Before July 2015, Azucena Macias hadn’t seen her mother in 10 years.
The 27-year-old Fresno resident was 1 when her family walked across the border through the desert between Mexico and California. After her parents were deported in 2005, Macias and her two younger siblings were raised by their older sister.
A decade later, the reunion between mother and daughter was bittersweet. Her mother had been diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer – and that illness gave Macias a reason to apply for a little-known provision of U.S. immigration law that significantly sped up her path to legal residency – and eventually citizenship.
It’s a dream come true.
Azucena Macias, 27, of Fresno
A special travel permission called advance parole is one of the benefits of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, President Barack Obama’s reprieve program for young undocumented immigrants. Reentering the U.S. under advance parole wipes away the original unlawful presence and its penalties.
Critics see it as a cheater’s shortcut to citizenship.
Advocates say it is neither quick nor easy. But for those who obtain advance parole and qualify for legal residency, it erases the uncertainty about what will happen with DACA after a new president takes office.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, an estimated 21,000 young unauthorized immigrants in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Madera counties qualify for DACA. It’s unknown how many of those could qualify for residency after traveling under advance parole.
In Fresno, four of the most well-known attorneys and legal aid organizations have helped more than 100 DACA recipients get their legal residence “green cards” after traveling under advance parole. More clients are in the process.
Macias received her green card on June 27, nearly a year after visiting her mother and returning to the U.S. through airport customs. She plans to apply for citizenship once she becomes eligible in three years.
“It’s a dream come true,” she said.
Growing up, Macias didn’t feel undocumented – until she tried to get a job at 18. Since then, she had wished for a way to fix her immigration status.
Understanding Macias’ journey to legal status requires peeling back some layers.
In 2013, she received a two-year work permit and temporary protection from deportation under DACA. The program, created in 2012 under executive action, is open to undocumented immigrants born after June 15, 1981, who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and meet other criteria.
Although DACA provides unauthorized immigrants with documentation, it is not the same as having lawful immigration status.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a split decision on Obama’s plan to expand deferred action. The vote effectively blocked the expansion but left in place the original program.
This is how the process works: Immigrants with DACA apply for advance parole. Once granted, they can travel anywhere abroad under certain circumstances – for humanitarian, education or work purposes. Going back through customs at the airport erases their unlawful status penalty, at which point they can apply for permanent residence if they have a sponsor. Five years later – or three years, if they are married to a U.S. citizen – they can apply for citizenship.
Advance parole has been around for years and isn’t specific to DACA. People with pending immigration applications, other types of deferred action or temporary protected status can apply.
Immigration attorney Lazaro Salazar says falsities are perpetrated by both immigration fraudsters and misinformed people who share their opinions on social media. “My biggest competition is not notarios (immigration fraudsters),” he said. “It’s comadre y compadre (friends).”
Here is where it gets controversial: DACA, while not a path to citizenship, does make that path easier for immigrants who have someone, such as a spouse or parent, to sponsor them for permanent residence.
Immigrants without advance parole who leave the U.S. after having lived here illegally are penalized. A person who was here illegally for six months to one year is banned from returning for three years. A person who was here illegally for more than a year is banned for 10 years.
So for immigrants like Macias, whose husband is a U.S. citizen, DACA provides access to advance parole, which effectively waives the re-entry penalty if they return with permission through an international airport.
For Macias, then, 10 years in Mexico became two weeks.
Macias didn’t know what to expect about returning to Guadalajara. “Even though I was born there and I’m from there, it felt foreign to me,” she said. The visit was also emotional. Macias’ eyes teared up talking about her mom, who she said is now in remission.
It took just over a year from when Macias applied for advance parole to the day she was approved for permanent residence. Because Macias works as an assistant to local immigration attorney Lazaro Salazar, she didn’t pay attorney fees, but she still had to pay $3,500 for applications to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as well as the flight to Mexico.
For others, the cost is more burdensome.
Omar Donez, 24, of Hanford returned from his one-week trip to see his sick grandmother in Mexico under advance parole in early May. The Fresno State sociology student, who is on the cusp of filing his paperwork for legal residence, expects to have spent around $9,000 by the time the process is completed.
Donez, whose wife is a U.S. citizen, didn’t know about advance parole before he sat down for a consultation with an immigration attorney to find out whether he had any legal options beyond DACA.
Fear and criticism
As Donez was getting ready to apply for advance parole, a DACA recipient was deported from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago after traveling to Mexico with permission. The woman was allowed to return to the U.S. but was placed in deportation proceedings.
Donez said that incident made him afraid to apply, but he knew he “couldn’t just be stuck and be scared.”
Salazar, the attorney, said it is imperative that immigrants traveling under advance parole provide full disclosure to their attorney and are thoroughly background checked. Under DACA requirements, much of that is already taken care of.
“Only the most solid of cases ought to be considered to even initiate the process,” he said.
Critics see advance parole as stretching the limits of immigration law absent comprehensive reform. Last year, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told The Washington Post that it’s a sneaky attempt to place unlawful immigrants on a path to citizenship.
Salazar said critics like Goodlatte aren’t quite right. He said a lot of people assume two things: “They assume it’s direct, and they assume it’s automatic,” Salazar said. “You still have to prove you have good moral character, you haven’t been convicted of a crime, you don’t owe taxes, you haven’t registered to vote or voted. There’s a whole litany of things you have to say ‘no’ to before you can be granted citizenship.”
What advance parole actually means for DACA recipients, he said, is a much less onerous path to citizenship, especially because DACA isn’t permanent.
“Politically, you’re always better off having something already filed with immigration (officials) than not doing anything and having that right taken away by some future administration,” he said.
Macias said getting her green card in the mail was a huge relief. She said one of the biggest benefits of being a legal resident is being able to leave the U.S. whenever she wants. She plans to visit her mom again this year.
And she is especially glad to no longer live in fear that DACA will end after the coming presidential election.
“Now it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m a resident.”