Connie Caiceros wonders if it would have been better just to break the law.
The Elkhart woman believes in obeying the law, respecting authority. As director of the Center for Community Justice here — a nonprofit group that aids crime victims and works with criminal offenders after they’ve left jail — law and justice are central in her responsibilities.
Still, after more than seven frustrating years trying to secure a visa — something, anything — letting her husband, a Mexican, return here legally from Mexico, she questions the wisdom of following proper procedure. Maybe it would’ve been better to ignore U.S. immigration law. Maybe it would have been better for her husband, David Caiceros, to have remained here, in the shadows, an undocumented immigrant.
“That’s our biggest regret: that we even started this process and didn’t just live below the radar,” she said. “We both regret it 100 percent.”
David Caiceros is even more blunt. He returned to Mexico in 2005, seven years after entering the United States illegally and three years after marrying his wife in Phoenix, thinking he’d quickly sort out his immigration status and come back legally.
“I tried to do it the right way, follow the law, and they screw me,” he said via Skype from his parents’ home in Mexico City, where he’s living.
The upshot of everything? David Caiceros is awaiting the end of a 10-year ban on re-entering the United States, until at least October 2015, per U.S. immigration policy. Never mind that the separation and long wait are straining the Caiceroses’ marriage. Never mind that their 8-year-old, U.S.-born son, also named David, is suffering without the presence of his father.
“It’s almost like a numbness because it’s so overwhelming and complicated,” said Connie Caiceros, born and raised in Elkhart.
Even as formulated, U.S. immigration policy, at least in part, is supposed to promote family unity.
But as the Caiceroses’ case illustrates, people can fall through the cracks. U.S. citizens like Connie Caiceros and her son, even, can suffer due to the U.S. immigration system’s apparent shortcomings. “It is not OK to tear a family apart,” she said.
Indeed, the immigration system’s critics come in all political stripes, and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is working on a reform proposal, in part to deal with border security and the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants here.
David Leopold, general counsel and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, alluded to the sort of situation the Caiceroses face in a blog last January in the Huffington Post. On leaving the United States, Leopold explained, those who had entered the country illegally and remained more than 180 days can face prohibitions of up to 10 years on returning, punishment for sneaking across the border.
“Does an undocumented wife leave her U.S. citizen husband and children to apply for a visa overseas knowing there is a strong chance she will not see them for months, years, or perhaps even a decade?” Leopold wrote. “Or does she take refuge in the shadows, nurturing her family while living in constant fear of arrest and deportation?”
Connie Caiceros, a 1995 Elkhart Memorial High School grad, moved to Phoenix in 1998, knowing no one there, and enrolled at Arizona State University. David Caiceros traveled to Phoenix that same year from Mexico City, drawn by a sister, Rosa, already in the city.
“She just told me, ‘Don’t you want to come here and know a different place?’” David Caiceros said in the Skype conversation from Mexico City.
Securing a visa to enter the U.S. legally was out of the question, so, as Connie Caiceros tells it, he crossed clandestinely, a route that took him through a mountainous zone into Arizona. “You need to have a job, a lot of money in the bank. You need to have a lot of things to get a visa and I didn’t have anything,” David Caiceros, now 36, said.
As fate would have it, David Caiceros, Rosa and some cousins moved to an apartment next door to Connie Caiceros, now 35, and the future couple met. Initially, Rosa’s offerings of homemade Mexican food brought the neighbors together. “They were fun and good people, and they were ethical,” Connie Caiceros said.
Things blossomed between Connie and David, who worked landscaping jobs, helped out at a car wash, attended community college. She taught him English, he taught her Spanish and salsa dancing. One thing led to another. The couple married in 2002, David their son was born in 2004 and the small family came to Elkhart in 2005.
Growing up in Elkhart, Connie Caiceros had no concept of what it meant to be an undocumented immigrant, and, on learning of David Caiceros’ status, it didn’t seem a big deal. “I knew at that point but I didn’t really care,” she said.
Then her husband, caught speeding, got a ticket here in Elkhart for driving a car without a driver’s license. It’s hardly the worst offense in the world, but it made the Caiceroses think they better formalize his status. As an undocumented immigrant, he had no legal way of getting a driver’s license, and doing nothing to legalize his status, he’d run the risk of more run-ins.
They filed the pertinent application with U.S. immigration officials and, per standard procedure at the time, October 2005, traveled to Mexico to complete the process at a U.S. consular office there.
Connie Caiceros figured the process would take six months, but it was only the beginning of a story that has yet to end.
The Caiceroses are hardly alone, according to immigration attorney Felipe Merino, who has offices in Goshen and South Bend. With the large immigrant population here, chiefly from Mexico, he comes across similar cases regularly.
“I just get tired of seeing so many families in Elkhart County split up,” Merino said.
In cases like the Caiceroses’, the U.S. citizen spouse can request a hardship waiver with immigration officials, allowing their undocumented immigrant counterpart to get around the 10-year ban.
Connie Caiceros has made such applications, without success. Authorities grant waivers in three circumstance, she said: if the U.S. citizen spouse lacks income based on U.S. poverty guidelines, has been diagnosed with a mental illness or suffers from some serious physical ailment.
She’s explained the stress and hardship David Caiceros’ absence places on the family, on her son. In their rejection letters, though, U.S. immigration officials, while expressing a measure of understanding, essentially have said it’s not enough.
“I have not proved extreme suffering,” she said.
Merino indicated there’s more leeway, many other factors that can bear on the success of a hardship waiver application. At any rate, if it appears an undocumented immigrant client’s case won’t pass muster, he’s leery of advising him or her to leave the country.
“I never, ever, ever send anyone out unless I think they’re going to qualify for a waiver,” Merino said. If they return, say, to Mexico and their case is rejected — as occurred with the Caiceros family — “then they’re stuck and the family’s separated for a long, long time.”
New laws went into effect on March 4, a little more than a month ago, easing the process. Now families in the Caiceroses’ situation can apply for hardship waivers in the United States and receive word while still here on whether their applications have been accepted. That would forestall a trip outside the country to a U.S. consulate office only to be rejected and face a 10-year ban on re-entry, as occurred with David Caiceros.
Ultimately authorities at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, rejected David Caiceros’ application, more than a year and a half after his October 2005 return to the country. He remains in Mexico, living with his parents and other family, working at a market, helping out with family-run businesses.
Connie Caiceros alludes to her husband’s stay in Mexico as “exile.” “We have committed nothing harmful to our community,” she said.
She and son David have traveled there for visits, but between the cost of the trips and all the varied application fees to appeal, she’s depleted her savings. The boy’s U.S. passport has expired and he needs his father’s signature on the paperwork to get another, yet one more hurdle given the man’s presence in Mexico.
The family connects via a Skype video hook-up, but it’s hardly the same as being together. These days, Connie Caiceros sometimes learns things about her husband, like his new interest in weight lifting, via Facebook. She’s been saving the schoolwork of her son, now in third grade at Trinity Lutheran School, in a big plastic tub because Dad wants to see it some day, if he’s allowed to return to the United States.
“There are days when I can deal with this, fight the injustice,” Connie Caiceros said. “There are other days when I just fall apart.”
Young David, meanwhile, goes through phases — anger, sadness, confusion. His mom traces it back to his father’s absence. The boy’s not one to talk about the situation, not to strangers, anyway.
“He needs his dad, because there’s damage inside for him to have to live with this,” his mom said.
As for the marriage, that, too, sometimes seems to be on shaky ground. Connie Caiceros has contemplated divorce, just giving up. She sometimes feels like a single mom, responsible for everything. But there’s her son to think about, if nothing else — he needs his father.
She offers a mixed assessment at the prospect of finally reuniting with her husband. On the one hand, she thinks she would start crying. “It’s my dream,” she said.
On the other hand, they’ve been apart for so many years they may find each other completely changed. “We go back and forth, up and down, and we just don’t know,” she said. They’ve been apart for so long that “by the time we’re back together, we may be different people. I don’t know. Neither of us know.”
David Caiceros remains philosophical, asked how he manages. “I never have an answer for that. It just happened to us and we have to live with it,” he said.
In the meantime, the end of David Caiceros’ 10-year re-entry ban approaches. Connie Caiceros is uncertain about launching yet another application on her husband’s behalf before that only to be shot down. Maybe it’d be better to wait until the ban expires in October 2015 and start the process over.
“It’s scary to have hope,” she said. “I’m too afraid anymore to have hope.”