- A DACA recipient is stuck in Mexico after traveling to Juárez for an immigration interview in August.
- Jaime Avalos is trying to get home to his wife and son but was barred from the US for 10 years.
- Avalos and his wife spoke to Insider about their fight to reunite their family.
Jaime Avalos had a bad feeling about his impending trip to Mexico. For weeks leading up to the immigration interview in Juárez, he was plagued with premonitions of irrevocable consequences.
“It was really nerve-racking,” Avalos told Insider, describing the unshakable feeling in his gut. “I feel like if I go to this appointment, I’m not going to come back.”
Nevertheless, Avalos, accompanied by his American wife, traveled to the US Consulate in Juárez, in August 2022, for the interview, a necessary step as he began the process of trying to secure US residency, and eventually, he hoped, citizenship.
Avalos, 28, was born in Mexico but spent nearly his entire life in Texas after his mother brought him to the United States when he was just a year old. The August interview marked the beginning of his effort to become a citizen of the only country he had ever called home, after a decade shielded by his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, often referred to as DACA, status, which prevented him from being deported despite being undocumented.
The meeting quickly deteriorated into a nightmare, though, when Avalos learned that his mother had briefly taken him back to Mexico when he was 7 years old — a trip he says he doesn’t remember — before he was able to establish permanent residency in the US. The revelation that he had illegally reentered the country not only dashed his immediate dreams of becoming a resident, but saddled him with a 10-year ban on returning to the US.
Now stranded in a foreign country far from his home, wife, child, and life, Avalos remains at the whims of an overwhelmed, oft-callous US immigration system as the months keep passing by.
An uneasy pursuit of citizenship
Growing up in Houston as an undocumented immigrant, Avalos was constantly looking over his shoulder, he told Insider, always afraid he might be snatched up by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
That anxiety dissipated when he secured DACA status at the age of 18. The Obama-era policy grants certain undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation as well as eligibility to work in the country.
Avalos graduated high school. He got a job. Every two years he diligently renewed his DACA status ahead of the deadline, and in 2019 he married his adolescent sweetheart, Yarianna Martinez. The couple bought their first home that same year.
Avalos and Martinez said they started talking more seriously about seeking citizenship for Avalos as the political climate turned increasingly hostile toward immigrants.
Several Republican-led states this week asked a judge to end protections for DACA recipients, who are known as “Dreamers.” Former President Donald Trump repealed the program in 2017, before the Supreme Court blocked his decision three years later.
“DACA is never really protected,” Martinez, 22, told Insider. “It’s always being threatened to be revoked.”
The couple had big plans for their future and wanted to eradicate any risk to their dream life. Avalos applied for residency in March 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. Amid a global outbreak and a mounting crisis at the border, the couple didn’t expect to hear about Avalos’ application anytime soon.
It took more than two years, but in the summer of 2022, Avalos finally received word that his preliminary immigration interview in Juárez was set for August.
By then, the stakes had heightened significantly.
“We had just had a baby,” Martinez said. The couple’s child, Noah, was born in December 2021. “Our perspective had changed a lot. This is serious. It can either make us or break us,” she said.
Avalos was apprehensive. If, for any reason, he failed to secure a visa during the meeting, life as he knew it would be forever changed. But with assurances from his lawyers that his papers were in order, Avalos quieted the nagging voice in his head, and embarked on a cross-border journey fated to be a one-way trip.
“He found out a lot of truths at that interview,” Martinez said.
Disaster on the other side of the border
Before his August interview, Avalos said he was under the impression he never left the US after he and his mother arrived in the country in 1996. Halfway through the most important interview of his life, immigration officials in Juárez revealed otherwise.
According to Martinez, who recounted the doomed meeting in an interview with Insider, immigration officers quickly zeroed in on Avalos’ Mexican birth certificate, which included an amendment from 2002 — six years after he and his mother first entered the US.
In Mexico, she said, a person has to be physically present to make changes to an official government document, such as a birth certificate. The registration date on Avalos’ birth certificate indicated that he and his mother had briefly returned to Mexico in 2002, meaning both mother and son would have then had to illegally reenter the US a second time — six years after their first unlawful crossing.
Left without answers to officers’ probing questions, Avalos called his mother mid-interview, hoping she might be able to explain the discrepancy. She dropped a heart-wrenching bombshell: Avalos’ mother told her son and the immigration officials that she brought her child back to Mexico when he was 7 years old so her husband — the man Avalos always believed to be his biological father — could legally adopt him.
“It affected me a lot,” Avalos said of the revelation about his parentage. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have come out to Juárez and done the interview.”
Left to process this new information about his father, Avalos was immediately hit with another devastating blow. He was not allowed to return to the US; he couldn’t go home.
Because he and his mother briefly left the US after illegally entering, thus unlawfully crossing the border not once, but twice, Avalos’ application for residency was immediately denied and he was issued a 10-year ban on reentering the US — his home country, where his wife and son remained.
“My world was ending,” he said. “I should have trusted my gut and never left.”
ICE declined to comment on Avalos’ specific case, but told Insider that DACA recipients who leave the US without first obtaining an advance parole document run a “significant risk” of being unable to reenter the US, given that their period of deferred action is halted once they leave the country.
Martinez said she thought her husband was joking when he emerged from the interview dazed and in disbelief. Even as he explained what happened, Martinez said she struggled to comprehend the vast consequences of the meeting.
It only became real as she boarded a plane back to Houston, alone.
The ongoing fight to bring Avalos home
Avalos and Martinez hoped their separation from one another would be brief. The reality has been beyond disheartening, they both said.
“The first month was horrible, really horrible,” Avalos said. “I was in my head. We have a house payment, a car payment, phone payments. I’m not going to see my kid or wife until next year.”
Martinez jumped into action, seeking solutions to bring her husband home even as she continued working part time as a medical assistant.
She shopped Avalos’ story around to several new immigration lawyers in the Houston area but said attorneys were hesitant to take the difficult case — until she met Naimeh Salem, who quickly went to work raising public awareness and outrage about Avalos’ exile.
Salem secured heavyweight support in the form of the couple’s congressman, Rep. Al Green of Texas, who introduced legislation to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act last year and filed a private bill requesting resident status for Avalos in November, framing the crusade as a “mission of mercy.”
“He is not being held by a hostile nation. We are the ones preventing him from returning,” Green said of Avalos in a statement to Insider.
The lawmaker said he has also sent letters to President Joe Biden and the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about Avalos’ case.
The young family’s best chance at reunification is the pending humanitarian parole request Salem submitted on Avalos’ behalf three months ago, she said. The parole status allows an individual who is ineligible for entry into the US to be allowed in on humanitarian reasons.
DACA recipients who leave the US without first obtaining advance parole, as Avalos did, but who are later paroled back into the country are eligible to resume their DACA status after their parole expires, according to ICE.
The government doesn’t consider Avalos’ request for humanitarian parole an urgent or emergency case, Salem said, so the couple could have to wait seven to 10 months before receiving a final decision on his application.
Those possible solutions have given the family a glimmer of hope amid the heartbreak, they said. But should Avalos’ parole application be denied or Green’s letters go unanswered, Avalos will be stranded indefinitely, Salem said.
“These are his only options,” Martinez said. “After that, there are no options, no plan B.”
A family torn apart
Both husband and wife try to remain positive, if only for each other and their son, they said.
“I went from being in a marriage where I woke up every day seeing my husband to feeling like I’m a single mom,” Martinez said. “If it wasn’t for Noah, I don’t think I’d be able to handle it.”
The couple video chats frequently and communicates through texts and phone calls, Martinez said. Avalos’ US phone number still works because Juárez is less than 10 miles from the US border, though nearly 800 miles from his family in Houston.
“When this happened, Noah was only 8 months old. Now he’s 13 months,” Martinez said of her son. “He’s starting to realize, why am I seeing my dad on FaceTime when he was just in person playing with me?”
Avalos, meanwhile, is still trying to acclimate to life in a foreign country. He’s living with an uncle in Juárez, but he’s had difficulty mastering the Spanish slang spoken in the city and is still adjusting to driving in Mexico. He finally secured a job in the country last month, working at a computer-chip company after an extensive hiring process, he said.
He sometimes speaks with his mother on the phone, though not about the revelations he learned during his immigration interview.
“We haven’t touched that subject,” he told Insider. “When everything clears over, we’ll talk about it.”
Martinez and Noah have been able to visit Avalos in Juárez a few times over the past 4 ½ months, including once with Green, but the cost of flights and time off from work make frequent trips impossible.
As life goes on around them, there is little left for the family to do now but wait.
“He’s trying to keep his head up really, really high,” Martinez said of her husband. “But it’s starting to weigh heavy.”