Love crosses border for Sunnyside couple

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 12, 2013 

Juan Perez and Diana Blanco De La O sat in the lobby of their lawyer's office in Pasco this week passing an iPhone back and forth to look at a picture.

Everything in the Sunnyside couple's body language spoke of a young couple in love -- the way they laughed, the way they leaned into each other, the way they looked at each other as they shared smiles. Although they've been married for more than four years, everything is new again to them right now because of a forced two-year separation that ended just after the new year.

"We're still in the honeymoon phase since we missed out on those two years," Blanco De La O said.

Blanco De La O returned to Sunnyside on Jan. 3 after being stranded in Mexico when she ran afoul of U.S. immigration policies.

She was brought to the United States illegally as a 9-year-old, and confessed to Perez after they married in October 2008 that she wasn't an American citizen.

Perez, then a Marine, contacted immigration officials to find out what they could do to make Blanco De La O a legal resident.

They met with representatives from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration, who had come to Fort Lewis near Tacoma to help military families with immigration questions. They said they were told Blanco De La O would have to travel to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, for an immigration visa interview with American officials.

But once she got there in January 2011, she was told that because she had crossed the border while she had been in the United States illegally, she could not return for 10 years.

Immigration officials 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 have her immigration visa interview in Yakima.

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.

That's when Perez contacted Pasco immigration lawyer Tom Roach for help with a second waiver application.

Roach 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 incurred maintaining households in Sunnyside and Mexico while living on $1,200 a month in veterans benefits while he attends college. Blanco De La O wasn't working while she was in Mexico because the place where she was living was too dangerous, Perez said.

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 was exacerbated by his wife's absence and the lengthy process of trying to bring her home. Perez was honorably discharged in April 2012.

They documented that Perez couldn't move to Mexico to be with his wife without giving up his education. He's studying criminal justice on the G.I. Bill, and programs on the U.S. criminal justice system aren't available in Mexico, Roach said.

They thought they'd hit another hurdle when the application was put on what Roach described as a "slow track," which could have meant another monthslong delay in getting an answer.

But after an article about the couple's plight appeared in the Herald on Nov. 25, Roach said aides in Congressman Doc Hastings and Sen. Maria Cantwell's offices offered their support, and then someone at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration in Washington, D.C., took up the case.

On Dec. 3, Perez received an email saying that his wife would be allowed to come home.

"I was on my way to Mexico to visit her," Perez said. "I checked my email and read it. I waited until I got to the airport to tell her."

At first, Blanco De La O didn't believe that her ordeal soon would be over. During the two years she lived with relatives in Acapulco, she was frightened by constant violence and didn't know if she'd ever be able to leave. She estimated as many as 100 people were gunned down in the streets within 10 blocks of her grandparents' home.

"It was really scary at times," she said. "I literally would miss bullets."

She was afraid to go out, and tried to stay strong and not show her fear to Perez or other family members in Sunnyside when she talked to them on the phone.

"It's been hard. Aside from everything, I was feeling like I tried to be someone else when talking to (family)," she said. "Lonely is what it was."

She said when she read the email that her application was approved, she didn't know whether to cry or think it was a joke.

"I was really excited -- more than thrilled," she said.

There still was a process to go through -- she had to have another visa interview Dec. 19 and then wait for her stamped visa before she could cross the border.

But the second time around, things went more smoothly, she said.

"It was actually a lot different from the other interviews," Blanco De La O said. "The guy was more open and social."

By Jan. 1, she had her visa, and she and Perez started the drive from Monterrey, Mexico, the town just south of the Texas border where they stayed while waiting for her passport, back to Sunnyside.

Blanco De La O said that since returning home, she's concentrated on spending time with her parents, siblings and new nieces -- and the husband she's missed for two years.

The couple plan to stay in Sunnyside while Perez finishes his degree at Heritage University. They're also talking about starting a family.

And Roach, who has been working on the case for free, said that in three years, Blanco De La O will be allowed to apply for citizenship.

"I'll help you out with that," he told her.

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