Marisela Burgos entered the consulate in Juarez last month expecting to walk out as a permanent resident of the United States. She’d lived there since she was 3, and in nearly every sense of the word, America was — is — her home.
Instead, she walked out of the building numb, surrounded by white noise. Her permanent residency application had been rejected by an apathetic immigration official who kept checking his phone. As tears formed in her eyes, she shook off her father and kept walking, past him and her older brother and the crowd of people waiting for their relatives to emerge from the same building with their own news.
With the rejection came a penalty. Burgos would have to stay in Mexico for three years before she could return to the United States, to Wyoming, to her dorm room at Casper College, to her place on the forensics team, to her family.
“Everything was going so smoothly,” the 18-year-old said by phone last week. “We were all working to get through this process to be able to finally live in the United States and not have the fear of being deported. And then it all just came crashing down.”
Burgos’ parents moved to Greybull 15 years ago, when she was a toddler. They both had visas but overstayed them, so the family traveled back to Mexico to renew their papers. Burgos said they spent a few months there, in late 2007 and early 2008. It was the first time she met her grandmother and the first time she’d been back in Mexico since her family moved away.
But those few months became critical. Because she left the country and returned on a new visa, Burgos said, she was no longer eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. She would have to apply for permanent residency first, as her older brother and parents had done.
So she started that process more than two years ago, when she was a budding National Honor Society member and high school debater. She often used her voice on the Casper College team to advocate for immigrants’ rights, teammate Carter Dunn said. Her mom sponsored her permanent residency, but because neither of her parents were yet citizens, she and her younger brother would have to travel to Juarez for their interviews.
The city is across the border from El Paso, Texas. But it’s roughly a thousand miles from her dorm and in a country that Burgos barely knows.
“That got us pretty nervous because we didn’t want to leave the country ... because there’s a chance we couldn’t come back,” she said. “Our lawyer said he’s had many cases where that happened and they came back. We trusted in our lawyer, and we came to Mexico on the 16th of February.”
Burgos said the family’s attorney had told them she and her younger brother should both be in the clear because neither had turned 19 yet. They trusted him, she said again, so they traveled to Juarez and jumped through the hoops, which included providing their fingerprints and undergoing a physical exam.
Finally, they arrived at the consulate. She and her brother stood in front of a window, staring at an immigration official like they were in line at the bank. The process had been smooth up to this point, but Burgos said she started to get nervous during her interview. The man behind the glass asked them only a few questions and kept checking his phone.
“Our case was already decided,” Burgos said.
The man approved her brother. Then he turned to her. He asked her if she had an immigration pardon. No, she said, their lawyer told them they didn’t need one because she was still under 19.
“Right then and there he told us I did need one, that I had overstayed my stay in the United States,” she said. The man handed her a blue sheet, already printed and ready, explaining why her permanent residency was rejected.
The impersonal nature of the rejection sticks.
“They don’t care. It’s just another case number, another file,” she said. “It’s not a person. It’s not a life that’s being put on the line.”
Now she’s living in Aldama, a town four hours deeper into Mexico and four hours further from Wyoming. She’s applying for that immigration pardon the man said she needed, but even in that base-case scenario, she might be here for months, even a year.
But if she does not get the pardon — which often costs at least $6,000 — she will be stuck in Mexico for three years.
“Those bars are pretty hard,” Laramie immigration attorney Travis Helm said of the penalty. “ ... This isn’t just a legal issue, this is someone who just got exiled.”
Burgos is living with her grandmother, whom she’d met for the first and only time on that trip to Mexico a decade ago. She has just the two duffel bags of belongings she brought with her when she thought this trip would be brief.
“It’s hard on me being far away from them and everyone I have over there because all of my family, teachers I grew really close to, everyone who cares about me and I care about, live over there,” Burgos said. “And I’m unable to go there for three years. I am losing three years of my life here. It’s hard to look at it in a positive way when I have no one here, really. I feel alone being in this country.”
That’s not to say she’s been forgotten. Dunn has helped start a fundraising campaign to help Burgos pay for expenses including Wi-Fi so she can continue taking her classes online. As of Monday afternoon, the effort had raised $2,000 in 12 days.
“We didn’t think to ask her if she was OK with it until after it had launched,” Dunn said. “But she’s been involved since then.”
Her parents are going to ship Burgos the things in her dorm room, Burgos said, and her family will hopefully be able to visit sometime soon. They’re looking into attorneys who can fight for the pardon she needs.
In the meantime, she’s going to try to keep up with her schoolwork. She’s nervous to go outside. It’s dangerous, Burgos said, and because she doesn’t have cellphone service, she’s virtually cut off from the outside world without Wi-Fi.
For now, Burgos is stuck. But she’s still determined.
“I mean, we weren’t in the United States because we liked being degraded and constantly people saying we’re there for the wrong reasons and that we’re criminals when my parents were just trying to give me a better education,” she said. “I just want people to know that we’re not all criminals. We’re good people who are trying to contribute to the community.”