Immigration issue keeps Sunnyside couple apart

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldNovember 25, 2012 

SUNNYSIDE -- A few weeks ago when Juan Perez of Sunnyside and his wife, Diana Blanco De La O, celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary, the couple couldn't give each other that anniversary's traditional gift of flowers.

They couldn't share a romantic dinner out, or even a low-key night propping their feet up at home and snuggling through a rented movie.

The couple have lived more than 2,800 miles apart since early 2011, when Blanco De La O became stranded in Mexico while trying to obtain a green card.

They've spent almost two years trying to convince the federal government why it's a hardship for a husband and wife to be separated.

And their attorney, Tom Roach of Pasco, says they never should have been separated at all.

"This is bureaucratic stupidity," Roach told the Herald.

On the advice of representatives from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, Blanco De La O traveled to Ciudad Jurez, Mexico, on Jan. 8, 2011, for an immigration visa interview with American officials.

But once she got there, she was told that because she had crossed the border while she had been in the United States illegally, she couldn't return for 10 years.

"The first time they heard about the 10-year bar is when she goes to the interview down there and the immigration guys tell her she can't come back," Roach said.

Roach said those immigration officials also didn't tell Perez and Blanco De La O that a program exists for spouses of military personnel that should have allowed Blanco De La O to do her immigration visa interview in Yakima.

Perez served in the Marine Corps from April 2004 until April 2012, when he was honorably released from active duty.

"(The program) is designed for people like Juan who are out there laying their life on the line for the United States and happen to marry someone brought into the country illegally," Roach said.

A spokeswoman in U.S. Citizenship & Immigration's West Coast office did not return a message left by the Herald on Tuesday.

Perez and Blanco De La O were married Oct. 25, 2008, after about a two-year courtship that began while Perez was serving in the Marines.

He had just returned from his second deployment to Iraq in 2006 when his sister introduced Perez and Blanco De La O through emails. Even though they graduated from Sunnyside High School just a year apart, they had never met, but something clicked when they started talking online and by phone.

They met in person a couple of months later, and continued their relationship while Perez was assigned by the Marines first to Yakima, then to Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, Calif., then to Portland.

"Once I was stationed there, I could come over here every weekend," Perez told the Herald. "I was probably seeing her three weekends out of the month."

He popped the question on Valentine's Day in 2008, and they were married in Sunnyside later that year.

Perez, a U.S. citizen, said he didn't know Blanco De La O was in the country illegally until after they were married. She had been brought here by her parents when she was 9.

Perez said once he became aware of his wife's status, the couple contacted immigration officials to find out what they could do to make her legal.

They met with representatives from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration, who had come to Fort Lewis near Tacoma to help military families with immigration questions.

Roach said those representatives told Blanco De La O to travel to Mexico for her visa interview.

But then on Feb. 14, 2011, a stunned Blanco De La O called Perez to tell him she had to stay and apply for a waiver of the 10-year ban before she could return.

"We didn't hear 10 years at first," Perez said. "We thought it would be a couple of months. The couple of months turned into two years already."

Perez said he was told he had to write a letter explaining why his wife should be allowed to return to the U.S. He did that. He was told more information was needed, so he wrote another letter before the waiver was denied.

"They essentially said, 'We're not convinced this is a hardship on you being separated from your wife for 10 years,' " Roach said.

That's when Perez contacted Roach for help with a second waiver application.

Roach, who said he's been successful in all 71 cases like that of Perez and Blanco De La O that he has handled, compiled a stack of documents almost 2 inches thick showing the various ways that this separation has been a strain on the couple.

They documented the bills Perez is incurring in maintaining households in Sunnyside and Mexico while living on $1,200 per month in veterans benefits while he attends college. Blanco De La O isn't working while she's in Mexico because the place where she's living is too dangerous, Perez said.

"There's kidnappings going on, killings going on," Perez said. "I tell her to stay away from the streets as much as possible."

They also documented that Perez has experienced post-traumatic stress since suffering a traumatic brain injury while serving in the Marines, and that his stress is exacerbated by his wife's absence and the lengthy process of trying to bring her home.

And they documented that Perez can't move to Mexico to be with her without giving up his education. He's studying criminal justice, and programs on the U.S. criminal justice system aren't available in Mexico, Roach said.

"It is impossible for him to pursue his education in Mexico," Roach said.

This time, the waiver hasn't been denied, but it has been put on what officials call the "slow track" because once again the government is saying there isn't enough information.

"You put together all of this documentation ... and the federal government says there's not enough information in here to demonstrate a hardship if they're separated for 10 years," Roach said. "I've been doing this for 29 years. I feel strongly about this case. This one just cries out for some kind of attention for a guy who spent two years in Iraq getting his butt shot off. It's unconscionable."

Roach is working to prepare even more evidence to provide to the government, and he's contacted Congressman Doc Hastings' office to ask if his staff can intervene.

Kate Wood, a spokeswoman for Hastings, told the Herald that his office has a policy against commenting on individual cases to protect the privacy of the people involved, and couldn't confirm if Hastings will take any action related to the waiver for Perez and Blanco De La O.

In the meantime, the couple talk as often as they can online through Skype and are trying to hold it together the best they can.

"It's been really hard on her," Perez said. "Sometimes, she will hang up because she doesn't want to cry on the phone. Most of the time she's really down."

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