GUADALAJARA, MEXICO, and LOS ANGELES — Finally, a family separation story with a happy ending.
It’s not the sort of family separation that has been in the headlines lately. But it’s illustrative of the many other injustices that the Trump administration has been inflicting upon those navigating our legal immigration system. Absent media attention and congressional intervention — both of which this case happened to receive — they usually go unrectified.
This tale features Marco Villada, a “dreamer” brought to the United States illegally from Mexico at age 6. Until recently, the United States was the only country he knew. Which you can definitely tell from talking with him.
Villada spent much of the past week binge-watching “Friends,” which he calls his “happy place.” He’s about to start a diet starring L.A.’s finest cold-pressed juices. And his younger brother Christian, born in the United States, went to Iraq last month for his second U.S. Army deployment.
You wouldn’t guess any of this, however, from the way the Trump administration has treated Villada or his family: Almost six months ago the U.S. government lured him out of the country with the promise of a possible green card, then locked the door behind him.
In 2013, Villada had obtained protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. After he and his husband, native-born U.S. citizen Israel Serrato, married the following year, they began the arduous process of applying for Villada’s green card. DACA’s future was uncertain, after all. Villada wanted to get in line for lawful permanent residency as soon as possible.
The U.S. government told Villada he had to return to Mexico and apply for a new visa from a U.S. consulate there. This seemed risky; leaving the country would terminate his DACA status. Plus, anyone who has spent any time in the United States illegally — as Villada had before DACA existed — can be barred from returning.
But the U.S. government granted him a “provisional unlawful presence waiver.” This essentially said: Yeah, we know you once spent time here without papers. But we also know you meet our criteria for forgiving this transgression. Go ahead and schedule your visa interview in Mexico; as long as you didn’t break any other laws, you’ll be fine.
Relieved, Villada traveled in January to Ciudad Juarez for his visa interview. At the end, he was handed a cryptic blue form. Instead of offering him a visa, it barred him from returning to the United States for at least 10 years. Perhaps ever.
It seemed incomprehensible.
“I did exactly what the government told me to do,” Villada said.
Yet he was stranded in a country he didn’t know, perhaps permanently separated from his husband, parents and American siblings, including the young autistic brother he helps care for. Villada crashed with Mexican relatives, including some he’d never met, in a small Jalisco town where he often felt unsafe as both an outsider and openly gay man.
After dozens of calls, Villada and Serrato eventually found a new team of lawyers who agreed to represent them pro bono. The attorneys determined that the consulate had denied Villada a visa because officials believed he’d left and reentered the United States “without inspection” as a child.
Which turned out to be, um, incorrect.
They filed a federal lawsuit. I wrote about it. Federal lawmakers contacted the consulate on his behalf. Supporters from both the immigrant and LGBT communities launched a #BringMarcoBack social media campaign.
Finally this month, Villada got some good news: The U.S. government had decided to give him a visa after all.
On Wednesday morning, Villada donned a freshly ironed dress shirt and blazer and boarded a flight from Guadalajara for Los Angeles. After getting pulled into U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s secondary screening room at Los Angeles International Airport for a sweltering 75 minutes, he was at last reunited with his husband and family.
Villada and Serrato are now trying to rebuild their lives. Villada is not sure whether he can get his old job back as a legal assistant for an L.A. firm. Meanwhile, the couple lost their apartment, furniture, car and all their savings, which they’d planned to use to start a family. They’re temporarily staying with a friend.
Nonetheless, they consider themselves lucky.
They benefited from high-profile media coverage and enormous legal, congressional and financial support. These are scarce resources many other immigrants who have been mistreated by the government — including his fellow dreamers — increasingly need but will likely never have access to.
“It took an army to get this done,” Villada says. “I don’t want that to go unnoticed.”