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Stars and Stripes has covered Alejandra’s journey as she has fought for a hearing to reverse her deportation. Now she’s back in Mexico, struggling to start over. Read earlier articles at stripes.com/go/veteranwife

WASHINGTON — After sneaking across the border into the United States in 1998, Alejandra Juarez spent years and thousands of dollars trying to legalize her status and stay in the country with her American Marine veteran husband and their two U.S.-born children.

In the end her efforts failed, not for lack of trying but because of immigration laws that have been on the books for years but were not strictly enforced until President Donald Trump took office. Her story illustrates the difficulties facing thousands of undocumented immigrants who have built lives for themselves that are now at risk because of mistakes they made years ago.

Alejandra says she decided to flee Mexico after receiving death threats for reporting a robbery at the shop where she worked.

She says she applied four times for U.S. visas, including a tourist visa, a work visa and a student visa, but was repeatedly refused, perhaps because American consular officials feared she would overstay her permit. After the final refusal, she sneaked across the U.S. border but was captured. A border agent gave her two choices — sign a document and return to Mexico or be placed in detention. She elected to return to Mexico. Days later she crossed the border, this time eluding arrest.

Two years later, she met her future husband, Cuauhtemoc, or “Temo,” Juarez, a Mexican citizen and U.S. Marine with legal U.S. residence status, or green card. They married in 2001 and within a week went to a lawyer to try to get her a green card – the first step toward citizenship. She says the lawyer told them to wait until Temo became a citizen, which would improve her chances.

Temo, who by then had completed his Marine service and joined the National Guard, became an American citizen in 2002, just days before he deployed to Jordan and later to Iraq. She planned to apply for her green card when he returned.

In 2004, she submitted her application. She received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that says because she entered illegally, the only way to apply for a green card was to leave the country and seek a waiver from the embassy in Mexico. The couple consulted with several lawyers, she says, and was told that if she returned to Mexico, she risked not being allowed back into the U.S. The lawyers advised her to wait until there was a change in the immigration policy that could make it easier for her. By this time the couple had one American daughter — a second was born seven years later.

Over the years, she and her husband paid taxes every year and consulted repeatedly with lawyers, only to learn that immigration law remained unchanged.

“The whole time since I got married I sought out lawyer’s advice to see what I could do to adjust my status,” Alejandra says. Some lawyers charged a lot. Some wouldn’t take her money, telling her they couldn’t help her. Others took thousands and did nothing, she says.

“I went from lawyer to lawyer to lawyer,” she says. “I did everything humanly possible to try to fix my status.”

In 2013, Alejandra — who had obtained a driver’s license with her Mexican passport back in her early years in the country — was pulled over by police for a routine traffic stop. When she came up as undocumented, the officer reported her to immigration authorities.

Two weeks later, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement showed up at her door. They informed her that the document she’d signed back in 1998 was an “expedited removal order.” It stated that if she came back to the U.S. within five years, she would be barred for life.

The agents told her she was not a priority for deportation since she was not a convicted felon. However, she needed to check in once a year, which she did. Meanwhile, ICE authorized her to get a work permit and later a driver’s license when her previous one expired and told her to try to fix her status.

Each year, she tried, and hit the same obstacle — she entered the country illegally after signing an expedited removal. It was a mark she could not erase.

After Trump assumed office in 2017, he signed an executive order which expanded targets for deportation to include undocumented immigrants like Alejandra. The Juarezes hired immigration lawyer Richard Maney of Tampa, Fla., who sought a judicial hearing on her case. But the petition was refused because Alejandra had violated terms of the 1998 release order.

Desperate, the couple sent letters to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, both former Marines like Temo, asking them to intercede.

"Maybe Mattis or Kelly would step in and say, 'You know, maybe this is not the best way to say thank you for your service,'" Maney says.

They never received a response, Maney says. "This is a huge slap in the face .... For these letters to Mattis and Kelly to go unanswered. Wow!"

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., sponsored a bill seeking to waive her ban, but it never made it through the House.

Alejandra says she has been getting notes from other military spouses facing citizenship obstacles. She wants them to come forward, because she needs people to understand: “I am not the only one,” she says, and she’s not just a “crazy lady unwilling to apply for a waiver.”

cahn.dianna@stripes.com Twitter: @Dianna Cahn

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