‘You Always Feel That Someone’s Missing’: How a Trump-Era Immigration Policy Has Kept a Califo
There are reminders of JosÃ© Luis Ruiz ArÃ©valos everywhere in the three-bedroom trailer where his wife and four children live in the small Central Valley city of Los Banos: the family photos along the hallway, the triple bunk bed he built to accommodate a growing family, the fence he installed out front.
But Ruiz ArÃ©valos isnât there. After he was forced to stay in Mexico two years ago, the college plans for the three oldest children have unraveled. The oldest dropped out of college and joined the U.S. Army Reserve. The second oldest is prioritizing work while studying. And their younger brother, a senior in high school, caught the eye of Harvard recruiters but instead is considering vocational school closer to home.
âThereâs like this space where he used to be, but heâs not there anymore,â said Nathan GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez, 19. âAnd like, every time you come home, youâre just like, âOh, I feel like somethingâs missing.â You always feel that someoneâs missing, that heâs missing.â
Armanda Ruiz (front left) with her husband, JosÃ© Luis Ruiz ArÃ©valos, and her children Elena GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez, Priscila Ruiz RamÃrez, Ignacio GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez, and Nathan GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez. (Courtesy of Armanda Ruiz)
In May 2019, Ruiz ArÃ©valos â also known as JosÃ©, Dad, or Papa, depending on whom you ask â went to Mexico for what he thought would be the final step to apply for his green card: an interview at the U.S. Consulate.
His family, who are all U.S. citizens, and he expected he would be able to come back in a week or two.
But he was unexpectedly refused a green card when U.S. Consulate officials decided that under Trump administration guidance he was likely to become a âpublic charge,â dependent on government services.
Unable to return to the U.S., he remains in Hermosillo, Sonora, a thousand miles from his family, while he tries to appeal the decision.
Former President Donald Trumpâs changes to the âpublic chargeâ immigration policy made headlines the year of Ruiz ArÃ©valosâ green card interview in 2019. What was less publicized is that in January 2018, the Trump administration had already made changes to the public charge policy at consulates outside the country. The changes gave consulate officers more discretion to scrutinize applicantsâ age, education, job skills, health insurance, and whether they or their family members received any type of public benefits.
Between Oct. 1, 2018, and Sept. 30, 2019, consulate officials refused almost 21,000 people applying for immigrant visas based on the revised public charge policy. That was seven times as many people as had been refused under the same policy two years before.
The changes that were made have now been reversed under President Joe Biden. But the effects still remain, not only for immigrants, but also for their spouses and children. When Ruiz ArÃ©valos couldnât return home, it triggered economic hardship and emotional grief for his wife and children.
It also disrupted the education of his oldest stepchild, Elena GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez.
Elena, 21, dropped out of the University of California, Merced so she could work to support the family. The decision was gut-wrenching and scary. Elena thought she might never return to college.
Ruiz ArÃ©valos had been helping her pay for her college expenses not covered by financial aid with his income as a handyman. Without his help, not only could she not afford to stay in school, but she also needed to help the rest of her family.
JosÃ© Luis Ruiz ArÃ©valos dances with daughter Priscila Ruiz RamÃrez, at her birthday party in Mexico. (Courtesy of Armanda Ruiz)
Her mother, Armanda Ruiz, has a full-time job taking care of her little sister, Priscila Ruiz RamÃrez, 11, who was born prematurely and has had four surgeries and multiple health issues her entire life.
She has developmental delays and is under continuous medical care with speech, occupational and physical therapy. Her other two siblings, Ignacio and Nathan, were still in high school at the time Ruiz ArÃ©valos was told he could not return from Mexico. Nathan had been struggling with severe depression. Elena felt she had no other choice but to drop out.
âCounselors usually advised me to, like, try to stay in school, but they didnât really understand that I was the only one that was able to work,â Elena said.
There was one other thing motivating her decision. If she stayed in college, she reasoned, the burden to support the family would fall on her younger siblings. She wanted them to follow their dreams.
The oldest three have always excelled in school. Nathan, 19, got Aâs and Bâs at Merced College last year. Ignacio, 17, just finished his junior year at Los Banos High School with a 4.6 grade point average â all Aâs, including four in Advanced Placement classes. He recently received a letter from Harvard, encouraging him to apply.
âRight now I just want to provide for my family and keep ourselves from sinking into debt,â Elena said. âWith my dad out of the country and with no family but ourselves, I donât want the lack of money to be the reason why my siblings donât go where they want to go and get their degree in what they want.â
So Elena applied for dozens of jobs. She worked at a tomato-packing plant, at Big 5 Sporting Goods as a cashier, and with the U.S. Census Bureau for the 2020 census.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit California, and work became even harder to find. Determined to continue toward a college degree, she began taking classes at Merced College. As the months dragged on and the family continued to struggle financially, she became increasingly worried.
In Mexico, Ruiz ArÃ©valos felt that his world had broken into a million pieces. He has been part of this blended family for 12 years. When he first met his wife, Armanda RamÃrez, her name before she married him, her daughter Elena was 8. Nathan was 6, and Ignacio was 5. The children have their fatherâs last name and their motherâs maiden name: GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez. Later the couple had Priscila together.
When he talks about his children, his voice becomes soft with love as he recalls each of their personalities. Little Priscila is his treasure, his spoiled baby. Elena is loving and noble, he said, a âsuper daughter.â Nathan is both tough and affectionate. Ignacio, he said, could do anything he wants â studying comes easily to him.
âAnd the worst thing is that my kids really put their heart into their studies,â he said in Spanish. âI feel like I am clipping their wings.â
Ignacio GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez, JosÃ© Luis Ruiz ArÃ©valos, Armanda Ruiz, Priscila Ruiz Ramirez, Elena GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez and Nathan GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez celebrating Priscilaâs birthday in Mexico. (Courtesy of Armanda Ruiz)
Ruiz ArÃ©valos had been living in the U.S. without immigration papers since his parents brought him in the early â90s, when he was 17. Since 1996, immigration law makes it difficult for anyone who crossed the border illegally and stayed in the U.S. for more than a year to get a green card, even if they are married to a U.S. citizen. They have to leave the country to apply, and if they lived here without immigration papers, they are banned from re-entering the country for 10 years.
There is one way around the 10-year ban: you can apply for a waiver if you can prove that being forced to stay outside the U.S. would cause âextreme hardshipâ for a U.S. citizen spouse or parent.
Before going to his interview appointment in Ciudad JuÃ¡rez, Ruiz ArÃ©valos applied for a waiver, arguing that his absence would cause severe hardship for his wife. In the documents they submitted, they detailed how hard it would be for her to be left alone to care for their four children, including Priscila, with her medical issues and developmental delays, and Nathan, with severe depression and panic attacks.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved the waiver. The couple believed they had all their paperwork in order. They secured a fiscal sponsor â a family friend who agreed to support Ruiz ArÃ©valos and his family. The sponsor made far more than the minimum income required by federal regulations, which is 125% of the federal poverty level.
But when Ruiz ArÃ©valos showed up for his appointment, the consulate official questioned whether his fiscal sponsor would actually support the family if needed and asked Ruiz ArÃ©valos whether his family had used welfare. Priscila has received Supplemental Security Income â provided to low-income disabled people â since she was born.
The other children in the family had received food stamps. The consulate told him he would need an additional fiscal sponsor to prove he wouldnât become dependent on the government.
But instead of waiting for him to turn in the new paperwork, the consulate told him he was inadmissible to the U.S. because he was likely to become a public charge, and canceled his waiver of the 10-year ban.
The U. S. State Department declined to say how many other applicants for green cards had their waivers revoked because of the new public charge policy that was in place from 2018 to 2020. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the data was not available.
Erin Quinn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said likely thousands of the people denied entry under âpublic chargeâ in 2018 and 2019 had previously lived in the U.S. and had waivers to show that being separated from their families would cause extreme hardship, like Ruiz ArÃ©valos.
âAfter that guidance came out, officers had clearly gotten marching orders to go on this fishing expedition, as a way to begin denying cases that were otherwise clearly eligible for their permanent resident status,â Quinn said. âThey can overcome the public charge issue by turning in the information requested, but the damage was already done, because the real harm for families like this one is those years of separation that canât be undone.â
Ruiz ArÃ©valos submitted the names of three different fiscal sponsors to the consulate. But the process slowed almost to a halt because of the pandemic. While he waited, he tried his best to stay connected to his family across the border. They do regular video calls so the kids can talk with their dad. Ignacio even calls Ruiz ArÃ©valos for help when he has to fix something at home â how to change the oil in the car, how to unclog the toilet, how to fix the fence.
Nathan GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez, right, at high school graduation with mom Armanda Ruiz. JosÃ© Luis Ruiz ArÃ©valos had to miss Nathanâs graduation. (Courtesy of Armanda Ruiz)
A few months before Ruiz ArÃ©valos went to Mexico, the GutiÃ©rrez RamÃrez kidsâ biological father died. They didnât have much contact with him the last few years he was alive, but when they found out he died, it was painful.
âI had a dad, and I didnât get along very well with him. We had problems. Then I get another dad, and they take him away,â Nathan told Ruiz ArÃ©valos recently. âItâs not fair. I want my dad.â
âIt hit us all very hard that he wasnât able to come back,â Ruiz said. She said Priscila especially didnât understand why her dad was in Mexico. âWhy is my dad over there?â Ruiz said she would ask. âWhy doesnât he come here? Why doesnât he sleep here with us?â
Ruiz ArÃ©valos wasnât there to see Nathanâs graduation from high school, or Priscilaâs ceremony for âreclassificationâ to show she is no longer considered an English learner at school.
Heâs missed two years of birthdays and movie watching and countless dance sessions in the family living room. He wasnât there to see them all stuff eggshells with confetti for Easter, or to watch how they made distance learning work, with all five of them learning from home â Elena and Nathan in college classes, Ignacio in high school, Priscila in special education, and their mother taking an English class.
âSometimes it feels different not having a father figure,â Ignacio said. ââCause you know, thereâs a different kind of relationship with your dad than your mother, Iâd say, if youâre a guy, âcause like, you know, guys just understand each other. Like you donât even have to say something, you already know.â
A few months ago, Elena met with a college counselor and decided to join the Army Reserve. She went to basic training in July and will be there until November, so she wonât be able to attend college classes in the fall. Sheâs hoping she can return to college in the spring.
âDuring this time of uncertainty, at least the Army will bring some form of certainty,â Elena said. âIn addition, if something were to happen to my mom, I will be the one taking care of my siblings, and without a stable job, I canât guarantee that. Thatâs why the Army sounds like a good deal.â
There may finally be some hope in Ruiz ArÃ©valosâ case. In July 2020, a U.S. District Court in New York issued a temporary injunction requiring consulates to stop using the new guidance on public charge.
And most recently in August, the Department of Homeland Security began the process to ask the public how the public charge rule should be changed in the future, specifically mentioning it does not want the rule to “unduly impose barriers” on people seeking adjustment of status, like Ruiz ArÃ©valos.
This summer, Ruiz ArÃ©valos received another letter in the mail from the consulate in Ciudad JuÃ¡rez, the first in months. For the first time, there was no mention of âpublic charge.â The letter said he could now apply again for a waiver. The process could take months.
In June, Ruiz and the kids went to visit Ruiz ArÃ©valos in Mexico, the last family trip before Elena headed to basic training.
They went to the beach â a first for some of the children â and waded into the ocean, playing in the waves. From the sand, Ruiz watched and took a video with her phone â her husband, with her children, walking toward the horizon. They jumped over wave after wave coming at them. For the moment, they were all together.
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