x

A Houston woman applied for a green card. She was banned from the U.S. for a decade.

A Houston woman applied for a green card. She was banned from the U.S. for a decade.
3 weeks 1 day 11 hours ago Tuesday, May 07 2024 May 7, 2024 May 07, 2024 3:05 PM May 07, 2024 in News - Immigration / Borderwall
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
Claudia González, 36, worships at her church in Tamaulipas, México on Sept. 17, 2023. After living in Texas for two decades and receiving a work permit through DACA, she applied for her green card, hoping to become a legal permanent U.S. resident. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.


TAMAULIPAS, Mexico — Claudia González was living a quiet, comfortable life in Houston with her husband and their son. She worked as a data entry clerk at an elementary school and went to church every Sunday with her son.

But something always nagged at her — her immigration status.

After crossing the border illegally as a teenager to rejoin her mother, she had lived undocumented in the U.S. for 15 years until she applied for a work permit through an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2018. Even though the program gives recipients temporary protection from deportation, it is not a permanent solution for immigrants who want to live in the U.S. long term.

Because her husband is a U.S. citizen — citizens can sponsor a spouse for a green card — she hired an immigration attorney and paid about $6,000 in fees to apply for permanent legal residency in 2018. For González, it meant freedom from her greatest fear, being deported and separated from her family. And it meant “being legal in a country I call home,” González said.

In June, she traveled from Houston to Ciudad Juárez, where an American consulate officer interviewed her — she had to do this in Mexico because she didn’t have a legal entry into the U.S. But in August, five years after initially applying for her green card, she was hit with a 10-year ban from reentering the U.S.

“It was really hard to receive that message; I was heartbroken,” she said. “I thought about my son. He just started high school, so my thought was that he’ll be 24 by the time I can return and he probably already will have graduated college.”

González, 36, returned to the village where she grew up to live with her mother, Guadalupe González, 50 miles from the Texas border and near the Gulf of Mexico.

Like many undocumented people trying to legalize their immigration status — an estimated 11 million people live in the U.S. without legal status — González had to navigate a bureaucratic and expensive immigration system.

In her mind, it was a chance to correct the mistakes of the past, when her mother asked her to get in a car with strangers who drove her across the Rio Grande and helped her talk her way past U.S. immigration agents. She was 15 at the time.

But the current system can be fickle and unforgiving even for those who want to do it the right way. And unlike the criminal justice system, there is no way to appeal the 10-year ban, and immigration officials don’t have to provide the evidence they have to support their decision.

“It’s not fair and it’s not logical. it's not something that anyone should go through if they want to get legal status in the U.S.,” said Naimeh Salem, an immigration attorney in Houston who recently took González’s case. “If they have never committed a crime in the U.S., they pay their taxes, they're good citizens. Why can’t we make it possible for them to become permanent residents?”

Guadalupe González, her 66-year-old mother, said it weighs on her now, the situation she put her daughter in. She said she did it because she hoped her daughter would get a better education and have a chance at a more successful life in the U.S.

“I try to tell her positive things, and that everything has a solution, even though I too feel bad,” Guadalupe González said. “I try not to show the same emotions as her, because then we both end up crying.”

In January, Guadalupe González requested U.S. asylum after suspected drug cartel members began breaking into people’s homes; four years earlier her oldest son was kidnapped from the ranch where he worked by men the family believes were cartel members, in front of his wife and children. He hasn’t been heard from since.

Guadalupe González was allowed into the U.S. while her asylum case is pending and she moved to Bay City, 80 miles southwest of Houston.

Back in Houston, 15-year-old Gerardo Garza, Jr. is about to complete his freshman year of high school. He was born in Houston and he said he wonders why the immigration system has separated him from his mother. And if he’ll one day get to live with her again in Texas.

“I was just having a hard time accepting that she’s not with me,” he said. “I was in my head like: ‘Why? Why is the government like this? Why can’t it be simpler than it is now?’

Top: Claudia González left her 15-year-old son with his father in Houston while she lives in Mexico and tries to find a legal way to return to her family. Bottom left: González plays lotería with family after church in Tamaulipas. Bottom right: Bottle caps on lotería cards.
Top: Claudia González left her 15-year-old son with his father in Houston while she lives in Mexico and tries to find a legal way to return to her family. Bottom left: González plays lotería with family after church in Tamaulipas. Bottom right: Bottle caps on lotería cards. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

In October, Salem filed a request for humanitarian parole, which would allow Claudia González to reenter the U.S. and resubmit her green card application. The request remains pending with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Salem said there were better options for González, who as a DACA recipient could have applied for permission to travel to Mexico, then legally reenter the U.S. That would have allowed her to stay in the U.S. as she applied for her green card without having to go to Juárez.

González said she didn’t take that route because her previous lawyer advised against it. She said she trusted him. But now she regrets not pushing for that option.

“I feel so ignorant now. I should have done more research,” González said.

Now, three generations of the González family are separated as Claudia tries to find a way to reunite with her son in Houston and her mother awaits a decision on her asylum petition.

Life in Tamaulipas

For the past nine months, Claudia González has lived in a remote village where she grew up before leaving for Texas. She lives with her godmother, whose house is next door to her mother’s house.

It’s secluded, surrounded by undeveloped land, some farms and a few ranches — including the one where her missing brother worked. There is a convenience store, a taco restaurant and an evangelical church within a few minutes’ walk of the house. There’s a nearby school and a small plaza that stays mostly empty unless there’s a major celebration.

There's' very little work; many locals depend on money sent home by relatives working on the other side of the border.

The area is also a hot spot for drug cartel activity. Neighbors and González said at night, unmarked vehicles patrol the area — they suspect cartel members keeping an eye out for rival cartel members. It’s common to hear gunfire in the middle of the night, González said.

For a few months, starting in December, she worked at a local stationery store, but quit after receiving a phone call from a man who González said was threatening to shut down the store if it didn’t pay certain “fees.”

“That scared me and gave me a panic attack,” González said.

Claudia González visits a store near her home in Tamaulipas, roughly 50 miles south of the Texas-Mexico border.
Claudia González visits a store near her home in Tamaulipas, roughly 50 miles south of the Texas-Mexico border. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
Claudia González visits with her neighbors in her Tamaulipas village. Her older brother was kidnapped from a nearby ranch in 2020 and is presumed dead. González and her neighbors say it’s common to hear gunfire at night.
Claudia González visits with her neighbors in her Tamaulipas village. Her older brother was kidnapped from a nearby ranch in 2020 and is presumed dead. González and her neighbors say it’s common to hear gunfire at night. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Before being forced to move to Mexico, she had some money saved. She recently filed her U.S. taxes and received a refund. Once that money dries up, she doesn’t know what she will do, she said.

She spends most of her time researching ways to return legally. She’s contacted the office of a member of Congress in Houston asking for help. She also goes to church and plays lotería, a board game similar to bingo, with an aunt who lives in the same village.

On a Sunday afternoon in September, González wore a green dress and carried a Bible with a black leather cover as she walked the dirt road to the local evangelical church.

The pastor, Estela Prieto Covarrubias, 71, invited congregants to the podium to share a Bible verse or sing. González went to the front to read from Psalm 139. She told the congregation – about 40 people — that the verse helped her fight through her depression, especially after she was hit with the decade-long ban from the U.S.

“Sometimes I feel like I lost a lot of things,” she said through tears. “I lost my job, I am far from my son, but God is the one who has sustained me by his grace and with his mercy."

The congregation applauded. Some shouted: Amen!

Covarrubias said she was impressed by González’s perseverance.

“I believe her testimony is impactful. She doesn’t look devastated,” Covarrubias said after her sermon. “Instead, you see her with an infectious smile, because she has faith in God who is going to open the door for her and put the right people in place to be able to fix her situation and return home with her son.”

Crossing the border

In 1998, Guadalupe González, then a single mom after separating from her ex-husband, who she said was physically abusive, got a tourist visa and began crossing the border to work in McAllen. She would leave Claudia with her sister and her brother-in-law, who had two children of their own. Her ex-husband took Claudia’s older sister and brother to Dallas.

On the weekends Guadalupe González would return to the village to visit Claudia, then relatives would drop her at the border on Sunday afternoons so she could return to work in Texas.

“I needed to pay for [Claudia’s] education and to feed her, that’s why I left,” she said.

When work slowed in McAllen, she said she headed north to Bay City and picked cotton for a few weeks before moving to Houston, where she worked at different restaurants before she started to clean houses in 1999. She would work two months at a time, then return to Mexico for a week at a time.

But the trips were tiring and time-consuming. So in 2003, she sent for Claudia. Her two older children, then 20 and 23 years old, had returned to Mexico and decided to stay.

An aunt dropped off Claudia González at the Texas-Mexico border where a coyote — a human smuggler — put her in a vehicle with a couple who drove her across the border. González said she remembers being in the car with the couple and two other children. She didn’t speak to the U.S. agent at the bridge and doesn’t remember what the adults told the agent about her, but she remembers the agent waving them through.

Guadalupe González, who remarried in 2005, said she didn’t know at the time how that car trip would affect her daughter’s future. She just wanted to be with Claudia in the U.S. and give her a shot at a good education.

“I thought as long as she didn’t cross the desert or get detained, everything would be fine,” she said.

Pastor Estela Prieto Covarrubias leads the worship at her church in Tamaulipas on Sept. 17, 2023.
Pastor Estela Prieto Covarrubias leads the worship at her church in Tamaulipas on Sept. 17, 2023. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
Claudia González sings at the church.
Claudia González sings at the church. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Building a life in Houston

At Ross Sterling High School in 2005, Claudia González met the boy she would marry. They sat at the same table in the cafeteria with mutual friends. She remembers him “acting like a clown to make me laugh.”

They began to date. Then she started attending an evangelical church with his family, she said. At first, it was just to spend more time with him, but eventually, she became a born-again Christian, leaving behind the Catholic traditions she grew up with.

When she was 17, Claudia González moved in with her boyfriend’s family. Her stepfather was physically and emotionally abusive toward her mother and she wanted to leave that environment, she said. She dropped out of high school, but earned her general educational development degree.

In 2009, the couple had a son, Gerardo Garza. Jr.

Meanwhile, Guadalupe González had separated from her second husband, and in 2011 she returned to Tamaulipas to take care of her father, who was battling pancreatic cancer. Her visa had expired, and there was no guarantee that U.S. officials would renew it, so she went back knowing she would likely not be able to return to Houston.

She took care of her father for 11 months before he died.

“I’m happy I was able to take care of him in his last days,” she said.

Interview in Ciudad Juárez

Claudia González stayed in Houston and built a life. She and her partner got married in 2013. She successfully applied for DACA in 2018, which allowed her to work legally in the U.S.

DACA also allowed her to get a Social Security number, pay taxes and get a Texas driver’s license.

She delivered food for DoorDash. She worked as a cashier at a Subway. Then she found a job she loved at an elementary school, as a data entry clerk. Her coworkers and the teachers soon came to depend on her to act as an interpreter for the Spanish-speaking parents of some of the students.

“I always wanted to make a difference and help people that don't speak English,” she said. “My English is not perfect, you know, but I always tried to help them.”

Every Sunday morning, González and her son would go to church, then head to Olive Garden and share a plate of chicken fettuccine alfredo before ending the afternoon shopping for clothes at Goodwill.

“Those were our mommy-son dates,” she said.

Top: Claudia González speaks with church members after Sunday service. Bottom left: González and her mother, Guadalupe González, prepare breakfast at their home. Bottom right: González holds her chick, Mushito.
Top: Claudia González speaks with church members after Sunday service. Bottom left: González and her mother, Guadalupe González, prepare breakfast at their home. Bottom right: González holds her chick, Mushito. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

She was able to renew her work permit four times, paying $495 in fees each time. But she knew that if she wanted to be secure, she needed a green card. Her husband, who was born in Mexico and became a naturalized citizen, sponsored her.

She began the application process in 2019.

Back in Mexico, tragedy struck in April 2020. Claudia’s older brother, José Fabian, was kidnapped by suspected drug cartel members from the ranch where he lived with his wife and two children. He is presumed dead, but Guadalupe González clings to the hope that he is still alive. The family said they don’t know why he was targeted, but the rumor around town is that he was friends with someone who was involved with the local drug cartel.

“Sometimes I tell my daughter that she at least has a chance to see her son,” Guadalupe González said. “But what about mine? I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.”

After her brother disappeared, Claudia González wanted to return to Mexico to stay with her mother for a while. She asked her lawyer to apply for what’s known as advance parole, which would have allowed her to leave the U.S. temporarily and return legally as a DACA recipient. Her lawyer told her it was too risky, she said, so she dropped the idea.

As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, her application seemed to be stalled in the immigration system bureaucracy. Finally last year, she received an appointment with an American consulate official in Ciudad Juárez.

Her lawyer at the time assured her everything would be fine and advised her to answer the questions honestly, without elaborating too much, she said.

In June, she traveled to Juárez with her son and met her mother and older sister there. They lived in a hotel for two weeks while she did two interviews with the same officer.

She told the officer how she entered the U.S. — by crossing an international bridge with a couple. She said the officer insisted on knowing who brought her into the country and how. González said she didn’t know the people who drove her across the bridge or what documents they presented on her behalf.

After the interviews were done she went to her mother’s home in Tamaulipas to wait for the decision.

On Aug. 28, 2023, González received an email from the U.S. State Department.

She said her heart dropped and tears started to roll down her cheeks when she read it: She was denied a visa and banned from entering the U.S. for a decade because she had lived in the U.S. for more than a year without legal status. They also accused her of lying to the consulate officer and claiming to be a U.S. citizen when she wasn’t.

Her aunt dropped the towels she had just folded and immediately embraced González.

González called her lawyer.

The lawyer told her that he wrote in her paperwork that she immigrated alone, González said. But she told the officer she crossed the border with strangers. She said she believes this discrepancy is what led to her being accused of lying. She insists that she never told U.S. officials that she was a citizen.

“God knows I never said that,” she said. Then her lawyer dropped her.

“He told me that this was out of his expertise and he couldn’t help me and wished me well,” she said.

Top left: Claudia González shares her story on a live stream with members of the Dreamers 2gether group. Top right: Guadalupe González holds a photo of her son, who hasn’t been heard from since he was kidnapped in 2020. Bottom: From left: Claudia González, her mother Guadalupe González, and her sister Ma Guadalupe González at their home in Tamaulipas.
Top left: Claudia González shares her story on a live stream with members of the Dreamers 2gether group. Top right: Guadalupe González holds a photo of her son, who hasn’t been heard from since he was kidnapped in 2020. Bottom: From left: Claudia González, her mother Guadalupe González, and her sister Ma Guadalupe González at their home in Tamaulipas. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Longing for his mother

Gerardo Garza, Jr. is a high school freshman now, living with his father in the south part of Houston. He plays viola in the school orchestra. Since he was separated from his mother, he texts and calls her often, sharing details about his day, his troubles with his now ex-girlfriend and how he has emotionally broken down at school.

The last time he saw his mother was in April, to celebrate his 15th birthday. His father drove him to the Texas-Mexico border, where Claudia picked him up and took him to the village. She had decorated an event hall with black, gold and red balloons and a neon sign that read, “mis quince” — my 15th.

Dressed in a brown button-down shirt, blue denim jeans and brown boots, Garza posed for a photo next to his mother in front of the balloons as music blared through the room.

They ate carne asada tacos.

“I felt at home, I knew everyone there loved me,” Garza said. “I knew it wasn’t much, but I knew my mom still tried to make it big.”

But when it was time to go home, he felt a punch in his gut, he said. His father picked him up at the bridge on the Mexican side. Garza said his father said something silly that made his mother smile.

Garza and his mother hugged, he said, as both held back tears. On the drive to Houston, he said he thought about his mother’s smile and his eyes started to water.

He put his sunglasses on, he said, so his dad wouldn’t notice he was crying.

He said he misses her a lot and reminisces often about the days they would spend together, especially those Sunday mornings when they would go to church and eat fettuccine alfredo at Olive Garden.

“I always smile and laugh when I remember those good times,” Garza said.

He’s had to learn how to take care of himself most of the time because his father works long hours as a welder.

He said he didn’t realize how much the household depended on his mother. She paid all the bills. She took him to school in the mornings. When his father can’t give him a ride to school he orders an Uber. Or a neighbor takes him.

There was a day recently when he missed his mother so much that he went into her closet and cried.

“My mom is really a good person and I don't think that she deserves any of this, or that we deserve any of this,” he said.

Disclosure: DoorDash has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


We’ve got big things in store for you at The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 5–7 in downtown Austin. Join us for three days of big, bold conversations about politics, public policy and the day’s news.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/07/texas-immigrant-houston-green-card-ban-10-years/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

More News


Radar
7 Days