September 01, 2010

The Hard Way Home

My friend and immigration attorney colleague, Jody Santiago, is quoted in this article.

September 01, 2010

Arizona Living

The hard way home

by Richard Ruelas - Aug. 31, 2010 12:00 AM

The Arizona Republic

When Oscar Vazquez left the United States as an illegal immigrant a year ago, leaving behind a wife and baby daughter, it was so he could try to do the right thing - become a legal resident of the country he called home.

Even as he crossed into Mexico, the Arizona State University engineering graduate knew it could be years before he could legally be allowed to return.

But on Monday, Vazquez, 24, was visiting his old high school, his wife at his side and legal documents in his pocket. It was an unexpected outcome for the now-legal U.S. resident.

"Even though it took a year, I feel it came out good," said Vazquez, who had lived in the U.S. since the age of 12 when he and his mother crossed the border near Douglas.

The prospects for Vazquez's return were slim, as he initially was denied re-entry, his case deemed not strong enough. But publicity about his struggle and the intervention of a high-ranking U.S. senator spurred the government to allow Vazquez back in.

Vazquez graduated from ASU in 2009. He was one of three graduates whose stories were told before the crowd at Sun Devil Stadium and in front of that year's commencement speaker, President Barack Obama.

But Vazquez knew that his legal status meant he wouldn't be able to use his degree. And he was weary of politicians dragging their feet on the promise of immigration reform.

So he took matters into his own hands. Shortly after his graduation, he deported himself, asking for legal permission to return. His story was told in The Arizona Republic, on CNN and on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Vazquez said he was contacted by the office of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Durbin, the Senate majority whip, supports the DREAM Act, legislation that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who entered as children and had attended college or joined the military.
With Durbin on board, Vazquez said, "it was fast."

A Durbin aide, who spoke only on the condition his name not be used, confirmed that the office made the Department of Homeland Security aware that the senator was monitoring the case.

Vazquez expects to receive his Social Security card in about two weeks and will start looking for work in the engineering field.
Vazquez was on the Carl Hayden High School team that beat out several colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an underwater-robotics competition in 2007. The triumph of the four undocumented high-school students was featured in Wired magazine. On Monday, Vazquez showed up at the Phoenix high school to talk with his robotics coach, Faridodin Lajvardi. Two other members of that four-person team were there, making for an impromptu reunion of that victorious team.

Lorenzo Santillan, one of the four, said he had tried to gain legal status but found he couldn't. He doesn't have the family ties that Vazquez does.

"He's an example of what can happen," Santillan said of Vazquez, "but it's hard."

It was an unexpected ending to a story that began last summer when Vazquez applied for residency. His application was denied, and he was asked to submit additional evidence of hardship to his wife and daughter, both U.S. citizens. He was told a final decision would come in March.

So Vazquez waited, living in Magdalena del Kino, a dusty town in Sonora, Mexico, working at an auto-parts factory. Karla Vazquez visited regularly with Samantha, 2.

Vazquez's story was told July 4 in The Republic. Durbin got involved soon after.

Senator was key

Without Durbin, Vazquez likely would still be waiting. Because he stayed in the U.S. so long after he turned 18, Vazquez faced a 10-year wait to apply for legal status. Waivers of that bar are difficult to obtain, said Jody Santiago, an immigration lawyer who grew up in Mesa and now practices in San Francisco. Applicants must prove that their absence from the United States causes an extreme hardship to family members who are citizens.

"It's nebulous," she said of the standard. "It's a term of art which no one really has an exact definition of."

Santiago said that "getting the story out in the paper and getting the attention of senators and representatives really helps."

Just 10 days after Oscar's story appeared, Karla Vazquez, received the letter saying her husband's visa waiver had been approved.

Karla was about to head to Mexico for another visit when she checked the mail.

"It just said, 'Your waiver was approved,' " she recalled.

Karla told her husband the good news as soon as she arrived.

"We were just looking at it (the letter)," he said, "just to make sure it was true."

The couple kept the news to themselves; even their Facebook posts made no mention of the government's decision. They didn't want to jinx their good fortune.

Vazquez met with the U.S. Consulate on Thursday and received paperwork Friday that allowed him to cross back into the United States.
Little fanfare

It was a much different entrance from Vazquez's first one when, at age 12, he and his mother dashed across the border near Douglas into a van waiting in a Walmart parking lot.
His entry as a legal resident was short on ceremony. Vazquez said a clerk simply stamped his passport and told him that his visa allowed him to live and work in the United States.

Vazquez stepped onto U.S. soil and waited for the bus to Phoenix. In the meantime, he ate at KFC.
His wife met him at the Phoenix bus station.
"It's just hard to describe," Vazquez said about seeing his family, holding documents that mean he no longer has to look over his shoulder. "It's amazing just to be back home."

Vazquez said he realized his was a unique case and that he was aided by political pressure. Had it not been for Durbin's intervention, he thinks his waiver would have been denied.

"A lot of people think that, 'Why don't you do it the right way?' " he said. "But many people can't."

If his waiver had been denied, the Vazquezes had discussed moving to Mexico City, Canada or Europe.

Instead, they spent a weekend together at their home in south Phoenix, the happy reunion starting as soon as Vazquez stepped off the bus early Saturday.
On Monday, Vazquez and his wife went to surprise Lajvardi, the man who got Vazquez started in robotics. Lajvardi gathered his current students around him and introduced Vazquez. His students had seen video of Durbin telling Vazquez's story on the Senate floor.

"All that time, I kept telling you how you need to fight, fight, fight," Lajvardi told the students. "It worked."

The team gave Vazquez a group hug.

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