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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

'You Always Feel That Someone’s Missing': How a Trump-Era Immigration Policy Has Kept a California Family Apart for Two Years

 September 20, 2021 at 12:38 PM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 When you've been living in California undocumented, and you're finally able to become a legal resident, it can be a huge relief. That's what one man in the central valley city of Los Banos was helping. He would feel he followed the rules and he went back to Mexico for the final step to apply for his green card and interview at the U S consulate. His wife and kids expected him to be back in a week or two. But as reporter Zaidi, sta valley of ed source tells us that's not what happened Speaker 2: 00:33 On a Saturday afternoon at the Reese house. The grill is sizzling with God Masada out, Amanda Reese and her four kids are sitting down to the five of them, laugh and tease each other about who likes their meat. Most burned. This family is tight-knit. But to the kids, it feels like there's a hole in the home. A dad shaped hole Speaker 3: 00:56 For us. There's like this space where he used to be, but he's not there anymore. And like, every time you come home, you're just like, oh, I feel like something's missing. Speaker 2: 01:09 That's 19 year old, Nathan, the something missing is his stepdad. Jose Louis [inaudible]. He's been stuck in Mexico for the past two years. Since he went back to apply for his green card. There are reminders of him everywhere in the cozy trailer, the family photos, along the hallway, the triple bunk bed he built. So three kids could share a room. We'll say has helped raise Nathan and his brother Ignacio and sister, Elena, since they were little and 11 years ago, he and their mom had Amanda had another daughter together, their little sister, but he Sila, Speaker 3: 01:44 We all love him as an actual father. Cause he basically raised us. He's my pawpaw. So it was very tough and we haven't even like seen him for a long time. We only video chat with him. Speaker 2: 02:03 The video calls keep this family close. Even though Jose is in most CEOs are Nora, a thousand miles away. We see less shows her data drawing. She did have a tiger. Sometimes 17 year old Ignacio asks him how to unclog the toilet or how to change the oil in the car. The oldest Elena keeps him updated on her job squished between her kids on the couch is their mom out of Mamba who keeps the whole family together Speaker 2: 02:37 As a us citizen. When she married Jose, she wanted to apply for a green card for her husband, but it's not that easy. Jose had been living here without papers. Since his parents brought him from Mexico. As a teenager, 30 years ago, under current immigration law. If you cross the border without papers, you have to leave the country to apply for a green card and can be banned from coming back for 10 years. Even if you're married to a us citizen, there is one way around that ban. If you can prove your absence would cause extreme hardship for your us citizen, spouse or parent in at Amanda's case, the hardship was Speaker 4: 03:25 [inaudible] so nothing [inaudible]. Speaker 2: 03:28 I explained she can't work because she has a full-time job caring for two children with disabilities. Nathan has struggled with severe depression. The Sila was born prematurely with major medical problems. Speaker 4: 03:41 Um, [inaudible] Speaker 2: 03:47 Jose and his income. They would really suffer Speaker 2: 03:53 The government approved the waiver and the couple thought they had all their paperwork in order. Jose didn't make much money as a handyman. So they followed the rules and found a sponsor, a family friend who made more and signed papers saying he would support them. If needed in may of 2019, Jose left for Mexico expecting to return with a green card. What he didn't know is that the Trump administration had recently moved to make it a lot tougher for low-income immigrants to become legal residents, expanding something called the public charge rule. That's an old rule meant to exclude people if they're likely to become completely dependent on government aid, but under Trump, it swept up a lot more people. Speaker 5: 04:36 So we began hearing anecdotes of denials, um, in a space where we had never seen denials before, um, over issues that had never cropped up before in the public charge space. Speaker 2: 04:49 That's Erin Quinn, she's senior staff attorney at the immigrant legal resource center in San Francisco. She says it happened to a lot of people out of the blue. It seemed like officials were looking for reasons to deny people like Jose. The consulate officers started asking questions. They had never asked before. Speaker 5: 05:08 I want you to prove that you actually know the person that signs your sponsorship. I want you to show me that your sponsor can pay. I want to know what benefits your family members are using in the United States. Speaker 2: 05:22 Jose never used any public benefits, but his kids, all us citizens did get some help from the government because pretty Sila, the youngest has disabilities. She gets supplemental security income. The others had gotten food stamps and Medi-Cal before president Trump changed the public charge rule. Those things wouldn't have counted against Jose and having a sponsor like Jose, his friend would have been enough proof. He wouldn't become a burden on the government, but not anymore. The consulate officers told Jose he would need another sponsor. And instead of waiting for him to turn in the new paperwork, they canceled the waiver that would let him return home to California. He'll say it felt that his world had broken into a million pieces. Speaker 6: 06:09 [inaudible] they don't mean [inaudible] Garcia said, like I said, Speaker 2: 06:15 I've never been in jail, so-so say, but I think it must feel like this. He spoke to me over zoom from Sonata. Speaker 6: 06:22 I don't know if Amelia there's a, so personally that [inaudible] Speaker 2: 06:35 They take everything from you. He says your family, your personality, everything. Before the Trump changes to the public charge rule, barely 3000 people a year were denied entry because officials doubted they would be able to support themselves. In 2019, the year Jose got stuck in Mexico. A record 21,000 people were denied seven times. As many as before president Biden has since reversed the Trump policy and how say and out Amanda are applying again for another waiver to see if he can come home to his family. But they're still separated. What hurts Jose most is watching his kids' plans for college unravel Speaker 6: 07:20 [inaudible] [inaudible] [inaudible]. Speaker 2: 07:27 My kids really put their heart into their studies. He says, I feel like I'm clipping their wings with Jose, unable to come home. The family was left without any income. Elena, the oldest went to work and dropped out of UC. Merced said she's the first in her family to ever go to college. She was afraid that if she dropped out, she might never go back, but she didn't know what else to do. Speaker 7: 07:53 So counselors usually advise me to like try to stay in school, but they didn't really understand that. I was the only one that was able to work. Speaker 2: 08:06 Elena applied for dozens of jobs. She worked at a tomato packing plant at big five sporting goods as a cashier and last year with the us census bureau. But she needed a job with stable benefits. So she decided to join the army reserve. She thought if she could support the family, her younger siblings could follow their dreams Speaker 7: 08:26 Because I'm the oldest. Like I'm like the forefront. So I don't want them to like get pressured to I'd rather just like take off some of the pressure. So when they go to school, they don't have to worry about it, Speaker 2: 08:38 But Elena's brothers are considering putting off their dreams. Nathan took a job at the tomato plant and enrolled in community college. Part-time Ignacio is a high school senior last year, he had a 4.6 grade point average all A's including in for advanced classes. He recently got a letter from Harvard, encouraging him to apply Speaker 8: 09:01 College. But what I'm really thinking about is maybe a vocational education so that I can get a degree and all of a sudden internship, I don't want to go out of state so that I have close proximity to my family. Speaker 2: 09:12 Jose has been gone now for more than two years, the family still doesn't know when he might be able to return. And the years of separation can't be undone. Atlanta wants to take classes again. When she returns from basic training, she hopes you'll one day get her degree. But right now she says, it's just not the right time. I think Speaker 7: 09:33 We would just be my family to be together. We try our hardest. We just have to keep hoping Speaker 2: 09:44 In June out Amanda and the kids drove to visit Jose in Mexico. It was a rare chance for the family to be together before Atlanta headed to basic training, they went to the beach, uh, first for some of the kids and waited into the ocean, playing in the waves from the sand out, Amanda watched and took a video with her phone in it. Her husband and her children walked toward the horizon. They jumped over wave after wave coming at them altogether for the moment for the California report. I'm Zaidi Staveley. Speaker 9: 10:25 [inaudible].

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One man in the Central Valley was hoping he would feel relieved to finally be a legal resident of the U.S. He followed the rules and he went back to Mexico for the final step to apply for his green card, an interview at the U.S. consulate. His wife and kids expected him back in a week or two. But that's not what happened.
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