Maria Barrera sat at her attorney’s office in Clovis with fear in her eyes, poring over a one-way plane ticket to Mexico that she did not want to purchase.
“I don’t have anybody there,” she said in Spanish, sitting close to her husband, Carlos Barrera. “I would be completely alone.”
On May 2, Maria – a minister at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mendota – received a letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that sent her and her family into a tailspin. Despite living in the U.S. for nearly 30 years, she was told she had until June 12 to leave the country, and was required to report with proof she had purchased a plane ticket before then. Her case mirrors stories across the country of undocumented people with clean records facing deportation orders, leading advocates to question President Donald Trump’s pledge to focus on criminals living in the U.S. illegally.
“I heard everything (Trump) said during his campaign. I’m not within the criminal class of people that they say they are deporting, so he should keep his word and only go after criminal people,” Maria said. “People like me should have an opportunity to show that we are not criminals and to move forward and gain status. But they’re focused on politics rather than really following and doing what they should be. Politics is what matters to them.”
Maria moved to Mendota from Mexico in 1989 when she was 22 years old. In 1995, she married Carlos.
For now, I get up in the morning and thank the Lord for another day near my family.
Maria Barrera, of Mendota
“We’ve never, ever been apart. We drive to work and home together every day,” Carlos said in Spanish earlier this month, contemplating life without his wife. “She does the bills, she takes care of the kids, the homework.”
The couple works together at the same factory in Fresno, and has two children who were born in the U.S.: Emily, 17, and Eliseo, 20. For the past few weeks, Maria has caught Emily crying in her room at night, worrying that she would no longer have her mother to lean on.
“I still kiss my kids goodnight every night,” Maria said. “We are a very, very close family. None of us ever go to bed unless we’re all home.”
Eliseo was the one who had to get online and buy his mom a ticket to Guadalajara International Airport for June 12 – a deadline set by ICE.
“We randomly were notified that my mom literally had a few days left with us … simply for being undocumented and for no other reason,” said Eliseo, a student at Clovis Community College. “I kept thinking about how the moment in which we would go drop her off at the airport was going to be. However, I never gave up on my faith. None of us did.”
After an all-nighter and persistent calls to immigration officials, including a conversation with the Chief Counsel of ICE in San Francisco, attorney Isabel Machado was able to get an agreement to reopen Maria’s case last week, meaning she will not have to leave the country next month.
“For now, I get up in the morning and thank the Lord for another day near my family,” Maria said.
This shouldn’t be happening. It’s inherently wrong.
Immigration attorney Isabel Machado
But Machado says Maria’s case – convoluted by bad legal advice from the past – is concerning, and reflects the impact of Trump’s policies. Maria is green card eligible, has no record of a criminal history and had not faced such aggressive orders from ICE in the past.
Maria’s first major brush with the federal government was in 2006. Then, she was required to check in with ICE by phone, but was not considered a priority for deportation due to her clean record.
In 2011, she received a “bag and baggage” letter, ordering her to report to ICE with a suitcase ready for deportation. But Machado successfully got the order suspended, and her request to stay has been re-approved annually – until now.
“Everything was good with her. She has no criminal history whatsoever. They basically let her go about her business,” Machado said. “Except now that’s been denied because of the new administration. Until she has a green card in her hand, she’s not going to feel secure, and that’s understandable.”
ICE officials did not return phone calls for this story.
Machado says she is working as fast as possible to get Maria a green card, but that her story is not unique. Machado is now representing another Mendota woman who is facing deportation after living in the U.S. since 1997.
I went through sleepless nights. I couldn’t focus on studying for my finals.
Eliseo Barrera, Maria’s son
“This shouldn’t be happening. It’s inherently wrong,” Machado said. “They’re allegedly only targeting ‘bad people,’ and neither of these women that are clients of mine are anywhere near what one would even consider to be a bad person. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
A case in New Jersey involving an undocumented grandfather is similar. In that case, the 59-year-old Mexican immigrant was dealt bad legal advice, according to advocates, and was ordered to leave the U.S. in 2011, but had received approval to stay until recently. Last month, he received approval to stay in the U.S. for at least another year, after gaining broad support from local religious communities and other advocates.
For now, the Barrera family is celebrating more time with Maria.
“Members of our community always had us in prayer and rejoiced with us after they found out about the good news,” Eliseo said. “This milestone in our lives is going to help my entire family unite even more, help us grow as individuals, and is certainly teaching my sister and I to value our mom even more, as well as not take our time with her for granted.”