EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – It’s been more than a week since Lesly Diaz last got to touch her children, feel their breath, tuck them into bed. The worst part is she doesn’t know when she’ll get to do that again.
“I’ve been crying since I got here, in hopes this is just a bad dream and we’re going to wake up. But we’re not. It’s really hard because our kids need us up there,” said Diaz, a resident of Kentucky who came to El Paso with her husband last week for a cosmetic procedure.
While waiting for the appointment, the couple decided to meet with their Mexican relatives. But the family members cannot come over from Juarez, and Diaz and her husband are on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and banned from leaving the country without advanced parole.
The couple and their relatives agreed to meet halfway up the Paso del Norte International Bridge, with everyone staying on their side of the border. Before walking up, they say they asked a uniformed officer at the foot of the bridge if that would be okay and he assented. Things would be OK. Or so they thought.
But ports of entry, much like arrival inspections areas of international airports around the world, are part of a legal gray area.
On Sept. 9, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the bridge told Diaz and her husband Francisco Garcia that, in their view, they had left the United States. The fact that they’re DACA recipients and allegedly traveled abroad made them ineligible to re-enter the United States. Perhaps ever.
With their belongings back at an El Paso hotel and their children in their Lexington, Kentucky, home, the couple sits in the living room of their Juarez relatives’ home, devastated.
“We do FaceTime, they see the pain. (They ask) ‘why are you crying?’ ‘Cause I’m sick, papi. I’m at the hospital,’” Diaz told Border Report on Wednesday. “My mental health is not good. I’m not good mentally cause I’m not seeing my kids.”
Diaz and Garcia say they were unfairly sent to Mexico because they never left the United States. “We didn’t cross the red line. We stayed on the U.S. side of the bridge and half that bridge is in the United States. If we had known, we would have never gotten on the bridge,” Diaz said. “I have never been here (Juarez) before. We are good people. We have three kids I need to get back to. We’re reaching out to anyone that can help us.”
Diaz, whose parents tell her she was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, was brought to the United States without authorization when she was 2. Garcia’s family is from Juarez.
The couple’s friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help them, somehow, reunite with their family.
‘No, you’re not in the United States anymore’
El Paso immigration attorney Iliana Holguin has heard the argument before that people are not really in the United States until they clear customs at ports of entry and international bridges between Mexico and the U.S.
“That’s the position they’ve always held, that you have to go through and seek admission again, even though you never left the port of entry,” Holguin said. “This issue came up, too, when we were having the asylum-seekers. As soon as people step over that imaginary line, are they already on U.S. soil? They say you have to be admitted first. So, it’s been an issue in other cases as well.”
Border Report reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and was told the agency wouldn’t comment on the Diaz/Garcia case. However, the agency sent a statement regarding the legal status of anyone entering a port of entry.
“In general terms, when someone departs the U.S. and later returns, it is their responsibility to establish admissibility. At the ports of entry in El Paso, someone has left the U.S. once they go south of the CBP inspection booths,” CBP said.
The agency said non-citizens have the burden of proof when requesting admission at the ports. If the officer deems the foreign citizen inadmissible, they won’t let them in.
“Regarding those with active DACA status, once they leave the country and apply for admission, they are considered arriving aliens. Therefore, they must present a valid entry document or approved advance parole in order to return,” the statement said.
DACA is an Obama-era program that protects from deportation and provides work permits for certain unauthorized migrants who were brought into the U.S. while they were children. The protection is only good while they remain inside U.S. territory.
Holguin said most border residents assume they are already in the United States once they reach the middle of the international bridges. “They see the plaque in the middle of the bridge, they think this is the U.S. side and this side is Mexico. To most people, that is the line,” she said.
Holguin added that she tells all of her DACA recipient clients to avoid traveling outside the United States. “You gotta have advance parole and it’s not automatic. It has to be because of work or school or some urgent humanitarian reason. […] And even then, you never know,” she said.
CBP suggests that non-citizens planning to travel outside the United States consult an immigration expert in advance to ensure re-admission.
But the Kentucky couple says that’s exactly what they did.
Bad advice, but who gave it to them?
Diaz said her husband’s aunt in Juarez called Immigration to make sure the meeting in the middle of the bridge would be allowed. She says the aunt was told it would be “OK.”
Diaz herself said she asked a uniformed officer on the U.S. side of the Paso del Norte Bridge if walking just up and coming back would be OK. She thought the man was an immigration officer, though he could’ve been a police officer or guard. She claims he politely said yes.
But she said the federal officers who would later end up expelling her and her husband weren’t polite.
“They were (expletive deleted). They wanted us to admit we had gone to Mexico. They kept saying our DACA (permits) were expired but they were not. They wanted us to incriminate ourselves,” she claims.
Attorney Holguin said CBP has posted signs at ports of entry informing travelers of their rights and responsibilities and is supposed to include information about filing complaints.
But the couple may not have been aware of that in the heat of the moment. Diaz said she resorted to pleas on humanitarian grounds in the end. Still, she and her husband were patted down, fingerprinted and escorted to the Mexican side. The status of their DACA permits is unknown.
Living in Juarez has been hard for the couple the past few days. Not long after being expelled, a man on the street allegedly told them to watch their steps in his city. Diaz speaks limited Spanish and this is the first time she’s in Mexico since she was a baby.
A big-box store associate, a waitress and a part-time telephone company employee, the Lexington resident says she’s been crying day and night.
“We never thought this would happen to us. We were stripped of our rights and forced to leave behind our three beautiful children back home, our house, our car, our lives,” Diaz said. “We miss them very much and want to come back home to them. It breaks our hearts hearing our children cry out for us because they miss us every day. We are helpless here.”