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This is why it's all but impossible for immigrants to "play by the rules"

Gaby Pacheco speaks at a 2014 gala hosted by the YWCA.
Gaby Pacheco speaks at a 2014 gala hosted by the YWCA.
Paul Morigi/Getty

Gaby Pacheco's flight to Ecuador was scheduled to leave at 11:59 pm on April 10. She watched the updates — a slight delay, a gate change — come in on her cellphone. But Pacheco was reading her texts from her home in Miami. She had a ticket, but she wasn't on the plane.

Because she tried to get paperwork from the US immigration system the right way, and it failed her.

"I want to go through the process, and not owe anybody for anything."

I've known Gaby Pacheco since before I started at Vox, and I consider her a friend. She is, generally, a very well-connected woman. She was the political director of advocacy network United We DREAM for a few years. She's helping to administer a $25 million scholarship fund for unauthorized immigrant students, funded by the family that used to own the Washington Post. She's routinely invited to give speeches — just last week, she spoke at a conference at Harvard.

A month ago, Pacheco received a pair of such speaking invitations. One was at a megachurch, the other was at a law school. This is the kind of gig Pacheco does all the time. But these events were in Ecuador, and that complicated things.

Gaby was born in Ecuador, but she left at the age of eight and has lived in the US ever since. She was one of the original beneficiaries of President Obama's 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed young unauthorized immigrants to apply for protection from deportation and work permits. (In fact, she was working for United We DREAM during the campaign to get Obama to start the program.) But being "DACAmented" isn't the same as having actual legal status in the US, and one of the ways that comes up is in traveling outside of the country.

Technically, without legal status, if Pacheco were to leave the US she wouldn't be allowed to return. But she could get something called "advance parole," which is basically an official promise from the federal government. If someone is traveling for a particular purpose — a semester abroad, a business trip, an ailing or dead relative — "advance parole" says they'll be let back into the US when they come back. Advance parole isn't something people apply for all that often, especially for professional reasons, but it's well established (for people who are waiting for their green-card applications to be processed, for example).

There's plenty of controversy over the legitimacy of deferred action (though politically, the program that Pacheco is protected under doesn't come under as much fire as President Obama's attempts to expand that program in 2014). But this isn't about the merits of deferred action. Plenty of people who try to do things "the right way" in interacting with the immigration system come away with the impression that the system encourages people to be unfair or dishonest.

USCIS office

Lots of people trying to come the right way. (John Moore/Getty)

Pacheco had already gotten advance parole once, six months ago, to go to Mexico on the invitation of the Mexican ambassador to the US. But when she got invited to speak in Ecuador, she didn't want to use any of her political connections. "I want to go through the process," she told me. "I don't want to call people and say 'Hey, can you do this for me?' I want to be known by the character of the work I do, and not owe anybody for anything."

So once she got the speaking invitations, she submitted the forms requesting advance parole for a professional trip — along with the $360 application fee — to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. That was a month ago, she says.

"You want me to find somebody to say they're my employer?"

There's no official deadline to submit an advance parole request, and Pacheco didn't think she was submitting too late — after all, "I can't send an advance parole without having an invitation." (Besides, she'd already received approval once before.)

USCIS spokesperson Chris Bentley said that the agency recommends people apply for advance parole "as soon as humanly possible," but also said, "It takes us multiple months to make these determinations. The cases we are working with now were filed more than a month ago." (USCIS never comments on individual cases.) Statistics on the third-party site estimate that as of April 10, it was taking about eight days for someone who'd submitted an application for advance parole to get their first notification back from the government, and an additional 59 days to get the application approved or denied.

Two weeks ago, without having heard anything back, Pacheco started calling the agency's main customer service line to check on the progress of her application. No response. A week ago, with still no response, she got in touch with the agency's ombudsman office, which was more helpful in communicating with her but couldn't move the case forward. So then Pacheco did what she hadn't wanted to do: "I started putting it on social media, and people started calling and contacting me."

One of those people was from the office of Miami-area Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who started working on her case. And another was Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) himself. "I don't know how [Rep. Diaz-Balart] found out," said Pacheco. "He called my cellphone to say, 'Why haven't you called and said you need help with this? We've helped tons of people.'"

Mario Diaz-Balart

(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call)

This is typically how the system has to work: members of Congress see helping constituents through the immigration system, and advocating for them to immigration offices, as just a basic matter of constituent services. USCIS spokesperson Bentley agrees that it's totally accepted for members of Congress to work with USCIS on cases, but insists that requests to process a case quickly don't carry any more weight when they come from a member of Congress than from anyone else.

But Pacheco is keenly aware that most people don't have members of Congress calling their cells. "I have such a large network of people on my side helping me," she says. "How is it for other people that don't have this?"

Finally, on April 10 — the day she was supposed to leave for Ecuador — Pacheco got a response from a USCIS office in Texas. It was a "request for evidence": an indication that she needed to submit more documentation, or else they'd have to reject her application. "What they wanted to see was a letter from my employer saying they were allowing me" to go on a business trip, said Pacheco. "When I get invited to speak, and I do this for my job, I don't have a boss that signs off on this. I'm an advocate. This is what I do."

"I was like, 'You want me to write a letter for myself?'" Pacheco asks incredulously. "Do you want me to find somebody to say they're my employer? That's not going to work. The system is pushing me to do things in a way that's going against my integrity and what I believe."

"Should I just leave and see if they let me back in?"

After getting the response from Texas, Pacheco went to the USCIS local office in Miami to see what could be done. She says they suggested to her that she change the purpose of her trip on her paperwork and tell the government it was for "humanitarian reasons."

"They were kind of like, 'Here are your three options'" — humanitarian, educational, and professional — "'and this is the most likely,'" Pacheco said. "Humanitarian reasons get used the most."

And indeed, Pacheco was hoping to see an ailing relative as part of her trip. Pacheco's grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer's and dementia, is turning 90 this weekend, and Pacheco was looking forward to seeing her for the first time since she left Ecuador. "She's starting to lose it," Pacheco admits. "I want to see her now, when she can recognize me." But getting approval from USCIS would require her to get a report from a doctor in Ecuador about her grandmother's condition. More important, she believes, it would require her to change her application just so it could be approved more easily.

"That's the part that makes me really angry," Pacheco said. "Do you just want to make something up for me to go there? Or do you want me to go the legitimate route?"

Meanwhile, it became clear that there was no way she was going to get approval in time to use the ticket she'd purchased to Ecuador for that night or to make her first speaking engagement the next day.

immigration applications John Moore/Getty

That's a lot of applications to go through. (John Moore/Getty)

"There was a part of me that was like, 'Should I just leave and see if they let me back in?'" Pacheco confesses. That would certainly be an embarrassment for the government, and because of her connections it would likely succeed. But "do we have to reach those extreme civil disobedience measures for them to see that this is a failed system that sets us up for failure?"

Agents will find a way to do what they think is right

The way Pacheco sees it, good people, like the USCIS agents she spoke to in Miami, are caught up in a bad system. They want to help her, but "their policies and their laws suck." This is one of the biggest questions in immigration policy right now: how much ability individual government agents have to exercise their judgment in an individual case. On one hand, stiff policies can create unrealistic requirements, like asking someone to produce a letter from an employer she doesn't have. On the other hand, too much flexibility opens the door for someone like Pacheco to get approved where a less politically well-connected person might get rejected.

But Pacheco's case also shows that individuals are going to do what they think is right, one way or another. Because the Miami agents thought she ought to be able to go to Ecuador — Pacheco says one of them was "tearing up" during their conversation — they tried to coach her in how to get the right answer from the Texas office. And Pacheco suspects she wouldn't have heard anything if she didn't have friends in high places. "I probably wouldn't have gotten a [request for evidence]," she said. "I got a request for evidence because it got brought to their attention through the congressional folks, through the ombudsman's office."

She tried to go through the system the "right way": filling out the application honestly and filing it without asking for any special favors. That didn't work at all. Even when she was willing to ask people for help, she ended up with a wasted round-trip ticket, a pair of broken speaking engagements, and a missed 90th-birthday party.

Pacheco can keep trying to go back and forth with the government to produce enough evidence to get her application approved. But when we spoke Friday, she said, "Right now I need to step back a little bit, because this has been such an emotional roller coaster ride — from packing to getting my entire family excited. I have to get off the ride that I've been really dizzy on, and just make sure my head is on my shoulders correctly."

A few minutes earlier, she'd interrupted herself. "This is hilarious. I'm watching an American Airlines flight right in front of me. I was going to be on a plane just like that one."