Holland

Coming home: Family navigates immigration during COVID-19 crisis

“When Papá comes home” is a phrase heard often in the Munoz house.

“Everything’s on hold, and it has been,” says Jodi Munoz whose husband, Salvador, has lived in Mexico — apart from his wife and two daughters — for the past 12 years.

Now, on the verge of obtaining what they’ve been working toward, legal residency for Salvador, the couple are again holding their breath. 

One more hurdle

A March 10 interview for his immigrant visa revealed Salvador still needs one more waiver. He has six months to obtain a waiver that usually takes six to eight months or he will have to re-interview. Aside from the 18-hour drive and the three days of tests and interviews, the U.S. Consulate General in Ciudad Juarez shut down shortly after Salvador’s first interview due to COVID-19. It’s impossible to say what the situation will be in September or beyond.

This is Salvador’s third attempt at obtaining lawful permanent resident status. After bungled legal paperwork, Jodi and Salvador Munoz were referred to Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in Holland.

Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates

Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout started Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in 2015 because there was no other nonprofit doing immigrant legal advocacy in Holland.

“She has a big heart, and she has kids, too,” Jodi says of the LIA founder and managing attorney. “She’s amazing.”

Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates works with immigrants and refugees through its low-cost legal services, as well as advocacy and educational outreach. Renewing immigration status is among the most vital work LIA does, says Yore-Van Oosterhout. The nonprofit is currently seeking funds to help pay for the fees to file that paperwork, which sometimes run in the hundreds of dollars for each filing.

Afraid to reach out

Most of the calls to Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates are from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) clients, or those known as “Dreamers.”

They are eligible for benefits under COVID-19 relief, but they are afraid applying for relief will harm their immigration cases. Dreamers' status is not determined by their employment status. However, that of green card holders is. 

Related: Law is a tool to help for Holland immigration attorney and advocate

The nonprofit has had to go back to bare bones, Yore-Van Oosterhout says. Advocacy and educational outreach are on hold for now while LIA focuses on its legal clients.

“We went from were growing so quickly to a screeching halt,” she says.

Salvador and Jodi Munoz with their daughters during a recent vacation in Mexico.
Upcoming conferences and speakers have been canceled, costing not only educational opportunities, but revenue, she says.

Flexible

Employees at LIA are also being flexible. The small firm’s administrative assistant has become a “service navigator.” He helps clients learn how to use a cellphone to scan documents and send emails, and has been making sure clients are counted in the U.S. Census.
 
“He really is whatever we need him to be,” says Yore-Van Oosterhout, who asked that his name not be used because he is seeking asylum. 

Many LIA clients have limited access to or knowledge of technology, she says.

“He spends hours on the phone with these people, walking them through questionnaires.”

Literacy is often a barrier. Many documented and undocumented immigrant workers have experienced massive layoffs or are continuing to work but in unsafe conditions, Yore-Van Oosterhout adds.

Undocumented workers are not eligible for unemployment or COVID-19 relief benefits. Those who are married to non-U.S. citizens, like Jodi Munoz, are also ineligible for initial relief.

Thankful for a job

Jodi is thankful for her job at Walters Gardens in Zeeland, which provides vacation time and health benefits. Jodi and her two daughters are able to travel to Mexico twice a year, giving them a little family time. 

“Now, with COVID-19, we are not sure if we can go back again soon,” Jodi says.

Since the statewide stay-at-home order, she has been working from home for the perennial flower wholesaler, which, Jodi says, is a godsend.

“They’ve been nothing but awesome to us,” she says of Walters Gardens. “I’m so grateful I’m still working. … So many others are not.”

In the U.S., their kids have good health insurance, good schools. They don’t have to be afraid of going outside at night. Several of Salvador’s family members, including his mom, live here legally.

Trying for 28 years

Salvador has been trying to obtain legal status since moving to Michigan in 1992 with his father. He was 19 and the oldest of eight children.

However, he entered the U.S. illegally twice while trying to obtain status and had to return to his native Mexico under a mandatory 10-year ban. The couple’s first daughter was born in 2004. In 2008, Jodi was pregnant with the couple’s second daughter when Salvador was deported.

There’s a backlog of people trying to enter the U.S. from all over the world. Despite recent border shutdowns, their case is proceeding since Salvador is immigrating to join his U.S. citizen family.

“We’re just another little ant in the pile. We’re just another little stack of papers,” Jodi says.

She is desperate to differentiate their case from the others, to show that despite being apart for 12 years, the couple has joint bank accounts, a home mortgage, and are very much still in this together. Their oldest daughter, Kendra, turned 15 several months ago, but she has been postponing her quinceanera in hopes of having her papá there, Jodi says.

“We’re at the last stage of this chaos — 12 years of uncertainty,” Jodi says. “It’s just tearing me up inside, because there’s always been another bump in the road, another setback.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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