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Forced to leave, Hibbing man dies waiting for immigration visa

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Alyssa and Mateo Garcia
Alyssa Garcia holds her son, Mateo, in their Hibbing home before they moved to South Carolina last month. Garcia's husband, Charlie, was forced to return to his native El Salvador to apply for immigration documents because he had entered the United States illegally. He was killed in July by men believed to be part of a ruthless gang in his home country.
MPR Photo/ Laura Yuen

For the past decade, a change in immigration law has sent foreign-born spouses of U.S. citizens back to their home countries to obtain visas.

The rule, which applies to people who enter the United States without permission, provides them with a way to legalize their status. But the process is time-consuming, for immigrants and their families. For some, it has resulted in a high-stakes waiting game in countries plagued by violence — and deadly consequences.

That's how 26-year-old Alyssa Garcia lost her husband, a construction worker from El Salvador who dreaded returning to his homeland.

Born and raised on the Iron Range, Alyssa Garcia never thought much about the immigration debate until she met her future husband, Charlie Garcia.

"We were texting and talking on the phone before we finally met face to face," she said. "Once we met face to face, we were inseparable from then on out."

Alyssa Garcia's mom, Melissa Sundvall, was nervous when she found out her daughter was dating someone from El Salvador.

"And at first, it was, 'Oh no. I don't know what to expect of this.' " Sundvall recalled. "Three days later, I met Charlie, and I just fell in love with him."

Garcia family
Charlie Garcia posed for this family portrait with wife Alyssa and son Mateo before he returned to his native El Salvador in June 2010 to get his immigrant visa. More than a year later, he and two cousins were killed after getting into a fight with a group of men believed to be gang members.
Photo courtesy of Alyssa Garcia

Garcia was upfront about his immigration problems. He crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without permission nine years earlier, at 19. For several years, he was able to work legally in the Twin Cities under his father's petition for asylum. Things fell apart when his dad, who later legalized his status, failed to show up for an interview with immigration officials. Charlie no longer had legal status and immigration authorities told him that he would have to leave the United States.

Yet his relationship with Alyssa quickly evolved. In August 2009, they exchanged vows under an oak tree down the street from their duplex in Hibbing. Four months later, she delivered a baby boy, Mateo.

Now almost 2, Mateo stares at a framed picture of his father, whom he saw for the first six months of his life.

By June 2010, immigration authorities had denied Charlie Garcia's application for temporary protected status and ordered him to leave the country. His only recourse to avoid being deported was to leave the country voluntarily. Even though he married a U.S. citizen, federal law required him to first return to El Salvador before he could obtain residency.

Melissa Sundvall and Mateo Garcia
Melissa Sundvall plays with her grandson, Mateo. Sundvall said she blames the bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration system for the death of her son-in-law, Charlie Garcia.
MPR Photo/ Laura Yuen

Because Garcia originally entered the country without permission, he could not return for 10 years. To do so before then, he needed to file for a special waiver confirming his absence left an extreme hardship on his spouse.

Garcia's attorney, Karen Ellingson, thought he had a good chance of being approved, in time. But Alyssa Garcia said her husband was haunted by the idea of returning to a place where he described the gang culture as nearly inescapable.

"He didn't want to go back," she said. "He loves his country and he's very proud of where he comes from. But he knows the dangers of being there. He was scared to death."

The last thing Garcia told Alyssa before leaving was he was going to be OK.

Mateo Garcia
Mateo Garcia, who turns two in December, saw his father for the first six months of his life before Charlie Garcia returned to El Salvador to wait for his immigrant visa and a special waiver that would allow him to re-enter the United States. Garcia came to the U.S. illegally as a teenager, and the law required him to return to his home country for visa processing.
MPR Photo/ Laura Yuen

"He said, 'Just take care of the baby. We'll see each other again.' "

Charlie Garcia left that June, leaving his wife alone to raise Mateo while she continued her job as the city's animal control officer. They spoke by phone every day. One night last summer, more than a year after he left, she received a call from El Salvador. But it wasn't from Charlie. It was from his sister.

"She was saying, 'Charlie's dead. Charlie's dead. I'm so sorry, Charlie's dead,' " she recalled.

Alyssa Garcia learned that Charlie and his cousins had fought at a gas station with a group of men. Family members told her they believed the men were part of Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, a violent Los Angeles gang of Salvadoran nationals or first-generation Salvadoran-Americans that has spread to Central America.

Garcia never received official confirmation of the account, but what she heard from her husband's family is horrific.

"They chased him down, pulled him into the car, started beating him, and shot him and left him on the road where his body was found," she said.

For the first time in her life, Alyssa Garcia boarded a plane, to bury her husband in his home country.

Two other men from Minnesota who were married to U.S. citizens were killed over the past year while waiting for their visas abroad, according to their Twin Cities attorneys. One died in his native Guatemala, and the other was killed in Honduras. Both were shot to death, their lawyers said.

With the current political debate over immigration policy, there may not be much sympathy for people who are paying the price for crossing the border unlawfully.

But Ellingson, the West St. Paul attorney who represented Charlie Garcia, said U.S. immigration policy has caused hardship for the families left behind in the United States.

"It's the citizen that suffers. It's the citizen wife, in this case, born and raised in Minnesota," she said. "It's the young son who's very small and will never know his dad."

Ellingson said the act of sending people back to the violence of their home countries is overly punitive. In some cases, they must wait for more than a year to obtain a waiver.

Immigration attorneys hope federal authorities will resurrect a provision that was in practice for years, starting in the mid-1990s. Back then, an immigrant who entered the country without authorization and later married a U.S. citizen could pay a $1,000 fine and apply to adjust his or her status without having to leave. But that law expired in 2001, and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there wasn't any political will to revive it.

John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said his office has counseled hundreds of people who thought it would be easy to get a green card after marrying U.S. citizens. He said most aren't facing deportation, but come forward because they want to legalize their status.

"It's when you first sit them down to really explain the process where they go, 'Oh my gosh. I didn't know it was so involved, or that it was so risky, or that the consequences could be so severe,' " he said.

Backlogs and flaws in the waiver process also have discouraged immigrants from applying. 

According to a June 2010 report by the ombudsman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, federal immigration policy essentially forces foreign nationals to choose between two risky alternatives: a time-consuming process that requires them to leave the United States or "remaining in the shadows."

It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year or longer to process the waivers, said Tim Counts, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. Most of the applications are processed through the immigration service field office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Counts said the agency is working to improve the system, but must enforce the rules written by Congress. 

"We do understand the requirements sometimes put applicants in a difficult situation," he said. "But as a federal agency, we are required to implement the law currently in effect. And the law currently in effect requires that those who enter the United States illegally return to their home countries for visa processing." 

In Hibbing, Melissa Sundvall said while gunmen killed her son-in-law, she also blames the complexities of the U.S. immigration system, which kept him in El Salvador while officials reviewed his case.

"The bureaucracy kept him in that country longer than he should have," Sundvall said. "And I believe the bureaucracy is actually what ended up killing Charlie."

 Last month, her daughter, Alyssa Garcia, moved with her son across the country to South Carolina to pursue a college degree. Garcia said young Mateo looks more and more like his father, a man he hardly knew.