her to live here. But I didn’t have enough, so my parents had to co-sponsor.”
The irony of that statement isn’t lost on Darren. He’s already barely staying afloat in this process because Alma used to bring home nearly half of their income. Now, she’s trapped without a job in Guadalajara, Mexico, while Darren’s trying to juggle all the bills on one income. Because of their loss of income, incurred because of this process, they almost couldn’t even qualify to complete this process.
After months of waiting and sending forms back and forth, including Darren’s parents’ financial history, the Gordons got to wait another six months for an appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez.
“She had to go back to Mexico to have this interview; you can’t have it here,” Darren says. It’s an outdated tradition forcing people to go back to a “port of entry” before they re-enter this country legally. Once you’re out, you can’t get back in without a visa.
“That’s not what I would have advised,” says Shannon Underwood, attorney with Seattle’s Global Justice Law Firm. The CU graduate is a highly respected immigration specialist and an immigration reform champion. “Here’s the thing: If you’ve been in the country for over a year without (legal documentation) and leave, it immediately starts a 10-year ban on your return. Now, you can qualify for a waiver, but you have to prove extreme hardship on your sponsor family—for instance, you’re the primary caregiver and your sponsor has cancer, or something like that. If she had stayed here and worked through the process locally, she would have had some other legal protections, like the appellate court system.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t what Darren said he was advised to do. Instead, they packed up and headed south.
“We left on Jan. 31, 2010, on a bus down to Juarez.” First up, a medical examination, a cattle call to make sure Alma wasn’t carrying any communicable diseases and was up-to-date on all her immunizations. It’s only good for one year; if you don’t get your visa approved, you have to go back and get another medical exam. Then it was on to an interview at the U.S. Consulate.
“Alma went into the interview at 6 in the morning, came out around 10 am and then was told she had to come back for another interview. She said that they asked her how she got into (the United States) and she told them and then they said ‘you’re going to have to come back for a general pardon review.’”
Since Alma entered the country “illegally,” she was going to have to come back for what amounts to basically a hearing as well as pay a fine. She came into the country on a bus back before the borders became a militarized zone. No digging holes or climbing over fences. She got onto a bus and rode it here. Between that and her legitimate tax ID number, full-time employment and commitment to her family, Alma might be the most legal “illegal” in the country at
The kicker: The next interview was then scheduled for March 16…fully six weeks later.
Trapped in Mexico
“So Alma went to Guadalajara, where she has family, and I came back here,” Darren says. And then they waited. For six weeks. “We were hoping that at the end of that time, we’d be able to go to the pardon review, pay a fine, get a visa and bring her home.” While they waited, Alma spent some time with family and Darren worked, took care of the children with the help of Alma’s parents—both here on a legit visa.
“On March 15, I took Darien on a bus to Mexico. We had a stopover in Albuquerque, and I saw on the TV that there was a shooting in Juarez,” Darren says.
Ciudad Juarez is not going to top any “safest vacation destination” lists any time soon. Drug cartel beheadings and sexually charged crimes—kidnapping, rapes and murders—make the capital city of Chihuahua less than hospitable on its best days. On March 14, 2010, an American employee of the U.S. Consulate, her husband and a Mexican employee of the U.S. Consulate were murdered in a drive-by shooting, blamed shortly thereafter on a local drug cartel.
“So we get down there on March 16 and find out the Consulate is closed because of the shooting.” They rescheduled the pardon review for March 27. Another 11 days of waiting, and more expenses, as Darren had to return home while Alma flew back to Guadalajara.
“Alma has a friend who lives (in Juarez), but it’s a really small home, and, to be honest, it’s really not safe. There are military and police everywhere with machine guns and shooting all over the place. I wouldn’t want her to stay there all that time waiting,” Darren says.
On March 25, Darren, his son Dominic, and his father Dan drove back, meeting Alma in Juarez again on the eve of her next meeting at the Consulate. “Her appointment was at 7 the next morning. She gives them everything she’s supposed to give them—the forms, the fine ($540), the letter I wrote.” The Gordon’s lawyer suggested that Darren write a letter explaining why her being away was a hardship on them. Admittedly, having the mother of three children torn away from them is kind of a no-brainer on the “hardship” front, but every ‘I’ needed to be dotted, every ‘T’ crossed. No stone unturned. “We even contacted our state rep seeking advice.” Rep. Jared Polis’ office offered no comment other than to say they have no record of a conversation with Darren. Further interview requests were not granted.
“She comes out of the appointment 20 minutes later and they tell her she’s going to have to wait for a ‘packet’ with a bunch of information for her, and that’s going to take another 5-7 days. It’ll either provide the visa and her passport, or ask for a bunch more information,” Darren said.
After all the hoops, it was just short of a devastating blow. Another week of waiting. Two months away from home and her family. Savings bleeding dry.
A week later, Alma received her packet informing her that her family was going to need to prove a greater hardship. They were provided a deadline exactly 84 days out to return this information. Apparently, the letter Darren had been instructed to write wasn’t good enough. So, they contacted a different lawyer who guided Darren through the process of documenting his medical history, providing much more detail on his bi-polar disorder.
“Apparently, a lot of people have been successful simply claiming they have some sort of debilitating condition, and (the immigrant they’re sponsoring) is their primary caregiver,” Darren says. His frustration is evident. “But I can’t do that. I’m not gonna lie. That’s one thing we agreed upon is that we’ll be honest throughout this process. And besides, why would we have to do that? Why would we have to play that game?”
Nonetheless, this issue did force Darren to discuss his particular affliction in greater depth than he would have liked to whom ever the packet traveled. Which, as it turns out, was quite a few miles.
“The lawyer sent the packet to Alma; she signed some papers, and then was to send the completed packet to a P.O. Box in El Paso—that’s where the American Consulate mail is to be delivered.” Alma signs the papers, delivers the packet to UPS in Guadalajara. After a snafu with delivery, it finally finds its way to the Consulate.
The waiting continues. There’s a phone number Darren calls every day for a status update. Every day, the same thing: no information yet. As of press time, Alma is still in Mexico, seven months since she crossed the border. Alma and Darren’s children, meanwhile are doing the best they can.
“They ask a lot, ‘When’s mommy coming home?’ I keep telling them ‘soon.’ But even I’m beginning to wonder.”
On the website for the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, there is a “Customer Service Statement to Visa Applicants.” It includes a promise to all visa applicants to: treat you with dignity and respect, even if we are unable to grant you a visa; treat you as an individual and your case as unique; remember that, to you, a visa interview may be a new or intimidating experience and that you may be nervous; use the limited time available for the interview to get as full a picture as possible of your travel plans and intentions; use our available resources to fairly assist all applicants to get appointments to allow travel in time for business, study, and other important obligations; explain the reason for any visa denial to you.
The Gordons say they haven’t felt like they’ve been treated as individuals, or that their case is unique. In fact, their case doesn’t appear to have been treated as it should have been, according to current family visa rules. Perhaps most frustrating is that this process is dragging out so long despite the rules currently in place concerning family visas.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Customer guide, “There is no waiting period for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, which include a U.S. citizen’s spouse, parent, or unmarried child under 21 years of age.”
Apparently, “No waiting period” is government speak for half a year. And counting.