José Luis Ruiz Arévalos sits with his wife, Armanda Ruiz, and their children. (Jennifer Molina / EdSource)
When José Luis Ruiz Arévalos left the U.S. in May 2019, he thought he would be gone six days. Instead, he was forced to stay out of the country for almost four years. His absence created emotional and financial burdens for his entire family and derailed some of his children’s college plans.
His return, full of joy and tears, lifts a heavy burden on his children and allows them to continue their academic journeys toward college degrees.
“Finally, our struggle of almost four years has come to an end,” said his wife, Armanda Ruiz, in Spanish. “I have the moral support and the economic support I didn’t have, and my daughter who left college can continue her studies.”
The bus carrying Ruiz Arévalos home pulled up in a grocery store parking lot in the small Central Valley city of Los Banos on a cold Friday evening. Waiting anxiously were his wife and their four children, bearing red, white and blue balloons and a handmade sign with the words, “Bienvenido a casa José” and “1,366” — the number of days Ruiz Arévalos was gone.
As he got off the bus, his four children rushed forward to hug him, holding on as long as they could.
“Once I saw him on the bus, I was like, ‘Wow, this is real,’” said Elena Gutiérrez Ramírez, 22. “Everything I hoped that would happen, it happened.”
Ruiz Arévalos missed four of the children’s graduations while he was gone. The youngest, Priscila Ruiz Ramírez, 13, graduated from elementary school. Nathan Gutiérrez Ramírez, 20, and Ignacio Gutiérrez Ramírez, 19, graduated from high school. Elena graduated from community college.
When Priscila, now in seventh grade, heard he was coming back, the first thing she said was, “Papi, I want you to come to my graduation.”
Ruiz Arévalos met his wife when her three oldest children were 8, 6 and 5 years old, and he has helped raise them ever since. They later had another daughter together, Priscila.
Ruiz, who is a U.S. citizen, applied for a green card for her husband. Ruiz Arévalos had been living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant since he was 17. He went to Mexico in May 2019 for the last step in his application, an interview at the U.S. Consulate.
Before he left, he had already cleared one hurdle. People who crossed the border without papers and then lived here for more than a year can’t get a green card easily, even if they are married to a U.S. citizen. They can be banned from the country for 10 years unless they can get a waiver by proving that being forced to stay outside the U.S. would cause “extreme hardship” for a U.S. citizen spouse or parent.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved the waiver for Ruiz Arévalos. He and his wife had argued that it would be an extreme hardship for her to care alone for their four children, especially Priscila, who was born prematurely, has developmental delays and requires continuous medical care, including speech, occupational and physical therapy. In addition, Nathan suffered from severe depression.
But before Ruiz Arévalos’ appointment at the consulate, the Trump administration had changed the rules for something called the “public charge” policy. Under the Trump administration, consulate officers had begun asking whether an applicant’s family members, including U.S. citizens, had ever used public benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid. While Ruiz Arévalos had never used benefits, his youngest daughter, Priscila, has received Supplemental Security Income — provided to lower-income disabled people — since she was born. All the children have used food stamps and Medi-Cal.
Before President Donald Trump changed the “public charge” policy, benefits used by U.S. citizen children wouldn’t have counted against Ruiz Arévalos, and having a fiscal sponsor — a friend who agreed to support him if needed — would have been enough proof he wouldn’t become a burden on the government. But under the new policy, the consulate officers told Ruiz Arévalos he was ineligible for a green card because he was likely to become a “public charge,” dependent on the government. They said he would need another sponsor, preferably a relative, but instead of waiting for him to turn in the new paperwork, they canceled his application.
In March 2021, under President Joe Biden, the State Department restored the public charge policy in place before 2018: Non-cash benefits like Medicaid and food stamps cannot be counted against a green card applicant, nor can any benefits used by children or other relatives.
Later that summer Ruiz Arévalos applied again. The process, which used to take a few months, now takes more than a year, due to backlogs that were aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the meantime, Armanda Ruiz appealed to as many elected officials as she could, including meeting with Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s staff in Washington, D.C.
In November 2022, Ruiz Arévalos finally received another waiver and then an appointment at the U.S. Consulate for a second green card interview in January.
As he entered the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez for his second green card interview, Ruiz Arévalos wasn’t sure what to expect.
“I was scared they would come up with something I wasn’t expecting again, and it would be delayed again,” Ruiz Arévalos said in Spanish. “My wife told me, ‘It’s set.’ But I told her, no, not until I’m at the border will I be able to say it’s over. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
When his passport arrived in the mail a few weeks later, he stared in shock. There, pasted into the passport was the proof that he had permanent residency.
The first thing he did was go buy a bus ticket to Los Banos.
His return brings relief especially to Elena, who dropped out of college after freshman year so she could work to help provide for her younger siblings. She joined the Army Reserve and worked part time as a cashier and at a tomato-packing plant while continuing to take classes part time at community college.
If Ruiz Arévalos had been able to come back in 2019, Elena would likely have graduated from UC Merced last year. Instead, she earned an associate degree at Merced College. She’s been putting off continuing her studies at a four-year college. Now that her dad is back, she’s finally considering studying for a bachelor’s degree in communications or Spanish.
“To me it’s like, now I don’t have to stress out this year and be like, OK, let’s just jump into law enforcement, let’s just jump into construction,” said Elena. “Now I can slow down, think about what I like before I jump in. Because honestly, I was panicking. But right now I’m like, OK, I can slow down and not rush myself.”
Nathan is now finishing up an associate degree and has applied to transfer to UC Merced in the fall, to major in psychology or sociology.
“I don’t really have a specific goal with that in mind, but I do want to help other people,” Nathan said.
Ignacio was a top student in high school, courted by Harvard and Yale. But he chose to stay close to home and attend UC Merced, in part because Ruiz Arévalos was gone. He won multiple scholarships, including from the California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation. He’s planning on majoring in psychology as well and hopes to become a therapist for teenagers.
He says what got them through this separation was staying united and pushing forward together despite the difficulties.
“It just goes to show how persistence is kind of key for these kinds of things,” said Ignacio. “You always just got to keep striving for it, even if you fail. And that goes for a lot of things, even maybe persisting and going after changing immigration laws to improve others’ conditions. Because it’s not just us that’s going through this, it’s a lot of other people.”
Erin Quinn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, said Ruiz Arévalos’ case highlights the impact of Trump’s changes to public charge policy.
“This really shows the harsh realities for families that are separated and the real tangible impact it has, from education to moving forward with life to economic stability,” said Quinn.
Quinn said most immigrant families are not aware that the Biden administration rolled back the Trump administration’s changes to the public charge rule. In fact, one poll showed that only a quarter of immigrant families were aware, she said.
“What we’ve really seen is a long-term impact from the rhetoric and negative policies under the Trump administration,” Quinn said. “Combating the chilling effect that it has had on our communities here will take decades.”
She said many undocumented immigrants are now less comfortable leaving the United States to finalize their permanent residency applications, because they are uncertain what the outcome will be.
In addition, families are less willing to apply for services that their U.S. citizen children are eligible for, such as subsidized housing, food stamps and health insurance.
On his first morning back, Ruiz Arévalos woke up in the family trailer in Los Banos for the first time in years.
“I felt like I had never left, like it had all been a nightmare,” said Ruiz Arévalos. “It wasn’t a problem to be in Mexico. The problem was I wasn’t with my family.”
During that first weekend back, they drove to visit a cousin in San José, Oscar Rodríguez, who submitted paperwork for Ruiz Arévalos’ immigration case, agreeing to be his fiscal sponsor. Ruiz Arévalos’ aunt made pozole to celebrate.
“We’re really happy he’s back,” said Rodríguez. “Knowing him, a responsible parent and hard worker who takes care of his children and his wife, I thought he wouldn’t have problems. But unfortunately he did. It felt like an injustice.”
Ruiz Arévalos is slowly getting back into the family routine. On his first morning back, he got up and made pancakes. He’s been spending time with his kids — putting together puzzles, taking a CPR class with Nathan, helping Elena remove extensions from her hair. Weekday mornings, he walks Priscila out to wait for her school bus.
It’s these little things that Ruiz Arévalos missed most — the day-to-day of parenting.
“You get up and you see they’ve grown a little bit, or they did something new, or they learned something new,” he said. “They’re just little details, but they stay with you as a father.”
When he was in Mexico, Ruiz Arévalos said he felt he had “clipped his children’s wings.”
He can’t ever get those four years back, but now, he hopes to finally watch his children fly.
Jennifer Molina produced the video in this story.
This story originally appeared in EdSource.
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