Paper and Glue: Thoughts on Nonimmigrating to Mexico

On Friday, at 9:00, I am supposed to appear before Mexican immigration. I must bring my dossier—the one we’ve been compiling visit after fruitless visit—and my son. In theory, we will at last be granted nonimmigrant visas that will mean that our whole family has one immigration status. At least until our baby is born into Mexican citizenship and we begin applying instead to the U.S. Consulate.

The quest for a Mexican visa has been a long, boring ordeal that has felt a bit like climbing Escher’s staircases, one flight up and one flight upside down. It is, of course, annoying that each visit to the immigration office takes a full workday. It is even more annoying that each of these forays has thus far arrived at regulatory dead ends: our marriage license and my son’s birth certificate must be sent to the secretary-of-state’s office back in our home state so they can affix new seals certifying that the original seals are in fact legitimate; the photographs of my son are not acceptable because in the frontal shot he is wearing a different shirt than in the side shot; the entry date in my husband’s passport is illegible; the thirty days have passed during which we may change our visa… Denied. Denied. Denied.

On good days, we are sent to the bank down the street to pay another fee. This is expensive, but not annoying; it feels like progress. Other times we even enjoy small victories.

“You do not have certified translations of the marriage license and birth certificate?” the immigration agent asks in that not-quite-a-question tone that implies we have failed again.

My husband and I grin. We are from New Mexico where both English and Spanish are official state languages. Our documents are already in Spanish. We point this out to the bilingual agent. The Mexican fútbol announcer in my head hollers GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAL!

This is all to say that I had immigration on the brain when I read Monica Castro’s story—which is a bit like a modern-day version of the Angelina Jolie film The Changling—in the NY Times last week. I am an American taking on Mexican bureaucracy. If I do the work, get my papers in order, and show up when asked, I believe I will get what I came for. Mexican bureaucracy may be a maze, but it’s one I know I can and will find my way through. Castro, on the other hand, is an American taking on American bureaucracy, the U.S. Border Patrol, which deported her infant American daughter, an act that is within their discretionary rights according to the courts so far.

Back in 2003, Monica Castro got into a fight with her boyfriend in their home in West Texas. Things escalated and she fled, but she was unable to take her infant daughter with her. She fled, but the fight wasn’t over; Monica Castro knew just how to get her baby back. She went to the local Border Patrol and offered to turn in her man in exchange for help retrieving her child. She, like her daughter Rosa, was a U.S. citizen, as her family had been for generations; Omar Gallardo was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who was of particular interest to law enforcement for information he was believed to possess pertaining to a murder case.

It should have been her ace in the hole: hasta la vista, baby.

Except, she didn’t mean the baby-baby.

When the Border Patrol raided Castro and Gallardo’s home, they took both father and child. Within the day, and in spite of full knowledge of the child’s citizenship and Castro’s rushed efforts to secure a court order for custody, father and child were deported to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Monica Castro would not see her daughter again for over three years.

In the meantime, she did what any angry mother would do in her shoes: she took on the U.S. government. While her case may well see the inside of the Supreme Court this fall—and I hope that it does—even an unlikely victory would be bittersweet recompense for missing her daughter’s first words and steps.

I feel for the fathers who are deported away from their children. I meet men almost daily here in Mexico who talk about their deportations from the U.S., who have children or girlfriends or other family members still living in Georgia, or Utah, or California. And I don’t doubt Gallardo has his own story, but as a mother myself, and as an American who gets all tingly when someone plays “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I can’t get my head around the United States deporting an infant they knew was a U.S. citizen to one of the world’s most dangerous cities without that child’s mother.

Monica Castro and I are both Americans, which grants us certain rights and entitlements that Mexicans and other prospective visitors and immigrant-hopefuls to the U.S. simply don’t have. Monica Castro’s case, even if it does not reach the Supreme Court, has made the pages of the NY Times. And Friday, or soon after, my whole family will become official nonimigrantes here in Mexico, eligible for health insurance, car registration, and other perks like not being deported.

My endeavor has taken—excluding efforts made prior to leaving the U.S.—two months, at least a week’s worth of day sitting in the waiting room at immigration, a few hundred sheets of paper, about four hundred dollars, a dozen trips to the bank, two dozen trips to the photocopy shop, three trips to the photographer.

Castro’s took three years of failed lawsuits, most recently before the full United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Court, in New Orleans. She was only reunited with Rosa because Gallardo surrendered Rosa as part of a plea bargain after he was arrested again for entering the U.S. illegally (without the baby). Rosa did not recognize her mother.

It could be worse for both of us.

I used to drive by the line at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, when I lived there (with a visa that had been handled for me by a Consular in the U.S., in the midst of the 2001 anthrax scare, in under 24 hours). Every weekday morning in San Salvador, the line of visa-hopefuls stretched down and around the whitewashed block that was the Embassy wall. People were waiting because they wanted to visit their long-lost uncle in Colorado, or to rejoin their wife and kids in New Jersey, or to go to live out their old age with their son and daughter-in-law in Washington, D.C. They clutched folders full of letters and papers, no doubt all with proper aposteados and photographs taken in only one shirt. These were the papers that they hoped to use to glue their families back together. Most, if not all of them, would pay their application fee and present the proper documents and be denied anyway, based solely on the discretion of immigration officers trained not only to screen papers for inconsistencies, but to screen people.

I know that that infuriating line exists here in Mexico too.

And I know that, however frustrating Friday turns out, I am not in that line.

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