Edna Valenzuela is learning that toddlers are way too interested in chemotherapy pumps.
The 26-year-old au pair from Colombia is still able to care for 17-month-old Jasper Hanson, despite the fact that he keeps fiddling with the tubes that run from her portable pump, under her shirt and into the port set near her shoulder. The medicine coursing through her veins is helping her combat an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma after a recent diagnosis.
She feels better and has the support of her host family, who want to extend her year-long stay. She has free outpatient treatment at the National Institutes of Health.
Valenzuela, however, may not be able to play with Jasper much longer. The au pair agency that helped bring her to the United States isn’t extending her visa for a second year to care for the toddler and receive potentially lifesaving treatment.
“If I go back to Colombia, I’m going to die,” she said.
Valenzuela is at the center of a campaign by Jasper’s parents, Shaina Aber-Hanson, an immigration attorney, and Marc Hanson, a human rights advocate. The couple, armed with a Change.org petition and connections on Capitol Hill, is battling AuPairCare, the agency through which Valenzuela was hired, after it refused to extend a stay that ends next month.
“She’s just fit seamlessly into our family from the beginning,” Aber-Hanson said. “It’s been an amazing experience.”
That’s why Aber-Hanson said she found AuPairCare’s response to extending Valenzuela’s stay “breathtakingly inadequate.”
She said the family paid more than $18,000 for Valenzuela’s services in the past year — more than $8,000 to AuPairCare and about $200 per week to Valenzuela, as well as room and board.
It is not unusual for families with au pairs to extend their stays for a second year, so the Hansons were surprised when their request for Valenzuela to stay another year was denied.
Joanne Krochalis, AuPairCare’s director of marketing, said she couldn’t comment on Valenzuela’s situation or any specific case, adding that “the health, safety and welfare of all our participants is of the utmost importance.”
In a May 13 email to Valenzuela, AuPairCare regional manager Carol Eaton wrote: “As your health has changed due to the diagnosis of lymphoma, it is our policy that participants focus on their own recovery and not continue as caregivers. Unfortunately, we have to end your participation in the au pair program. This is not an easy decision or one we take lightly, but policy that has been made through years of experience dealing with the health, safety and welfare of au pair participants and host children.”
Valenzuela said she can’t focus on her treatment in Colombia because she would have no access to treatment.
“This kind of treatment is only here,” she said.
An NIH letter notes that, given the family’s flexible schedule, “she should be able to continue to meet her requirements as an au pair.”
Valenzuela also has a supporter in Congress: Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), whom Hanson once worked for as a staffer.
In 1965, Farr was living in Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer when his youngest sister, Nancy, came for a visit. She was thrown from a horse and, perhaps because she was unable to quickly access quality medical care, died.
“It was the shock of my life,” Farr said. “It changed my life in that moment.”
Farr blamed his sister’s death on Colombians’ lack of access to quality health care. Faced with the “reverse situation,” he said, he helped Valenzuela’s parents obtain emergency visas so they could visit their daughter and called AuPairCare on Valenzuela’s behalf.
“Their response . . . was to send her back to Colombia and let her take her chances,” Farr said. “The point is, look, she’s here and has access to medicine, and the NIH wants to have her, and the Hanson family wants to have her and go through this procedure with her. I just thought, ‘I’m not going to allow this to happen again.’ ”
AuPairCare first said that Valenzuela had to return to Colombia on May 18. But in a May 16 email to Hanson, Marcie Schneider, the president of AuPairCare parent company Intrax, said AuPairCare “will not end Edna’s program or visa until you alert us that you have been able to secure a different visa status.”
Hanson said a change in visa status isn’t enough. Though the family and Valenzuela are trying to get her a visa for people receiving medical treatment, AuPairCare hasn’t filed the paperwork necessary to extend Valenzuela’s stay under her current status, a J-1 visa through the State Department’s Exchange Visitor Program.
“The J-1 employer has all the power,” Hanson said.
Companies that sponsor au pairs have broad authority. Sixteen au pair agencies are authorized through the State Department to bring au pairs to the United States, and au pairs must leave the country if their sponsor agencies terminate their participation in the program “for just cause,” according to the State Department’s website.
“In general, private-sector sponsor organizations are responsible for monitoring all exchanges in order to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of the au pair, and also for screening au pairs to ensure that the au pair can successfully carry out the duties of an au pair,” Nathan Arnold, a State Department spokesman, said in an email.
Without a new visa of some kind, Valenzuela will have to leave the country after her J-1 visa expires next month. Schneider said she and the family “resolved this matter” when the agency backed off its demand that Valenzuela leave immediately.
“We are supportive of Edna and her host parents as they actively apply to change her visa,” a statement posted on AuPairCare’s website read. “She will remain on our program while she applies to change her visa. This way she can remain in the US, and focus on her health and cancer treatment.”
But Schneider added that AuPairCare had not moved to extend Valenzuela’s stay. Because of this “tragedy,” Schneider said, Valenzuela “isn’t really a child-care provider.”
“I can give you many examples of people under chemotherapy who are well, and then they’re not,” Schneider said. “Taking care of children is a very difficult and demanding role, and . . . the first priority is the health, safety and well-being of the person doing the caregiving. You just don’t know what’s coming.”
Aber-Hanson said the matter isn’t resolved and has taken a toll on the family.
“Edna wanted to continue taking English classes, she wanted to continue to be an au pair, and her doctors and we thought that was fine,” she said.
Valenzuela, a lawyer who hopes to eventually return to Colombia with a better command of English to resume her practice, said she wants to make sure other au pairs don’t have a similar experience.
Her mother, Nelly Jimenez, who came to stay with the Hansons not long after her daughter’s diagnosis, said she’s thankful for the support of her host family.
“It’s almost like she has two pairs of parents,” she said. “She has a lot of things to be grateful for.”