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Emma Sanchez with her three sons (from left to right) Brannon, Alex and Ryan / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For the first time in more than a decade, Emma Sanchez will be able to give her three sons what they wanted for Christmas.

Sanchez was deported from the United States 12 years ago. After waiting out a 10-year ban from the country and two more years of bureaucracy and legal fights, she got her U.S. passport on Dec. 7 and is preparing to spend her first Christmas with her sons and husband in Vista since she was expelled. On Dec. 8, she crossed back into the United States, greeted by cards, balloons and signs from her family and friends.

Sanchez entered the United States illegally in 2000. She met her husband, Michael Paulsen, a U.S. citizen and a Marine veteran, shortly thereafter. Paulson noticed her as she got off a bus at a stop near the body shop where he worked as a mechanic, she said. He didn’t speak Spanish at the time, but used someone who worked with him as an interpreter. Since then, he’s learned Spanish for her.

The couple was married a month later and soon after, she was pregnant with their first child.

In 2006, as Sanchez was filing paperwork for legalization, she was summoned out of the country to an appointment with immigration authorities at the U.S. consulate in Cuidad Juarez. There, authorities told her she wouldn’t be able to return home to Vista for 10 years.

At the time, her oldest child was 5, the second was 3 and the youngest was two months old.

Before moving to Tijuana, Sanchez lived in Guadalajara and in Los Cabos for a few months. She moved to Tijuana to be closer to Paulsen and the children. For the past 12 years, she’s seen her children once a week, or once every 15 days.

“To miss the entire childhood of my sons, that is something very difficult,” Sanchez said.

In 2015, she and her husband had a wedding ceremony at the border fence to demonstrate “that love has no borders,” she said. “We [wanted] something perfect to demonstrate that, because I’m Mexican and he’s American and everything that has come our way — we’ve broken many barriers and we continue united despite everything.”

When Sanchez first arrived in Tijuana, she was terrified to leave the house, she said. Eventually, though, she met another deported mother, Yolanda Varona, who had started an organization for deported mothers called Dreamers Moms in 2014.

Varona had been living in El Cajon for 17 years before she was deported to Mexico in 2010 after it was discovered she was living on a tourist visa. At the time of her deportation, her daughter was 16 and her son was 21. The only reason her U.S. citizen children weren’t put into foster care was because her son was already an adult and could care for his sister.

Yolanda Varona is the founder of Dreamer Moms, an organization that supports deported mothers. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Dreamers Moms works with groups on the U.S. side to try and meet deported mothers when they’re at the border. They help them find shelter, jobs, get their necessary documents in Mexico, find immigration attorneys and more.

Many women who are deported, Varona said, never committed crimes other than entering the country without permission. They’re often themselves victims of crimes and domestic violence, turned into immigration authorities by estranged partners.

Varona herself was a victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse in the United States. She’s currently working to get her U-visa, a special visa for immigrants who are victims of crimes.

“The biggest challenges of being a deported mother is to arrive in a dangerous city at the border, without money and with a pain so large because you don’t know when you’re going to see your children again,” Varona said.

Sanchez worked with the group to support the other mothers and build awareness about deportation. It’s through the group that she found her attorney, who helped her return.

“It was something marvelous, to be able to share our stories, create awareness, change things,” Sanchez said.

Varona said the organization works with 40 to 50 women, though there are hundreds of deported mothers in Tijuana. In the four years since she started Dreamers Moms, the group has helped three women, including Sanchez, return to the United States legally. There are five more, including Varona, who are still in the process of obtaining a legal pathway to return.

Sanchez said she thought her deportation was too cruel a punishment for the crime she committed. Other than entering the country illegally, she had no other criminal record.

“I don’t want to see another woman go through what I went through,” Sanchez said. “I don’t want to see other children have to grow up without their moms like my sons.”

Despite it being their first Christmas in many years in the United States, Sanchez said her family plans to keep it simple. The costs of two rents during her deportation and the legal bills have been piling up.

“I just want to be in the house with my sons and my husband,” Sanchez said. “They always, for Christmas, asked Santa Claus for their mom. How curious that I came back for Christmas. I could’ve been allowed to come back in any month of the year, but oddly enough, I came back now and I’m going to be with them for Christmas.”

Watch a video of Emma Sanchez’s story

You’re reading the Border Report, Voice of San Diego’s bi-weekly round-up of news from the San Diego-Tijuana region. You can subscribe here.

Asylum-Seekers Will Have to Wait in Mexico Under New Policy

On Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security announced a plan in which asylum-seekers who came through Mexico would have to wait in Mexico while their asylum claim is processed in the United States.

The program is being referred to as Migration Protection Protocols, but is similar to a Remain in Mexico plan that was discussed prior to the inauguration of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The policy would apply both to people who request asylum at ports of entry, and those who cross illegally and then request asylum from a Border Patrol agent.

Mexico’s response has been … confusing. The head of the country’s immigration authority has said the country doesn’t have the capacity for the asylum-seekers, reports El Universal. But other officials have said Mexico does have capacity and won’t abandon vulnerable Mexicans while providing protection to asylum-seekers.

On the ground in Tijuana, the current manager of the notebook – the unofficial waiting list system created by migrants to determine who gets to request asylum at the port of entry – told Desert Sun reporter Rebecca Plevin that most of the asylum-seekers waiting in Tijuana are Mexican.

“He asked how it’s safe for Central Americans to wait in Mexico for claims to be processed, when Mexicans are fleeing [the] country,” Plevin tweeted Friday.

The Union-Tribune also checked in with San Diego immigration attorneys and asylum-seekers waiting in Tijuana about the new policy. Immigration attorneys have lots of questions, such as how would asylum-seekers get to and from their hearings in the United States? One asylum-seeker said he prefers this policy because he had been worried he would have to stay in detention in the United States. Now he can work. Another fears staying in Tijuana because of the city’s violence.

The policy would not apply to children under 18 who come to the United States without an adult. Even so, there have long been reported issues about unaccompanied minors being stranded in Mexico because they aren’t allowed to go to U.S. ports of entry by Mexican authorities. Just recently, several minors and other asylum-seekers identified as particularly vulnerable in Tijuana accompanied by attorneys and two members of Congress had to effectively spend the night waiting outside the Otay Mesa Port of Entry before they were processed.

Homicides in Tijuana Continue to Surge

  • Tijuana is on track to end its most violent year with more than 2,400 homicides. (Seminario Zeta)
  • Two Honduran teenagers who traveled with the most recent caravan were killed in Tijuana last week, days before DHS’s announcement that it will require asylum-seekers from Central America to remain in Mexico while they wait for their cases to be processed. (Union-Tribune)
  • Vice looks at the bizarre reality in Tijuana, where there have already been more than twice as many homicides in 2018 as there were in the entirety of 2008 – the bloodiest year of the drug war between the Sinaloa and Arellano Félix cartels — while tourism is still booming. In 2008, the violence decimated the tourism and business in Tijuana, but this time around, though the numbers are worse, the violence is somehow less noticeable.

Another Cross-Border Sewage Spill

The latest cross-border sewage spill, which started two weeks ago when a pipe ruptured in Tijuana about six miles from the border, could be the largest since February 2017. At that time, a pipe burst and flooded the Tijuana river with at least 28 million gallons of raw sewage.

The most recent spill was pouring 7 million gallons a day into the river initially and slowed to 4.4. million gallons a day after efforts to remove sediment and debris from pumps helped to restart a diversion system at the border, reports the Union-Tribune.

More Border News

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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