Nicole Salgado, co-author of the book Amor and Exile: True Stories of Love Across America’s Borders, will travel to the United States next week for the first time with her whole family, including her American citizen daughter and her husband Margarito (Margo) Resendiz. Margo was finally granted an immigrant visa last October, 14 years after the pair voluntarily departed the U.S. together in 2006, to live in exile in his home state of Querétaro, México.
“It’s hard to believe this day is finally here,” said Salgado, “When my husband and I got engaged over 18 years ago, I never would have believed that it would have taken this long for him to hold legal status alongside me.”
Reséndiz stated simply, ”I’m ready to return with my family, and have been for a long time.”
Amor and Exile, co-written with journalist Nathaniel Hoffman and published in 2013, tells of love that transcends borders—a story shared by hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens. In it, Salgado gave a first-person account of life in the U.S. with her husband while he was undocumented, her tortured decision to leave the country with him, and their seven years of exile and starting over together in Mexico. Nathaniel Hoffman, the book’s co-author and communications manager at Define American said: “It was shocking to me, even as an immigration reporter, and to many of our readers, that Nicole and Margo had to leave the U.S. if they wanted to be together, that there was no legal path for them as a couple. I’m thrilled that they can now return together as a family.”
In the six years since the book was published and delivered to every member of Congress, Salgado continued living in México with her husband and their 9 year-old daughter, and working as an environmental education specialist, occasionally giving book talks, and befriending fellow Americans in Mexico. Margo is a craftsman and shares in the care of their daughter “Bea” who is excited but also understandably nervous about traveling to the U.S. for the first time with her dad. Salgado’s parents, Ron and Deb, based in North Carolina, have also endured their daughter’s long exile and the fact that their only granddaughter has lived in Mexico since birth: “To say that we are excited that our family can finally be reunited in the U.S. would be an understatement. We are happy and relieved the wait is over and looking forward to spending more time with our granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law. It’s been a hardship for all of us in both countries to be separated for so long.”
Despite marrying Reséndiz in California in 2004, Salgado eventually learned that the only way to overcome her husband’s previous unauthorized entry to the U.S. was to leave the country for at least 10 years. And the only way to keep their marriage together was to go with him. After twelve years in Mexico, Margo applied for a waiver of ineligibility, which was approved in 2018. The pair then waited another year – until October of 2019 – for a shot at a visa interview in Ciudad Juarez, the only location in Mexico for permanent resident applicant interviews.
The couple is represented by immigration lawyer Laura Fernandez, who, according to Nicole, “played a vital role in our case.” Fernandez, based in Milwaukee, WI, states: “Cases like Margo and Nicole’s that end “positively” are relatively rare because very few applicants make the big, difficult decision to depart the United States knowing they will spend more than 10 years waiting for a chance to apply for their green card. Others end up in this situation accidentally, due to receiving poor legal advice and departing without knowing how long they will be banned. Thus, similarly situated applicants end up splitting up or divorcing due to the strain on the relationship and the financial hardship this situation almost indefinitely creates. Nicole and Margo made the best of a difficult situation and then took all the proper, albeit complicated steps to resolve their situation once they were able to do so.”
Salgado and Reséndiz´s good news is tempered by the fact that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans are still driven underground in the U.S. or exiled out of the country with their undocumented immigrant spouses. Salgado is an active member of American Families United, an advocacy organization made up of and supporting American citizens like her, which has worked to introduce bills to Congress that would ease their legal predicaments. Through her book authorship, her AFU activity, and online forums, Salgado has met or virtually met many people in similar situations who are fighting to keep their families together or bring them back to the U.S.
One good friend Nicole made in Querétaro soon after publishing Amor and Exile also recently returned to the U.S. – Heather Ruark and her family. Ruark, originally from Virginia, was also exiled after her own husband’s visa overstay from years ago. In 2019 her husband was finally granted his visa, after first being denied. “After an incredibly bittersweet goodbye last summer, the evening before flying into the USA, our family is relieved that Nicole and Margo will also be able to live in the United States as well,” Ruark stated, “and we look forward to remaining friends and fighting for other U.S. citizens to be with their families in the States.”
En route to Ciudad Juarez for Margo ?s interview, they flew through Monterrey, Mexico, where they met an American woman from Chicago who, along with her two American children, is exiled permanently due to her husband’s lifetime ban for a childhood unauthorized entry. While in Ciudad Juarez, Salgado virtually met Edgar Falcon, fellow AFU member, El Paso native, and now resident-in-exile of Ciudad Juarez where he lives with his Mexican wife and dual citizen child. Randall Emery, President of AFU, had this to say about Nicole and Margo’s decades-long case: “We’re thrilled that Nicole is finally able to return home with her family. Her story is a testament to marriage and family, and an indictment of broken immigration law that strips U.S. citizens of their most fundamental rights.”
On October 21st, 2019, our family experienced a thousand lives in one day, literally and vicariously. From where I sat at Pancake Paradise, for two hours from 7:45 to 10 am, I watched hundreds of families walk up and down the stairs leading to the pedestrian bridge over the boulevard along which lies the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, where my husband’s fate (and my, my daughter’s, and many other loved ones of people being interviewed that day) would be determined as a result of a 5 to 30 minute conversations along a bank-teller style counter with at least 20 would-be applicants lined up shoulder to shoulder at any given time, the culmination, for many, of decades-long waits, or perhaps a couple years’ bid after a routine marriage or other important family event Stateside.
The lead up to this event was nothing short of life changing, and seemingly lifelong. After 18 years together, 15 years married, 13 years living in Mexico, 5 years since we’d been approved for a spousal visa, and over a year since my husband’s waiver had been approved, Margo finally stood at the consular window to answer questions and ultimately, defend his right to a permanent resident visa as my legal spouse.
It was a complex and stressful preparation for the approach to Mexico’s northern border with the U.S., to say the least, that involved reams of paperwork, scans, lawyer texts, emails, affadavits, letters of support, almost too lengthy of a process to mention in detail. But throughout it all, I never allowed myself to stray too far from the present moment. To do so would be to fall into the chasm of anxiety in which I once found myself, but pulled myself out of, when Margo and I first approached the border in September 2006, that time to leave the U.S.
But in a way our bid to a journey north has had similar aspects to our journey south. We found and made many friends along the way. On separate occasions during our two trips to Mexico City and on a layover in Monterrey, we met up with 6 friends who helped to humanize our experience while our lives were being scrutinized under the governmental magnifying glass.
Preparing for both the best and the worst at the same time makes for an intense time for any family, and our experience was no exception. But we managed to eke out some moments of quality time in between medical and biometric appointments, whether in the company of friends, at free museums, trying out BBQ made by repatriates, or by sharing innumerable toasts to our good luck.
I can’t speak for Margo, and I’m not a religious person, but I guess I must be somewhat spiritual because I did try to find a greater meaning in our journey at every turn, and even opened myself up to the possibility of help from a higher power in a few occasions – whether from the ancient sanctuary in Atotonilco or in a reading of the Tarot of the Spirit. I gathered strength from the four elements – special stones, my living totems, seeds, and colorful fruits of the prickly pears in the botanical garden not far from the hotel, all of which lifted our mood despite an otherwise drab setting.
For our three days in Juarez though, Margo and I would go it alone. While we were in our hotel, on the plane, in waiting rooms, and while I was waiting for Margo to come down off that bridge, I journaled and recorded my myriad thoughts and feelings about the experience. I have been hoping that I could share those words with our followers, or with folks who are new to our story, similar to how I shared the experience of waiting to cross the border in 2006, and how it impacted us. I haven’t found the time yet, but I hope it won’t be long before I do. It was a unique experience, one that has been mostly disillusioning, but one that has also affirmed my belief in people’s freedom of movement. We are all or have been migrants at one time or another, and to try and stanch the movement of people is akin to trying to stop the flow of life.
When I finally saw Margo coming down off that bridge, after a little over 2 hours that felt like 2 days, I ran out to the street, leaving my plate and purse behind in Pancake Paradise, calling out to the waiter that I’d be right back. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time for him. But when Margo approached me, he wore a long face, and told me that “They almost didn’t give it to me.” The long story short is that Margo was granted his resident visa that day. It was a close call – after talking to the agent for 30 minutes she handed him a blue slip that meant he was denied – because for some reason they didn’t have a record of his waiver, and told him he needed one. Luckily, I had prepped Margo extensively the day before on the contents of his files, and he knew to ask them why they didn’t have his waiver, when he had been approved for that already. After disappearing for 10 long minutes, the agent came back, printed out a green slip, and told Margo he’d been approved. He can’t remember if there was an apology for the mixup. There was a small snafu with the package that was ultimately resolved, but a week after that fateful appointment, Margo finally held his long-awaited visa in his hand.
Back in Pancake Paradise, for some reason, maybe to ground ourselves, the first place I said I wanted to go was to the border itself. We wandered through a park adjoining the international zone, where likely asylum applicants were camped out waiting their turn to apply for their turn. After a couple dazed hours of recovering from the shock of the experience, celebratory imbibement started to flow. My joy was quickly sobered by a stroll up onto the Paso del Norte International bridge, where the miles of chain link, razor wire, and the Rio Grande channeled into a concrete trickle immediately reminded me of the often insurmountable barrier that’s been built in the path of traditional movement of people, animals, plants, and water – life in general – in the name of security.
Just the day before, at the tamales festival in the local park, we had encountered a young man from the L’pai N’de community, whose people traversed these lands freely since prior to both American and Spanish colonial arrivals, in a time pre-dating international borders, where living things followed more permeable biogeographical boundaries. He talked of his his people’s struggles for recognition and for access rights to their ancestral lands, and acknowledged his own fears for their existence. It was yet another pause for reflection on the topic of land ownership, sovereign nations, and the collateral damage in between the contours.
This may never happen, but until I’m convinced that our country is fighting for the safety of its own citizens and the worlds’ peoples, I will not cease to believe that a militarized border is a symbol of selfishness, hypocrisy, immeasurable privilege and mistrust. Despite the fact that every U.S. citizen is a de facto owner of such a system, most of us are still received with open arms in most other countries, who correctly intuit that a country’s people are more than their nation’s xenophobic symbols and representatives.
Considering that in the 13 years that it took for my husband to finally be granted an open door to his wife and daughter’s birthright, I am eternally grateful to Mexico for not having closed its doors on me and our daughter. We are also forever appreciative of the friends and family who have buoyed and tethered us on this vast intercontinental journey, and who will likely continue to do so, as the story isn’t over. My hope is that one day, every person who is seeking entry to a country where they want to make a contribution with their life can do so with liberty and respect. Until then, this song is for them.
In the going on 13 years I’ve been in Mexico, we’ve had to say “goodbye” to several good friends who have moved “back north” or elsewhere. In Amor and Exile, I wrote about a variety of different reasons that other expats end up down here in Querétaro and the solidarity we have being foreigners who’ve chosen to relocate here.
We hosted a reunion gathering of sorts last month when one of our dear friends who moved back to the States a few years ago finally was able to come back and visit. Kind of a big sister figure to a few of us, it was great to have her and her family here, reminisce about when our kids were toddlers and besties together, and that feeling of sisterhood while raising a family in a foreign country.
Around the same time we were hosting our good friends who were in town for the weekend, we were saying a different kind of goodbye to some other dear friends who had an immigration exile situation very similar to ours, but who finally got their break to return as a family this past summer.
Heather and Horacio (H2) met over a decade ago in Georgia, fell in love and decided to get married and start a family. As fate would have it, Horacio, also from Central Mexico (San Luis Potosí) experienced legal challenges to an adjustment of status due to having overstayed and working while on a tourist visa to the U.S. Heather ended up accompanying Horacio down to México as I had Margo. We both actually lived in Querétaro for several years without knowing it, but didn’t meet each other until we published Amor and Exile, Heather found the blog, and reached out to try and make contact.
To make a long story short, H2 didn’t have to apply for one but two waivers. Their first was an I-212, similar to ours that we applied for last June and got approved last September; and their second (an I-601) was precipitated by a torturous sort of double jeopardy penalty handed out late in his application process, at the end of his 2nd visa interview last year.
We had been waiting right alongside H2 , first for the visa interview, then for the results, for one, because that’s what friends are for, and secondly, because our paths have mirrored each other’s so closely over the last 12+ years. In fact, the things we two exiled ladies had in common in our journey are so downright uncanny we decided to keep a list of things we both have or have done:
Both are from the East Coast of the U.S.
Both are educators
Both have younger brothers
Both left the U.S. with our “inadmissible” husbands on a voluntary departure
Both stopped at the Grand Canyon on our last trips out of the U.S. with husbands
Both moved to Mexico in 2006 (3 weeks apart)
Both had a Nissan Platina car
Both lived in Querétaro (for 5 yrs w/o even knowing each other)
Both taught English in Mexico
Both had their first borns in Hospital Santa Cruz
Both first babies were born in the same room!
Same immigration lawyer (I referred them to ours)
Both had to apply for I-212 waivers for their husbands
Both had I-212 waivers approved
This running list of things in common became like a joke for us, with all of our uncanny similarities. It was one of many go-to sources of humor that our two families needed during so many months and years of darkness and despair, trying to hold out hope that we might be able to choose our destinies as a family and return to our homelands together with our families. H2 and their family did end up briefly separated for a short while while Heather worked as a schoolteacher close to family in Pennsylvania and took their two boys with her, a natural reaction to needing and wanting to command a better income to raise a family than one can in Central Mexico, and also based on the assumption that her husband would sail through his 2nd visa interview and have his green card that same calendar year. Unfortunately that plan got derailed when a consular agent decided that one waiver was not enough to clear Horacio’s name and that the family would need to prove dire hardship and greater deserving of returning together to the States than normal circumstances would dictate, and that Horacio’s overstay of his visa would jeopardize more than twelve years later.
The first and only time Heather and I finally decided to write down all our things in common was when our paths were finally about to diverge. It wasn’t when Horacio got the rejection at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, which was earth shattering for their family, and which also shook us to the core. At their dinner table in their home a while later, Horacio related the depth of his sadness to me about when, after a series of unforgiving questioning at the bank-teller style booths in the consulate, he was shown a blue slip that invariably meant his visa application was being denied. Since we had the same lawyer (they got started on their process faster than we did), the first thought that went through my mind was “what did they do wrong?” The truth is more complex than can be described here. But beyond the facts of their case, which differ slightly from ours, on an emotional level we grieved that rejection with H2, and tears rolled right alongside them as Horacio recounted the interview and the hours that followed in the lonely hotel room in CDJ. We didn’t just know – we felt, we saw, we understood the letdown that it represented for them, and how easily that experience could be ours in a few short months.
Our two families’ shared trauma, a emotional and legal roller coaster that our children and extended families also ride, in all its grandparent-depriving, borderline bipolar parental mood highs and lows, results in a keen, unique bond uncommon to any other family friendships we’ve had. We actually led quite normal, ordinary lives here in Querétaro, both as teacher/trainers, bridging intercultural communities both at work and in our personal lives. Our WhatsApp conversations were filled with affirmative, humorous messages. Our families share a love for nature and we often had the privilege of enjoying outdoor adventures together. Then, when immigration woes invaded our consciences, there was only total, immediate, and unconditional support and understanding for each other. That is a rare privilege to share with a like-minded friend, much less in the same county two thousand miles south of home.
I write about these varying family “immigration autonomy” statuses, for lack of a better word, in Amor and Exile. Though most foreigners must apply for a U.S. visa (except those with visa waiver programs), most friends are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and decades-long processes that H2 and my family have had to endure – they also have the freedom to relocate where they so choose, whereas our family’s only real choice is to stay put if we want to stay together. H2 shared not only that same restriction with us, but also the singular drive to rail against it, and to keep trying, against all odds, to achieve familial autonomy in the eyes of the immigration system, and at its essence, an ability to relocate wherever they so choose.
And so we weren’t surprised at all, in fact, we were impressed and delighted, to hear when H2 went ahead and applied for that second waiver (an I-601), right away, with our same lawyer. I do have to confess that I was surprised when their waiver was approved relatively rapidly, and they got their 3rd visa interview appointment in a matter of a few months the approval, while we are still waiting 10 months after our waiver was approved. But of course each case is subject to its own intricacies and order of events. We were unbelievably overjoyed when we heard that Horacio’s visa was finally approved, in the month of June this year. I was particularly happy for Heather because I knew a June approval meant she would be able to return to the school where she taught in Pennsylvania and also enroll her sons for next school year as well. The aftermath of a visa approval, when one has been out of the country for over a decade, can be complicated, as it could be for us, if Margo is granted one, due to the simultaneous timing of leaving current jobs, all the logistics associated with relocating a family, job hunting for the primary breadwinner(s), etc. But since H2 was banking on a visa relatively soon after the I-212 approval over a year ago, they were a few steps ahead in the game. I knew the relocation was to going to happen fast.
It did in fact snowball rapidly, as they had a vacation to Guatemala already planned, and that gave them a week to pack up their belongings from Horacio’s brother’s home where they had spent the last 10+ years, a week with family in the southern U.S. before school started for Heather and the boys. When we got the good news, I quickly realized that it might be my last chance to spend time with our friends before they’d be flying north, like migratory birds in springtime.
Our two families decided to go see Spiderman in a theater at a new mall that just opened not far from our home. The new fangled movie theater felt almost VIP for general admission prices, so we had a nice time. As we were leaving, I pitched stopping for drinks, milking the last private hours we would likely get with them. To my delight, they obliged, and while we sipped margaritas and the kids played, we got the skinny on Horacio’s most recent experience in CDJ, this time accompanied by both Heather and the boys. As probably only immigration/exile geeks like us would do, we replayed Horacio’s interview over chips and guacamole down to the questions and responses and what he wore. I found myself asking if my husband who has never worn a tie would have to don one – to my relief the suggestion was no. We got plenty of advice and tips from both of them, and my feelings teetered between elation and admiration for, and solidarity with them and their persistence, to fear of our own experience not working out, and selfish sadness at how much I would be missing them very soon. The night ended too soon, and was very airy and bubbly with promise and selfies, but I resolved to say goodbye with more pathos before they departed northward.
I think H2 knew how fast things were going to go with departure, but having been in similar situations myself, and knowing how the gravity of all the details and feelings associated with major events aren’t fully appreciated until you’re in the thick of them, or perhaps afterwards, I knew they would be “riding the wave” so to say and if I wanted to see them one more time I’d have to pay close attention. There was a tiny window where my impossibly packed work schedule and their own crazy schedule of getting back from their vacation and flying to Pennsylvania would cede a space of 2 hours, literally the night before they flew out. I debated whether I should add to their stress and try to see them one last time. But since I’m big on ritual in terms of life experiences, and considering how special H2 and their family have been to us in the last 5+ years, I wanted to try.
Sitting on Horacio’s brother’s couch, as she served salmon to his brother, sister, and their niece, I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding on a solemn family goodbye dinner. They insisted it was no trouble, served us party mix, and Horacio sat on the couch with us, but I did feel like I was imposing. It was also after 7 pm and a school night for our daughter, so I resolved to be quick. I have gotten so good with not letting immigration matters get me down any more, so I didn’t expect tears. More likely, I am just internalizing and getting numbed by all the emotional horror carried by the stories from the border and the Interior under this current administration. But as Horacio began to talk about how Margo would certainly get his own visa, and as the four of us began to reminisce about the last several years, while the kids strayed in different directions, probably shell-shocked by the weirdness of the moment, my stoic facade quickly crumbled.
To present I’m still not quite sure what obsessive behavior compelled me to pull out my Notes app and ask Heather to help me write down the list of ours things in common that we’ve been compiling over the last six years since we published Amor and Exile and she found me through our book networks and showed up at our first public book talk in Querétaro. The list certainly wasn’t a priority thing she needed to do in that moment. I can’t come up with any better explanation than it was a coping mechanism, me playing journalist to my own life, knowing that the list has been important as many times to Heather as it was to me, that it helped keep her sane through all these years in exile in Mexico to know that someone else like her was surviving, even sometimes thriving; and that for both of us no matter what happened in our husbands’ immigration fates, there was someone else in the same boat, and that maybe, just maybe, if they were doing it, we could keep doing it too.
The more years you spend in exile, the more desensitized you become to the inhumane pressures of your life amounting to a ticker tape of immigration case readouts. The only thing that is keeping us whole, human, and alive with love is knowing the other faces, hearts, and hands that are swimming upstream against the waves, waterfalls, and hurricanes of hate, and persisting in the face of them all. Thank you Heather and Horacio for touching our lives, for sharing your humanity, your friendship, your generosity, your indefatigability with us. And congratulations on this huge win in the struggle to keep our families together. We will see you soon “al otro lado,” whichever “side” it may be.
I’ve been trying since last November, then again in January, April, and June to sit down and properly share our immigration status. But the last year has been lived in the moment, with little luxury of time to write and muse about it all. I lost my grandmother, started to swim, turned 40, have weathered budget cuts at work, and perhaps most notably, finally decided to move forward with Margo’s I-212 waiver application and everything it implies.
We’d been dragging our feet a little bit with moving forward with the I-212 application. If approved, it would waive Margo’s previously inadmissibility due to having previously “entered without inspection” and having stayed more than a year after that. We technically could have filed it 2 years ago, on September 18, 2016. But certain factors slowed us down: the cost (several thousand USD), my Mexican salary, the Trump candidacy and later victory, and the dread of the flipside – the possible rejection.
I’m not sure if it was my grandmother’s death last September and the resulting growing desire to make visiting family together easier. Or if it was the urgency created by the perception of a door slowly being closed on the northern side of the border (given the current administration’s unceasing attacks on immigrants). But by November of last year, we’d made our mind up to finally give the I-212 a try.
The I-212 has mythical status in our family. Since 2003, it’s surfaced again and again as the key step to rectify Margo’s immigration status. The one thing that would allow our family freedom and autonomy again. In reality there’s obviously so much more to it than that.
And yet so much hangs on a singular decision made by a USCIS agent when reviewing that package of papers. And so, perhaps with the exception of the consular interview, there is no other step that’s loaded with as much importance, at least for our family. For others in similar situations it’s the I-601 waiver, a slightly different type, the famous “hardship” waiver.
Since my family’s future quite literally hangs in the balance of the I-212 waiver, from the moment we decided to go through with it last November, I put every last ounce of my attention to detail and motivation to make sure it was the best effort possible.
That ranged from conducting an small campaign to raise several thousand dollars in legal fees and application costs; to recruiting, collecting, writing, and organizing the approximately 85 pieces of evidence to be included in the 236-page waiver packet (70% longer than my Master’s thesis) – including 13 letters of support, Margo’s and my own personal treatises on why he/we deserve consideration, and 258 scanned passport pages.
And then, to prevent myself from experiencing crushing defeat in the case it’s denied, I simultaneously told myself that the results didn’t truly matter.
Everybody wants to be happy and content with their life, no matter the circumstances. There have been many moments in the last 12 years, even extended periods of time, where that was the case. That’s encouraging to me because it means I could be prepared for, and could potentially weather, that ever-present possibility that Margo, our daughter, and I might never be able to return to the U.S. as a family.
Lest I seem appear cynical, that possibility could be increasing. There is an uptick in denials at what ought to be the ‘final step’ or ‘rubber stamp’ consular interviews. Memos that tighten the rules on visa processing are making it incrementally harder to achieve a successful application.
At best, our lawyer told us to prepare to wait for at least 2 months, if not 13 months, to hear anything back about the package that she sent in on our behalf to the San Diego field office of the U.S. Customs and Immigration service this past June. That was her longest wait for a response on a waiver application. To add to that, she shared reports that positive communication between immigration attorneys and USCIS field offices is intentionally being decreased.
This is the environment in which my 17-year old bid to bring Margo back with me to my home country is culminating in. So it’s only normal that I am inclined to prepare myself for the worst.
* * * *
Despite my low expectations for hearing back about the waiver any time in 2018, on the bright side, they did cash our $900 processing fee less than a month after receiving it. So even though USCIS is not known for its approachability lately, our lawyer and I did chat about creative ways to try and get in touch with the San Diego office.
Our lawyer, Laura, is based in Milwaukee, and thus has more contacts in that region. But a friend from college who recently came to visit mentioned that a fellow alum of ours’ wife was an immigration lawyer in San Diego. That made me think she might have a local contact for the office. Laura agreed, and I’ve been attempting to get in touch with the friend’s wife through my friend for the last month.
But life, of course, goes on amidst all this. Work has been unusually hectic even on the heels of a particularly hectic summer. September’s always just generally upbeat with Mexican Independence Day, our daughter’s birthday this past Tuesday, a date shared by our 12-year anniversary in Mexico, and my 7-year anniversary of my Mexican naturalization. So, unable to really catch a breath, the message about the waiver was still pending.
Then, Friday morning, taking a brief break from getting ready for a team meeting after a big visit from headquarters last week, I checked my messages and casually saw one from my mother that said “a letter came for Margo that says he is approved to reapply for admission.”
My hands started to tremble and my mind raced as my thoughts struggled to catch up with what my eyes saw. My one thought was I needed to say this out loud in order to believe it. So I made my way upstairs to our office area, closed the door, and told two volunteers what happened. Knowing our story, they immediately started jumping and screaming, and hugging me – which made it feel very real. I sat down and felt my heart pounding, and suddenly couldn’t think much about what I’d been working on just 10 before.
As it started to sink in, I started to think about all the people I needed to tell – Margo, our lawyer, my brother, close friends, other colleagues, and things started to feel very surreal. Grinning back at the volunteers, and excusing myself for a moment, I went to look for my boss, and when I couldn’t find him, I went to find another colleague who wrote a reference letter. When I told him the news, his eyes turned to saucers, and he hugged me, my body started to rack with sobs – not sadness, not joy necessarily – just raw emotion.
The director ran in, and I filled her in on what happened. After talking with my boss, we agreed I needed to go home early to tell Margo in person. It was probably better that way, because as much as I tried to concentrate, I simply couldn’t.
There was a moment in that hour before I went home, where I wondered out loud how long the feeling would last. I even asked whether I should let myself feel the happiness. That is what 17 years of your fate lying in the balance of a piece of paper will do. But regardless of the source of the happiness, I decided to let myself feel it. I decided that even if it only lasted one afternoon, we deserved to experience that joy. And I hightailed it home to break the news to Margo.
We did, of course, celebrate immediately and wholeheartedly. It felt as if a years-long weight had been suddenly lifted from me. 24 hours later, the glow was punctuated by normal trepidations about next steps. 36 hours later, some of the kinds of fears I once had twelve years ago when thinking about making an international move south of the border poked their nose in. 48 hours later, although the adrenaline rush has abated, the good feeling still remains. It’s tempered by the knowledge that good friends and many allies have also gotten to this step only to be shot down by technicalities, and have had to sadly start again, or even put away their dreams.
But rather than let the obstacles dominate my vision, I plan to draw on the perspective I’ve developed over the last 17 years about how to not let fear control my life.
* * * *
p.s. Grandma, if this had anything to do with you, thank you.
c:a measure taken beforehand to deal with a need or contingency :preparation made provision for replacements
2:a stock of needed materials or supplies;
especially:a stock of food — usually used in plural
* * * * * *
Not much has changed since my last post, on the 4th of July, at least from my point of view. I’m still disappointed with the abundant xenophobia emanating from a nation of immigrants. As for the U.S. vs. Mexico, with the spate of mass shootings, the continual dumbing down of the executive branch, and even environmental disasters, the U.S. keeps giving us reasons to question whether the living standard it offers is superior to Mexico’s… except for the opportunity to be closer to family and (maybe) giving Margo & I both new professional opportunities.
Much of the above is circumstantial, but I also have a sinking feeling that it’s the result of a slow decline of things in the States compared to when this all started for us 16 years ago. And I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising, either, that declining living standards and growing anti-immigrant sentiment goes hand in hand. One of the first lessons I remember from basic biology was about density-dependent factors influencing populations – how with increased numbers comes stress, competition, disease, and other ills. It seems to me that our lives wouldn’t be as negatively affected, were space and resource deficiencies not impacted by the rapidly increasing gap between the mega-wealthy and the rest of us. To rewrite a saying, “if others were to live more simply, the rest of us could simply live.” But I digress.
As befuddling and frustrating as the socioeconomic declines in the U.S. and worldwide are in the midst of such abundance, I am oddly pleased that I still get disappointed about it all. But I guess my sentiments are precious proof I am not so jaded from our period of exile that my ideals have been completely destroyed… my remnant disappointment in regressive politics is proof that I still have hope and faith that all the wonderful things I grew up to love about the United States could actually be true, and could become the norm, rather than the exception.
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Even though my mindset hasn’t changed much in the last few months, my family’s situation has. We had a death in the family recently. My dear, closest, and longest-lived grandparent, Thelma, a.k.a. Grandma Cookie, or GG by my daughter, passed this past September, a month after her 95th birthday. My parents were visiting for my daughter’s birthday when she fell ill.
Perhaps it was the goldenrod and aster pollen swirling in the unseasonably warm Upstate New York late summer air, perhaps it was the unseasonably warm air itself, or maybe it was the prospect of one more forbidding Syracuse winter, we’ll never know exactly what happened. But GG’s COPD took a turn for the worse, graver than she’d ever experienced. A whirlwind of upheaval ensued: hospital admission, her refusal of medical intervention and acceptance only of palliative care, siblings flocking in from across the country, and we were all faced with the sudden reality that GG’s long run on Earth, her wide window of life was closing, and that our family matriarch’s reign was finally coming to an end.
The following weeks were sort of a blur. I returned with my parents to Nueva York to see Grandma, but of course, I had to go alone. I arrived just in time to say goodbye to GG. In giving her all our Mexico family’s regards, I was painfully reminded of how earlier this year I knew, I just knew, that I had to reunite them all in Canada or we might never again. Justin Trudeau must have known last December too, when he waived the visa for visiting Mexicans. I said everything I needed to. I cherished as much of her as I could in those final moments. And then I, and she, and we all, let go.
The degree of grieving I experienced with the loss of my grandmother was new for me. She was the first close family member I have lost. The resentment I’ve felt over the years of my limited ability to be with her and the rest of my family come into particular focus in the days immediately following her death.
I also relived my cosmic disorientation about having broken with a long line of female predecessors, 5 generations deep, who’d been born, raised, or settled in Central New York, since my German great-great-grandmother Theresa gave birth to my great-grandmother Florence on Bear Road. With my grandmother gone, in a metaphysical pole vault, my mother landed first place in the familial matriarchal line and I am next. With my father’s Southern Californian roots, and my husband’s Central Mexican roots now in the mix, my line’s roots are spread across the continent. I have never felt more confused about where to call home, nor felt more pressure to know how or where to lead my family to.
That sensation of suddenly becoming “next in line” was indescribable. It was almost akin to physical movement, of a rush of forward movement or elevation. I’ve never had nor heard of that feeling before. With it came a more urgent sense of responsibility. For my whole family. For myself. And like any self-respecting mother, I automatically and subconsciously began preparing for winter.
My family, on both sides, has always known well what to do with the turn of the seasons. Both my mother’s and my husband’s family were or are farmers, and thus know in their flesh of the rise and fall of abundance, the leafing of the branch, the bursting of the bud, the ripening of the fruit, the saving of the seed, and the storing of the plenty for a time of less.
As someone who has been a practitioner and a teacher of these cycles, these understandings are innate and instinctual for me every day, but as I grew up, went out into the world, and learned of the compartmentalization of knowledge in the modern age, I realized that not everyone is privy to this awareness or appreciative of these realities. There are even those who once were, but are no longer subject to the limitations of natural cycles, at least in their minds, by virtue of economic advancement or geographical displacement. And yet we are all subject to these laws and cycles of natural life.
One of the saddest things about saying goodbye to my grandmother was descending the basement stairs and finding myself in the recesses of the basement, staring at, and then lightly touching the metal rings of the tops of Mason jars, that held conserves my grandmother had made – who knows how long ago – probably of some local bumper crop, as she hadn’t been physically able to grow any fruits or vegetables to an amount of needing to can them for longer than I can remember.
It immediately took me back to a story my grandmother once shared with me about her growing up, perceiving her family to be living in poverty, until one day she and her family brought the Christmas turkey, bread, and vegetables to a dinner with family living downtown. Her mother, Florence, had been a victory gardener during the War, and because she had so much difficulty having her own children, she had adopted many to be a part of their family. My grandmother realized that, far from being poor, the riches they experienced growing up among wheat fields, berry bushes, and animal corrals far surpassed the riches her “wealthier” aunts possessed in terms of fur stoles and the like. My grandmother and her daughter, my mother, transmitted all of this to me in my childhood, and although it took a couple decades for the soil to be cultivated in me and to flower with that wisdom, the deep appreciation I have for the natural world, and the existential obligation to be co-participants in nature’s creativity, for our own good and that of our families, is deeply rooted in me.
I haven’t become a master of conserves, but I am a seed saver, and sower. I don’t make tortillas from scratch, but I do make a mean tamale. And I do recognize and value my creativity. Reconciling my exile was in itself a grieving process, it ebbs and flows. So perhaps I did have something to compare my loss of my grandmother to… I had to say goodbye to my nation. I continue to grieve her. Both losses were out of my control. The difference with exile is that the loss might be temporary, were we to be able to return. In both cases, I am forever changed by the event.
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Being uprooted, twice, from a home, with a prospect, albeit long and challenging, of being able to return, of having choice restored, after having grown up 20 years in a 5-generation long tradition as a Syracusan, then seven years a Californian, and now six years a Mexican, eleven years south of the border, but still (always) considered a gringa, continues to be disorienting. Thus, I seek whatever certainty I can from the compass inside. And looking to the women who came before me; Theresa, Florence, Thelma, Debbie, Jenny, and Olga; though the diverse list reaches back before the turn of the last century, the apparent constants are these: Generosity. Selflessness. Concern for others. Putting others first. Working hard for their families. Intense love for children. Aware of a woman’s strength. A love of flowers, romance, and beauty. At many times, refusing to accept injustice, and refusing to cede their power to the undeserving. Just some of my family’s values.
I can still taste Grandma’s fresh raspberries and currants that grew in her backyard, that was steps from my childhood home. I can still taste the jelly she made and shared with us all. I can still see the homemade cookies that she had waiting for her visitors on her counter by her pantry. Like her, I am drawn to cultivating, harvesting, partaking. To participating in the cycle of life, abundance, and sharing. For those around me, for the future. I am not totally sure what this will entail, beyond the occasional banana bread muffins, or socking away whatever savings we can to try and make a northern bid once more. For myself, for my family, for what the unknown holds. Many things are still unclear. But one thing is for sure, the wheel is turning, and the grain will be stored. For the time when provisions are needed.
Author’s Note: Something fairly big happened in our immigration journey in the past few months, news that, given how much of a watershed moment it represents, I really would have expected myself to have shared sooner. And yet, for reasons I explore below, I have been mulling over how to share, or perhaps unconsciously putting off the sharing. Several years ago when we were writing Amor and Exile, and I had more time to figure out how to write about and share my experience; and it wasn’t as difficult to simply give myself the creative space for my story to bubble forth. Nowadays, finding time for reflection, or taking an idea and expanding it, is a rare luxury. But given this new development, I’ve kept asking myself, what can I say about this? It’s hard to know what to say when you’re still getting your bearings. But then good ol’ Fourth of July approached, stirring memories and feelings about the US of A, and soon after emerged a question, the answer to which is at the heart of where we stand for the next few years. This is a work in progress, friends.
* * *
A art therapist colleague of mine once told me about a favorite piece of writing advice she’d once received: “write what you want to know.”
I want to know: “how can I, a person who rarely takes no for an answer, who has fought and won many battles, campaigns, and endured daily struggles, who knows what she wants and how to get it, whose nickname is ‘stubborn,’ ‘thorough,’ and whose very name means leader of the people; how can I be stuck in this multiyear limbo… how can I be on the cusp of the very opportunity for freedom that we ostensibly have been seeking for the last 16 years… how can I finally have arrived at the moment of truth, the time to move forward, the chance to capitalize; and yet, all I can seem to do is ponder the possibility.
Wouldn’t it seem that, after 10 (closer to 11 now) years of exile that I’d at least have gotten the pondering out of the way? Or was it that I was so protective of my heart, after how badly it’d been hurt previously, after those first years of lawyer visits, that I wouldn’t even allow myself to entertain the possibility of a door opening, couldn’t let myself be deluded into the idea that a future back in the U.S. could be possible, lest it be a cruel joke, as it has been for so many people, and could very easily be for us?
And yet now, it seems one nod has been given, the I-130 sort. I’m not even sure exactly what it means. Yes, you (to Margo), we acknowledge you claim you may have the right to a spouse visa based on the claim that you are married to an American. Is that what that means? That doesn’t include the several dozen other steps yet to be taken en route to the (still) possible visa (never a guarantee, even after paying the rest of the estimated costs for the whole application process, approx. 7500 USD – and that’s more than half of what I make in a year now to support our whole family, even as an employee of the US embassy).
And so, just like that, a new reality, a door has opened, and now a decision must be made. Or so it seems. And so the idealistic leader who got this whole ball rolling in the first place looks at the troops and says, “what are you all waiting for?” But the spiteful little girl, the one who thought, you didn’t want to play with me, so now I’m going to ignore you, is sulking in the shadows. The worn-out working mom who’s been pulling 50 hour work weeks regularly just wants to veg on the couch. The incessant reader of sensationally negative news about the racially charged violence in the U.S. is cowering indoors, freaked about the potential harm she could lead her family into with a move back to the States, not unlike the fear some Americans experience upon absorbing negative press about Mexico (whether that’s a well-founded fear or not is up for debate at another date). The ever-skeptical accountant who takes one look at the scant balance sheet and shakes her head, catching the glance of the ever-practical logistics planner, who folds her arms over her chest and sighs, imagining the gargantuan tasks ahead to relocate a family all the while aligned with the intricacies of an unpredictable immigration application process ultimately leading to a job search for a rather scattered boss who’s been out of her home nation for 11 yrs.
And hence, the conductor has her hand on the chain, wanting to blow that whistle, but the VIP passengers haven’t quite made it onto the train, which is still idling in the station.
Yes, we are idling in limbo, and I’d really like to know why. Uncle Sam, it is because you (inadvertently, I’ll allow you – I’m still that forgiving) forced out one of your own with friendly fire and she’s spent too much time and energy healing her wounds in a foreign land to be able to come home? Or is it that lovely México has truly seduced me with all her charms and I am now hopelessly under her spell? Is it possible that I couldn’t have foreseen that in the end, it would be a little of both?
* * *
And just like that, the I-130 was approved. And now I, a daughter of liberty, am attempting to summon the metaphorical troops, to brave what’s next. Whether that’s figuring how in sam hell we are going to afford this, whether our chances of waiver approval are the best or not, whether it’s the wisest investment to make when we have so little to invest, whether my family can bounce back from the pinball effect of the last twenty years of international migration, whether I really know my country anymore, whether I can or have to or will ever be able to or should let go of Mexico after seeing me through and providing me refuge and sustenance during some pretty dark times in the last eleven years, or whether I can ever forgive my country for being the main cause of all this mind-bending anguish in the first place, and whether the moment will ever arrive where the fireworks of happiness and relief rain down over us when we look back and say, “we’re done with this” …. whether that day will ever come, remains to be seen.
In our book, Amor and Exile, we told the stories of American citizens whose lives spanned two nations because of their love for their partners from abroad. Their love rose above immigration laws, and their families have persevered in the face of increasingly punitive policies. In a world of migration and shifting borders, love, compassion, and respect for each other serve as bridges between nations and cultures. We, like many others, believe that spirit should remain at the heart of our foreign and domestic policy. Let’s reject hate, reach out to our neighbors, and embrace our roots as a nation.
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The trumpist barrage of immigration-related executive orders has come to resemble a wall of its own accord. Between the Muslim ban, halting refugee resettlement, expanding deportation criteria and ICE ranks and threats to cities that seek to protect their own residents, who needs border walls?
But border walls, at least, are porous, unlike the dense xenophobia emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The Israeli “Separation Barrier” or “Apartheid Wall” pictured above and below, which Trump loves, to be sure, is, as you can see, porous. I also crossed the line between East and West Jerusalem many times in the back of a work truck.
We know the border below, but does Trump have any idea how many people cross this border every hour? Does he have any notion of the interchange that happens between Juarez and El Paso — the culture and ideas and commerce and research that sustains the border region?
Does he know that walls are death sentences, that send migrants deeper into the desert? Or that walls are mere inconveniences, to be surmounted.
What is missing in Trump’s life that he wants to build more walls?
The people making these new policies for the U.S. — the band of white nationalists surrounding Trump and heading up his bureaucracies — choose walls, which is to say, they choose fear and isolation.
Walls, fences, barriers are symbols of failure. When we fail, we put up walls. Or land mines. Or drop cluster bombs. Is that the future we want for the southern U.S. Border?
We are about bridges. Building bridges between languages, cultures, nations and people. Because the whole world is just one narrow bridge. At least it was two weeks ago. But don’t be afraid.
“All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be overwhelmed by fear.” — Rev Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)