Immigrants face paper obstacle course to stay in U.S.

By Happy Carlock, Bailey Ewing and Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder

Gregoria Torres Almazán wept, recounting the time her husband held a knife to her throat. She thought he was going to kill her. Torres still lives in fear that he might return some day.

“He cut my leg with a knife,” she said. “And my small children were there, the two of them. My daughter was the one who called the police because she was scared.”

Gregoria Torres Almazán

A mother of four, Torres fled her home in Ciudad Valles, Mexico in 1999. Like many immigrants, the promise of an improved life inspired Torres and her husband to come to America. But unknown to her husband, she had a different motivation.

“Over there, they don’t pay much attention if a man beats you or mistreats you,” she said. “That is why I came here, because over here they defend women more.”

Torres is one of the many faces of immigration, a hotly debated national issue that affects many parts of the United States. In central western Virginia, her story is emblematic of how a cumbersome bureaucratic process affects not only immigrants, but also their children and other family members.

In Rockbridge and nearby counties, immigrants who have survived harrowing journeys to the United States from Mexico and Central America must then navigate safe passage along a path lined with often impenetrable paperwork.

The U Visa is one way for an immigrant to gain legal status—even if temporarily. Congress created the U Visa in 2000 with passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act to allow people to stay in the U.S. if they assist police in investigating and prosecuting cases of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.

For Torres, the U Visa was not automatic. To qualify, she had to show that she was a victim of a crime and had endured physical or mental abuse. She also had to help police build a case to prosecute her husband for abuse. She needed a law enforcement official involved in the investigation to sign off on the visa. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, then gave final approval of the visa, which lasts for four years.

“It takes a certain degree of trust from the immigrant to be able to say ‘I am going to tell people that something unjust happened, something wrong happened and trust that they are going to care for me,’” said Alicia Horst, executive director of New Bridges Immigrant Resource Center in Harrisonburg.

Torres obtained her U Visa last year with the help of third-year law students at Washington and Lee University’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. New Bridges referred Torres to the clinic as part of the center’s efforts to help immigrants find access to legal counsel, health care, financial assistance, adult education and other basic necessities.

Torres continues to work with New Bridges to petition for “Derivative U Visas” for her daughters Cynthia and Samantha, who she brought to the U.S. the year after she got settled. At that time, Torres worked at a chicken plant and sold tamales to get by.

“Sometimes you think it’s going to be easy to arrive in the United States, and then you’re going start working the next morning,” she said. “You don’t know that to work you have to have papers. It’s very different. And you become aware that it’s like a battle to get work.”

Now, thanks to her U Visa, Torres holds a steady job at QSI, a sanitation company in Harrisonburg.

Harrisonburg immigration attorney Eduardo Justo de Pomar, who handles U Visa cases, says it can be difficult to keep a prosecutor interested in an immigrant’s complaint about abuse.

“I have had cases that did qualify for such benefit, and the prosecutor just falls out and quits the process and leaves the person to their own devices,” he said.

Before obtaining her U Visa last year, Torres said she worried about being stopped by police and getting into trouble for being an illegal immigrant. “In Harrisonburg they would stop you for nothing. Because you’re Hispanic, they stop you. You’re afraid to see police because they just stop you.”

‘In God’s hands’

Many immigrants risked their lives to get to the United States by relying on “coyotes,” unscrupulous guides who charge enormous fees and often leave their clients in the desert to die.

“There’s a lot of people that will tell you, ‘We’ll get you across for this much money,’” said Uriel, a father of three who is living illegally in central western Virginia. “But it’s all a lie. It’s hard to find somebody you can really trust.”

The Preliminary Hearing is using his first name—and that of his girlfriend—to protect their identities.

Uriel and Yolanda left their 4-month old son Gonzalo in the hands of a coyote before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on a cold November night in 2008. Uriel recalls paying about $2,500 for Gonzalo to be smuggled across, $3,500 for himself, and $3,500 for Yolanda. Four days later, he said, they felt lucky to find their son alive in El Paso.

“It was hard for us because we had to give [him] to somebody that we didn’t know,” he said. “We just had to trust them and leave it in God’s hands because you don’t know if you’re ever going to see your son again. The people who brought him, they had him in very little clothes, and he was very sick.”

Uriel was born in San Lucas Michoacan, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States in 1990 to join his parents, who had obtained legal status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

“The first time I came over it wasn’t really difficult because I came with more family members, and at the time, it wasn’t hard to get across,” he said. “I was just a little kid.”

Uriel attended public school in Virginia, became fluent in English, and eventually earned his GED. He says his parents sought legal status for him.

“A lot of the illegal immigrants that come into the United States, they don’t speak any English,” he said. “I consider myself being a U.S. citizen pretty much because I was brought when I was a little kid, and I went to school here.”

But Uriel said he left the United States after he was arrested and served time for a domestic violence-related felony. When he tried to return to the U.S., he was detained in Dallas and eventually deported.

He said he decided he wanted to try again because he considered the U.S. his home.

“We decided to come back because it was very tough in Mexico to make a living, especially at the time we had two kids,” Uriel said. “Everything’s very expensive down there, and there’s no jobs.”

Every day, Uriel says he lives in fear that he or Yolanda will be deported, leaving their three children without an English-speaking parent or a mother to take care of them. Their two younger children were born in the U.S. and are legal citizens. But Gonzalo is an illegal immigrant like his parents.

“If Yolanda gets deported, it’s going to be hard for me to work, take care of the kids, and be a mother and a father,” Uriel said. “Or if something happens to me and I get deported, Yolanda depends on me because she doesn’t speak English.”

Fear isn’t the only burden Uriel bears. Since he, Yolanda, and Gonzalo are not U.S. citizens, Uriel pays for all of their medical expenses out of pocket.

“With Gonzalo, he doesn’t have any kind of insurance,” Uriel said. “Luckily, we found a doctor and we were able to do payments, and that was easy for me. But still, even paying is very tough when you have to pay four or five hundred dollars at a time.”

Uriel said he is encouraged by President Barack Obama’s efforts to offer temporary legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, along with an indefinite reprieve from deportation. Congress has threatened legal and legislative action against Obama’s executive order, which was signed in November.

“I hope that everything works out the way that [Obama’s] talking about,” Uriel said. “That way if [Yolanda] gets legal, she can work and get insurance and not wait for someone to give it to her. If she learns the language and gets legal, she won’t be afraid to go anywhere to look for a job or for people to discriminate against her for her language.”

‘Follow the rules’

Marco Garcia, owner and manager of Muchacho Alegre in Rockbridge County, has spent the last seven years trying to obtain citizen status.

Garcia, 34, applied for a visa in 2008. He said he then applied for a work permit and now has resident status. He said he plans to start the citizenship process next year. It could take five more years before he is granted citizenship.

“It’s a really long process. I like it because if you want to be a resident or citizen, you have to do the right things,” Garcia said. “Like follow the rules. You have to be a good citizen.”

As a child in Mexico, Garcia said he couldn’t go to school, and started working when he was 6.

When he was 17, Garcia traveled from his hometown, Guadalajara, Mexico, to Martinsville, Va., to pursue better work opportunities. His uncle, who had a visa, offered Garcia a job as a cook in his restaurant.

After spending seven years working under his uncle, Garcia opened a restaurant in Roanoke, which he ran for 10 years.

Two years ago, Garcia decided to open a restaurant in Lexington after he came across the city while on a drive.

“So I said ‘One day, I want to open my own restaurant right here,’” he said.

Garcia said he’s had to travel to Maryland and other parts of Virginia, including Fairfax and Arlington, to complete the paperwork for resident status. He said he has to go to West Virginia to get fingerprinted every year.

“In my process,” he said. “I don’t see nothing wrong because they’re asking me for the right things. Like be a good citizen, don’t have felonies, pay your taxes, work, don’t try to get benefits from other governments.”

Legal aid

The government is not required under federal law to provide attorneys for immigrants facing deportation. Immigrants have the option of hiring private attorneys or seeking free legal representation, often through immigration and civil rights groups.

Law Professor David Baluarte

W&L Law Professor David Baluarte, who runs the Immigrant Rights Clinic, said he and his law students handle cases involving immigrants who are eligible for the U Visa, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and all types of asylum.

“We’ll get calls from as far away as North Carolina and sometimes from the other side of the state,” Baluarte said. “We don’t work with people outside of the Shenandoah Valley, but we are on this list, and we get calls from far and wide.”

Baluarte said Obama’s executive order isn’t enough.

“It’s a good interim solution maybe to put a Band-Aid on the hemorrhaging,” he said. “But we need to actually stitch the wound closed and move on as a country.”

Torres said she is happy that she has made it this far with her U Visa. But she said she knows that her job and the life she has provided for her children in Harrisonburg are not permanent.

“Sometimes you’re working and you think, ‘Oh no, they’re going to deport you, and they’re going to do something,’” she said. “You can’t concentrate well on what you’re doing or on your family. You’re thinking about tomorrow and what’s going to happen to your kids.”

Megan Fricke, Carissa Steichen, Emily Danzig and Cory Smith also contributed to this story.

Published Dec. 18, 2014