Angels in their Corner

IOWA JFON Celebrates a Victory for Love and Family

They met, quite by chance, in the home section of Target in Reno, Nevada. Amy was raising two boys after a painful divorce. Gabriel was sunny natured, the kind of man who smiled with his whole face, and one who happily took on any household task that would ease the burden of a single mom.

Amy and Gabriel

They fell in love, of course. The boys welcomed a father figure in their lives and he, in turn, adored them.

“If I love the hen,” he told Amy, “I have to love the chicks.”

There was only one thing marring their happiness: Gabriel was undocumented.

Without legal status, his life was precarious. He couldn’t drive. His employment opportunities were limited. He was overworked and underpaid. Worse, he lived with the constant fear of being deported back to his home country of El Salvador.

But he was still Gabriel, the man she loved and her boys needed.  “I was all in,” Amy remembers. “I decided in my heart that I would be ready to move myself and the kids to protect Gabriel and stay with him.”

Iowa is a Welcoming State

A year later, the family packed everything into a Ryder truck and moved back to Amy’s hometown of Mount Vernon, Iowa.  In Reno, Gabriel had been one in an ocean of undocumented immigrants. In Mount Vernon, Iowa, he was the only Latino. He was the minority.

“Yet here,” Amy says, smiling, “our community embraced us. It was the exact opposite of what we expected.”

Wedding Day

The boys settled into their new school. Amy and Gabriel were married. They both found jobs. The family also found a home at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, where members joined together to support them in any way they could; driving Gabriel to appointments, helping defray the costs of urgent dental surgery, connecting him to a retired ESL teacher to tutor him in English.

They also introduced the couple to Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors and to Ann Naffier, the managing attorney.

During their time together, the two had discussed plans for Gabriel to obtain legal residency, but the obstacles seemed insurmountable. For an undocumented immigrant who crossed the border illegally, marriage to a U.S. citizen still does not provide an easy path to a Green Card. Gabriel would be required to travel to the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to apply; yet once he left the U.S. he would trigger an automatic 10-year ban from re-entering the country. He would be stuck in El Salvador, away from Amy and the boys, for a decade.

Neither Amy nor Gabriel could contemplate such a long separation.

They could, however, with Iowa JFON’s help, request a waiver for the re-entry bar, citing the extreme hardship his U.S. citizen wife would suffer without Gabriel’s continued presence in her life. It was still a great risk; the request could easily be denied.  They could still face a separation of years. There was absolutely no guarantee of a happy ending.

One day, after much deliberation, Gabriel told Amy he felt God was leading him to start the process for residency.

“I did not receive the same message,” Amy remarks dryly, “but I accepted his decision.”

The couple met with Ann immediately. While they were impressed at Ann’s depth of knowledge of both the U.S. immigration system and its relationship to El Salvador, it was Ann’s dedication and kindness that amazed them the most, as she walked hand in hand with them through the complicated process.

“I remember all the nights of late emails full of desperate questions and weary emotions that I sent,” says Amy. “Ann would respond like we were her only clients. She was truly the calm in the storm we depended upon for so many months.”

The time came for Gabriel to have his embassy interview in El Salvador. Despite travel warnings about the violence-ravaged country, Amy was determined to go with him.

“If the interview doesn’t go well, he’s not coming back to Iowa,” she says grimly. “If he doesn’t get approved, we’ll lose our house. How will the kids go to college? How will I go on?”

“I had to go with him,” she concludes. “I couldn’t let him go through that alone.”

Home at last

Happily, the interview did go well, and Gabriel was allowed to return to Iowa with his wife and stepsons. After months of applications, required documents, meetings, and endless waiting and worrying, Gabriel is now a legal resident. He eagerly looks forward to the day he will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Ann Naffier celebrates with Gabriel and Amy.

“It is through the blessings of these angels,” Amy says, referring to Ann and the staff and volunteers at Iowa JFON, “that our family is able to sleep at night, knowing that we will wake up with Gabriel in our house, right where he is meant to be.”

When he was an undocumented immigrant trying to help support a wife and two teenaged boys, Gabriel worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week, as a cook in a nearby Mexican restaurant. He had no security, no legal protection, and no insurance.

But he had faith, hope and the love of his new family.

Now Gabriel has a good job, with an established company.  For many of his colleagues, he’s the only immigrant they’ve ever met. Now that they know him and are hearing his story, Amy reflects, perhaps they will reconsider their view of immigrants.

Inspired by this experience, Amy and her eldest son, Ethan, recently started Love Our Neighbor, a non-profit which serves to provide immigrants with information on available resources in Iowa and also helps them connect to other immigrants who have already gone through the process.

As for Gabriel, his life changed in so many wonderful ways. Perhaps most wonderful is that this change didn’t just end with him. It went on—it goes on—to change the lives of his wife, stepsons, friends, family, church and community members, and everyone around them.

Welcome, neighbor.