Jackson Resident Reunited with Deported Family in Mexico After 16 Years

Study abroad program provides legal protection to make trip possible for immigrants

Sandra Chavez and her four daughters traveled to Mexico last summer so that she could introduce them to their grandparents and other relatives whom they had never met due to immigration restrictions. Pictured from left to right are Daniella (age 12 at the time), Iliana (age 13), Tatiana (age 8), Sandra and Yamileth (age 16) as they toured the historic center of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. (Courtesy photo)

By Madeline Thulin

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Anticipation built for Sandra Chavez and her four daughters as they drove from Wyoming through Arizona, each imagining the imminent reunion with their extended family in Mexico. Several hours and a plane flight later, tears welling in her eyes, Chavez reached out to her father and mother, holding them in her arms for the first time in 16 years.

“It was a whirlwind,” Chavez said, recalling her trip abroad last summer, hoping to inspire other immigrants to fulfill their own dreams. “That first meeting was just full — full of tears and emotions to get to be with them and even hug them.”

Chavez’s parents had brought her into the United States illegally in 1989 when she was 13 months old. She didn’t realize that she was undocumented until, about 14 years later, she attended Jackson Hole High School and wanted to work but couldn’t due to her residency status.

When “my mom told me, ‘You’re undocumented and you don’t have any documents to work.’…it shattered my heart because I’ve always known the U.S. as my home,” Chavez said. “It has always been my place where I have grown up.”

Chavez, now 33, has been able to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), created by President Obama in 2012. It provides temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. But it provides no protection for Chavez’s parents, and they were deported to Mexico in 2005 after Chavez had married and gave birth to her first child.

Chavez wondered if she would ever see her parents again because, if she left the United States under her immigration status, she would not be allowed to return.

She carried that burden for years until learning in 2020 about a special study abroad program offered through the non-profit California-Mexico Studies Center in Long Beach, California. The cultural exchange program, which grew out of classes offered at California State University Long Beach, uses a special provision in U.S. immigration law so that immigrants like Chavez can leave the United States and return legally without fear of being deported.

The California-Mexico Dreamers Study Abroad Program, operated by the California-Mexico Studies Center, costs participants $5,000, and Chavez knew, “we don’t have the money for it, but we’re going to make it work.” She increased her working hours at Hole Family Eye Care in Jackson and a year later was able to cover the program fee plus travel costs for her four children. Her husband, Humberto Barrera, is also a DACA recipient, but he remained home because he has other restrictions on his status that would need to be cleared up to avoid being deported.

Chavez lined up the trip for July 1 to Aug. 22 last summer for her and her four daughters – Tatiana, 8; Daniella, 12; Iliana, 13; and Yamileth, 16 – who were able to travel with her because each of them was born in the United States and hold legal citizenship.

Their seven weeks of travel through Mexico earned them all kinds of experiences – from seeing the pyramids of Teotihuacan to the silver mines in Taxco – but nothing compared to Chavez introducing her four daughters to their grandparents and other relatives for the first time.

The four girls hugged their grandparents, for the first time feeling them rather than just seeing them on FaceTime. Close bonds built rapidly as the family “[got] to know their personalities, who are they, just all of those little details,” Chavez said. She recalls a Spanish song with lyrics describing the emotional reunion: “I’ll travel many distances, many places to be able to hug you or touch you or be with you one more time.” And for Chavez, that’s the true meaning of family.

Chavez recalls how her daughters lounged on the couch enjoying their cousins singing karaoke. She watched them bond as song after song eliminated the barriers of distance and culture between them.

Her own tearful reunion with her father came to mind: “[For] 16 years, I had not seen him, touched him, hugged him,” Chavez said.

U.S. immigration laws provide another way for DACA recipients to travel outside the United States and re-enter the country legally without a government pardon: for employment, humanitarian or educational circumstances. The California-Mexico Dreamers Study Abroad Program is the first program in the United States designed to use this educational provision, known in immigration law as “advance parole.”

Sandra Chavez (top left) of Jackson was reunited with her parents and family members last summer in Mexico for the first time in 16 years. Her father, Jose Luis Chavez (top right); her sister Alejandra Chavez (bottom right); and her mother, Catalina Chavez, live in Lagos de Morena (shown here) in the state of Jalisco. (Courtesy photo)

The California-Mexico Dreamers Study Abroad Program consists of three weeks of travel to familiarize participants with the history of their country of origin, meet their families and attend one week of classes. Housing, meals and field trips are included in the overall $5,000 fee as well as medical and travel insurance.

The program to help Dreamers was started in 2014 by Armando Vasquez-Ramos, a professor of Chicano and Latino studies for 34 years at California State University Long Beach. “Profe,” as he is known by students, realized that the educational provision of advance parole could be translated into an academic program allowing DACA recipients to gain legal entry, thereby helping them on their path to residency and eventual citizenship. He found “tremendous benefit which people didn’t know about” in this system, he said.

Vasquez-Ramos said Dreamers are driven by their status as uncertain immigrants in the United States. “This is why this program is so beneficial to them,” he said, because “they have not been able to go back home, in some cases up to 30 years.”

Chavez, one of 45 participants on her trip, completed a 10-page research paper about her origins and travel experiences.

That assignment helps the study abroad program meet the requirements of immigration law. Completing the trip allows students like Chavez to move along the pathway to eventual citizenship.

While Chavez wants to achieve legal American citizenship, she first must obtain permanent residency status. She can do this by being sponsored through her younger siblings who were born in the United States or from her children when they turn 21. But to qualify for residency, Chavez first needs to have entered the United States legally. The study abroad program allows her to leave the country and reenter legally.

Chavez plans to apply for her permanent residency sponsorship through her oldest daughter when Yamileth turns 21 in five years. Afterward, Chavez will need to wait another three years to apply for U.S. citizenship – in 2030.

The path to citizenship is as expensive as it is long. Every time a DACA recipient renews his or her status every other year, they must pay $495 plus attorney’s fees, which often can be up to $2,000.

Despite the cost and patience involved, Chavez isn’t giving up. She recalls her last evening in Mexico during the study abroad trip and what it meant to her and her family.

“While I was in the program, I left [my children] with my parents so it got to be one-on-one with my parents, their grandparents,” she said.

When Chavez returned, her children had made homemade pizzas with their grandfather and learned to wash clothes manually with their grandmother, using an old-fashioned washboard.

Together, the family shared one last traditional Mexican meal before returning to the United States. The scent of warm tortillas, beans, rice and chiles wafted in the air, mixing with the robust smell of pork.

Leaving Mexico was another emotional rollercoaster for Chavez.

“I got to see [my parents] and hug them, so it has given me that sense of relief and that sense of comfort that I needed,” Chavez said, but another question was created in its place: “When will I be back? We don’t know.”

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