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Ana Rafael Cruz crossed the Mexican border into the United States undocumented with her mother and twin sister at 6 years old.
Rafael Cruz, now 25, is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which granted her the ability to live and work in Massachusetts without facing deportation.
She worked two jobs to put herself through UMass Lowell. Since she was first eligible, Rafael Cruz has held the proper permits to stay in the country.
But, a recent trip to Mexico for an immigration visa interview — a next step in securing permanent residency — has seemingly upended the life she built for herself in the United States, WCVB reports.
“She left with the reassurance of her attorney that everything was going to be fine and that her case was simple and the results would be positive,” Maria Rafael, her sister, told the news station.
Rafael Cruz was banned from re-entering the country for 10 years.
“We are all devastated,” Rafael said.
Rafael remembers the early days of her life with her family here; how they arrived in a new country with only $20. Together, they begged strangers for food.
“However, we understood the power of opportunities the United States offered and were determined to change our life for the better,” she told The Lowell Sun earlier this month. “We quickly learned the language and worked extremely hard in school.”
Eventually, some of that work paid off when the sisters graduated from Lowell High School in 2014, according to the Sun.
Because DACA recipients — often referred to as “dreamers” — cannot receive financial aid for higher education, Rafael Cruz, who got the necessary permits to work when she was 16, took up two jobs to pay for college courses, the newspaper reports.
“Since she’s been here, she’s done everything correctly,” her boss at Banfield Pet Hospital in Woburn, Susanne Nasson, told WCVB. “She has been an exemplary student. She has been an exemplary employee. She has worked hard.”
Rafael Cruz even worked extra shifts to help the hospital weather the COVID-19 pandemic, Nasson said.
“When other people were scared to come to work and we had animals to help, Ana showed up,” said Nasson, who has worked to bring attention to and seek help for Rafael Cruz’s situation. “She’s just one of those people who when I hired her, she was a win. Some people stand out in that way and Ana is somebody who goes to bat for everybody, so I’m absolutely going to bat for her.”
Her family says Rafael Cruz was working on gaining permanent residency after former President Donald Trump dropped DACA protections. Rafael Cruz had also recently married and bought a home, according to the Sun.
She began working with an attorney and when she was offered a chance for a visa interview at the U.S. consulate in Mexico, she took up the opportunity, the newspaper reports.
“My sister’s attorney said that my sister’s case was simple and felt confident that the results would be positive,” Rafael, her sister, said. “However, the consular officer denied her request and gave her a 10-year re-entry ban punishment without allowing her to explain our situation. The consular officer literally shut the window on her and said she can appeal in 10 years.”
Rafael Cruz broke down.
In an Instagram post, she described the moment and trying to process the news.
“I couldn’t think, speak, or breathe,” Rafael Cruz wrote, according to the Sun. “When I tried to explain what my attorney had explained to me, the consular officer was just very dismissive and told me to consult with my attorney. Our conversation ended when he said, ‘We’re done here.’ The thought of not being home with my family and friends for 10 years makes me feel sick.”
She left the consulate in Juarez for Jalisco, Mexico, home to distant relatives on her father’s side of the family, where she remains, according to the Sun.
Her sister said immigration authorities took particular issue with the fact Rafael Cruz entered the country undocumented twice: once when she was 6 and again later, when she returned to Mexico to see their dying grandmother.
“During our time there, we experienced multiple break-in attempts and kidnapping threats. We were targeted because we had lived in America and (people) assumed we had money,” Rafael told the newspaper. “Under those circumstances, my mother made the decision for my sister and I to re-enter the United States. We had no say in this decision, but understood my mother had to do what was best and could not separate from us.”
Rafael is hoping the situation can be rectified.
“She’s only a few semesters away from getting her bachelor’s degree in biology. She was only trying to do things right,” she said. “There has to be something that can be done for her to be able to come back home.”
So far, several local officials have expressed frustration over the current immigration policy, in light of Rafael Cruz’s story.
“It just defies common sense that Ana wouldn’t be able to return. It’s the opposite of what a rational immigration policy should look like,” City Councilor John Drinkwater told the Sun. “Ana grew up in the U.S. She grew up in Lowell, and she’s just as much of an American and a Lowellian as anyone else, regardless of her immigration status.”
State Rep. Rady Mom, a Lowell Democrat who is an immigrant and refugee himself, said the decision to bar Rafael Cruz from re-entering the country is one that lacks compassion.
“It’s not compassion, that’s all I can think of,” Mom told the newspaper. “Where’s the humanity that we believe in? Here is a young lady who grew up in our community, who did everything by the book, brought herself up in every which way, worked her way to not be a trouble-maker or criminal … but in turn because she’s trying to do the right thing they won’t let her back in.”
A State Department spokesperson told the Sun the department is prohibited from discussing individual visa applications under federal law.
Rafael Cruz’s family contacted U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey for help. Staffers for each politician confirmed in a joint statement to the Sun they are aware of the case and their offices are “working in coordination with the family.”
Trahan, Warren, and Markey all support a pathway to citizenship for “dreamers” like Rafael Cruz.
President Joe Biden, earlier this month, also reiterated his support for the move and urged Congress to pass the U.S. Citizenship Act to do so.
“Last week I had the chance to meet with Dreamers in the Oval Office,” Biden said in a May 16 Tweet. “These young people are part of the fabric of our nation and vital to our future.”
In the meantime, family friends launched a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the cost of legal fees, which the webpage descried as “exorbitant.”
“Her lawyers have told her this will be a tough and expensive battle because her case is so complicated,” the page reads.
As of Thursday morning, donors had contributed over $10,500.
In her Instagram post, Rafael Cruz advised other dreamers to seek legal advice from several attorneys before making risky moves, according to the Sun. She also told other immigrants to raise their voices on the issue.
“It’s time to let everyone know that even if we weren’t born in the United States, we are Americans,” Rafael Cruz wrote. “We work, we go to school, we pay taxes, and we are good citizens. We deserve to be in the United States, our home.”
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