Final plea: Combat veteran's wife facing Friday deportation reaches out to Trump
WASHINGTON — She thought the hard days were behind her. Her rough childhood in Mexico after her father died and her family fell apart. The terrifying trips with a coyote across the border — twice because she was captured and sent back the first time. The deployment of her husband — a Marine turned National Guardsman — to the war in Iraq, leaving the young mother alone to care for their first child.
But nothing compares to the threat looming over her and her family now.
After two decades of building a life here, Alejandra Juarez, 39, is set to be deported from her home in Davenport, Fla., back to Mexico on Friday, tearing her family apart.
As the wife of a combat veteran, she never imagined this day would come.
She and her husband, Sgt. Cuauhtemoc “Temo” Juarez — who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child and naturalized just days before his Iraq deployment — always expected that one day, in recognition of his service, she too would be naturalized.
But she broke the law 20 years ago when she came into the country, and no lawyer has ever been able to make that right. Under the more stringent immigration policies of President Donald Trump, her status now makes her a target for deportation.
The couple have met with lawyers, have a bill in her name pending in Congress, appealed to immigration officials and pleaded in vain to be heard by a judge. Now, all they can do is prepare their family for the worst and hope for a miracle.
They’ve got a plan in place, painful as it is: She will take their youngest daughter, Estela, to Mexico with her, because her husband often travels for business, although she said it feels like the 9-year-old is being deported as well.
Their older daughter, Pamela, will stay with her father because they don’t believe the 16-year-old would be safe in Mexico.
They are trying to prepare the girls — both American citizens.
“I’ve been preaching to them you’ve got to be mentally tough — pretty much what they teach you in the Army,” he said.
Even after Estela stood crying with her mother on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in April, pleading for help to keep her and her mother at home, the full brunt of what’s about to happen has yet to sink in, her father said.
“Reality hasn’t hit,” he said. “Once it happens, you can tell they are going to crumble.”
Their only hope is that a letter they wrote to Trump was passed along to him by their congressmen during the president’s visit to Florida on Tuesday for a campaign rally — and that the president will read it and act in their favor.
It’s a long shot. Even Temo Juarez, 41, who leans conservative and is a Trump supporter, doubts it will happen.
“People who do business with me — they laughed (saying), ‘You are a super conservative,’ ” he said. “I told them, ‘I am eating my words.’ ”
At this late juncture, only the president can move quickly enough to stop this deportation.
A broken law Traditionally, spouses and family of U.S. military members have enjoyed a certain latitude from immigration authorities. People like Alejandra Juarez would be tagged, but left in place.
There is even an immigration policy for members of the military and their families called “parole in place” that recognizes “the important sacrifices made by U.S. armed forces members, veterans, enlistees and their families,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
But while immigration policy regarding military and veteran spouses has not changed, advocates say the Trump administration stance of zero tolerance has meant that there is no longer an order of priority in enforcing immigration law.
Anyone found without legal status can face deportation, not just those who’ve committed crimes, said Paul Donnelly, a strategist with the nonprofit American Families United, which advocates for immigration reform. He estimates that 11,800 active U.S. servicemembers have a spouse facing deportation; adding the spouses of veterans would make those figures higher, he said.
“These are not people knocking off banks and 7-Elevens,” he said. “These are military families trying to get by, and it’s a lousy thing to do.”
USCIS data appears to indicate a shift, showing an increase in denials of requests for parole in place based on cases that were decided each year.
According to the data, in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 under President Barack Obama, 11 percent of the total parole in place cases that were decided were denied, while 89 percent were approved.
In fiscal 2017, which began in the last three months of the Obama presidency, the denials rose to 13 percent, and in the first eight months of the 2018 fiscal year, denials are up to 16 percent of the total cases decided.
USCIS denies there has been any change and says it has maintained a rate of 75 percent approval based on total requests each year, rather than cases decided.
Randall Emery, president of American Families United, said this is a disturbing development in the decades-long erosion of viable immigration law.
“Alejandra’s case just typifies the kind of case we see all the time,” he said. “We are talking about people who we’d be happy to have as neighbors, who made a mistake in the past, who are integrated, who are part of society and who are contributing,” he said. “It’s in the national interest to have her home with her husband. It sends the wrong message to the troops when people have to worry about the safety of their spouses.”
A slap in the face Alejandra, who declined to mention her maiden name, came to the U.S. in 1998, looking for a better future.
She’d grown up in Mexico City with a dysfunctional family in a crime-riddled neighborhood.
She was just 18, she said, when she was smuggled across the border with the help of a coyote.
“If you get caught,” the man told her, “lie and say you are American.”
It didn’t work.
A border officer told her that she could either sign a piece of paper to be sent back home or spend the next six months locked away in detention.
Speaking almost no English, she asked for an interpreter, but she said her request was ignored. So she signed the document and departed.
She snuck back in just days later, this time succeeding.
Three years later, life was good. She was living in Florida, had fallen in love with a U.S. Marine and they were getting married.
Temo Juarez had just finished his Marines contract, having deployed to Africa and South America and, committed to serving, decided to join the Florida National Guard as a reservist.
Their daughter Pamela was born in October 2001, shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11. Temo’s activation soon followed.
They learned how to be parents as he trained for war and after months of delays in getting naturalized, he became an American citizen just days before he deployed.
Pamela was not even 1 when her dad deployed. A six-month tour was extended, then extended again, turning into 16 months away. The baby walked for the first time while he was gone.
The deployment was hard. His unit was often under attack by rockets and mortars. He lost one buddy in a vehicle accident and a second was shot point-blank while serving in a security element for a senior officer.
Temo Juarez was proud of his service and thankful that he had a wife who was there for him when things got tough. As the deployment was extended again and again, several of the marriages in their military community fell apart.
But Alejandra was his rock. She comforted him and was there to listen when he was at his wit’s end. To this day, she said, he tells her that if it hadn’t been for her, he doesn’t believe he would have made it.
“I’ve been here for him all this time,” she said. “Despite no documents, I am a military wife.”
Days before her pending deportation, she said she believes it’s her husband who is being betrayed.
“They are trying to punish me for what I did, but they are punishing him,” she said. “I told him: ‘You served this country three times and look what they are doing to you. It’s a slap in the face.”
‘Asking for asylum’ Temo Juarez completed his military service after that tour in Iraq and moved on to build a flooring business.
He and his wife had a second daughter and lived a normal life. The girls, like their dad, are American. English is their first language.
She had no legal status, but they were comfortable that she was safe. During Temo’s deployment, Alejandra had filed paperwork seeking to naturalize and she received a reply saying she would have to go back to Mexico and go into the U.S. embassy there to apply for citizenship.
She sought counsel and lawyers told her not to do it — she likely would not be let back into the country that was now home. Periodically, she would check to see whether there were any changes in the law. But the answer was always the same: Wait.
One day in 2013, Alejandra was pulled over in a routine traffic stop. The officer, she said, told her she “looked suspicious.”
While the ticket was ultimately dropped, a search of her record revealed that she was illegal. Two weeks later, immigration enforcement officers came to her house.
They told her that in 1998, when she was captured and released, she signed a document used on occasion by border patrol officers called an expedited removal order. Unbeknownst to the teenager, she had signed away her right to ever become an American citizen.
With no criminal record, Alejandra was not high priority for immigration officials, so they let her status slide and she was told to simply check in with authorities twice a year. But suddenly, her hopes of becoming legal were gone.
She now realized that had she gone to Mexico and walked into the U.S. Embassy seeking an application, she would never have been allowed to return. She also discovered that back then, there had been options for her.
“Now I know there is something called ‘asking for asylum,’ ” she said. “But 20 years ago, I didn’t know.”
Dividing a family Before the 2016 elections, Temo Juarez put his faith in candidate Donald Trump. The conservative military man believed that the country needed a change and Trump could shake things up.
He had faith that his service to his country would protect his family.
But immigration authorities have told Alejandra Juarez that her expedited removal order barred her from being eligible for parole in place and now, under the administration’s zero tolerance, she was no longer a low-priority case. She was informed earlier this year that she was being deported.
With their options narrowing, the couple pressed for a hearing before an immigration judge who could change her status. But she’s been waiting years, and with time running out, they sought a political reprieve.
Their congressman, Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., urged the Department of Homeland Security to grant her parole in place and a stay of removal until her case could be heard. He also cosponsored legislation called the Protect Patriot Spouses Act seeking protection for all military spouses and introduced a private bill directly on her behalf to give her legal permanent residence status. Neither has been passed; if that were to happen, she could apply for citizenship.
Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied the request for a stay of removal, and a final deportation date was set after being delayed once before from June.
“I will continue to support the Juarez family through this difficult situation and continue to fight against the Trump administration’s heartless immigration policies tearing families apart,” Soto said in a statement last week.
Temo Juarez said he is still proud of his country and proud of serving.
“I don’t blame anybody,” he said.
“We understand she violated the law and we are not asking for much,” he said. “We are asking them to drop the deportation. We are not asking for anything else.”
Alejandra Juarez says the country owes her family better than this. She came from a broken family and has worked hard with her husband to give their children something better.
Now, the country he served is going to break their family, too.
“My family is very hurt by what is going on,” she said.
“I never thought in my worst nightmare that I’d be deported. I thought they would take my husband’s service into account. Not for me — for him.”
“But this administration doesn’t care,” she said bitterly.
Still, in a last ditch effort, Temo Juarez wrote the president a letter through his congressman asking for a reprieve.
On Tuesday, Alejandra Juarez got a call from her lawyer saying that ICE had agreed to review her most recent parole in place application.
It’s not too promising. The enforcement arm of the immigration agency has rejected her previous three applications.
Still, they hope.