A Colorado man whose legal case attracted national attention before he was deported to Mexico was allowed back into the U.S. in October and is now one step closer to gaining legal residency.
Jorge Zaldivar Mendieta, 47, flew back to Colorado from Mexico on humanitarian parole on Oct. 13 for an appeal hearing on his deportation case. The hearing is scheduled for Dec. 7, but this week, his attorney, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement filed a motion together asking a judge to allow him to stay.
Immigration attorneys and advocates say it’s rare for someone to come back to the U.S. for an appeal after being deported for a variety of reasons, including having the financial resources to fight it and getting the courts to reopen an appeal after someone has already left the country.
Several court decisions, including the 2021 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Niz-Chavez v. Garland, also played a part in helping move Zaldivar Mendieta’s case forward.
But his wife, Christina Zaldivar, won’t breathe a sigh of relief until the case is resolved and her husband can get his green card. On Oct. 11, she said she got an email saying his return to the U.S. was approved, but he had to arrive between Oct. 12 and 14. On the 13th, he landed in Denver.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Zaldivar said. “It’s just like that, a flip of a switch. They decided to take him. And then two years, eight months later, they’re like, OK, we’re going to give him back.” They should have never deported him, she added.
Jorge Zaldivar Mendieta’s case demonstrates the obstacles of a mixed-status family that is trying to obtain citizenship for a loved one through the proper legal channels. Throughout the process, they have been met with inefficiencies and administrative errors, advocates said. Zaldivar Mendieta has no criminal history, and prior to a Trump administration change, immigrants without convictions were not targeted for deportation.
Additionally, it was happening in a state that is often lauded for its “sanctuary” status, with state law preventing local law enforcement and even state agencies from sharing information with ICE unless a judge’s order requires it.
“The vast majority of people in deportation proceedings live in mixed-status families and face a similar web of really difficult choices where there’s no straightforward, guaranteed path that puts that person into permanent residency and citizenship. … Our system is never as simple and straightforward as we would like to believe it is,” said Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee.
The nonprofit has worked with the Zaldivar family, and Piper said like others navigating the system, it’s been a painful, lengthy and costly process for the family.
But attorneys and activists have repeatedly said one aspect that propelled Zaldivar Mendieta’s case into the spotlight further was his biggest advocate: Christina Zaldivar.
In addition to the court cases and the Biden administration’s change on deportation priorities, Piper cited Christina Zaldivar’s work in the immigration advocacy space. She has collaborated with local immigration rights nonprofits and joined a group called “Not One More Deportation,” connecting with other families in similar circumstances. She has advocated for immigrants to state and federal officials, even going to Washington D.C. to talk to congressional staff members.
Zaldivar said the process has inflicted pain and suffering on their kids, and they’re traumatized again as their dad has to go to ICE check-ins and is still in limbo about his status. She’s frustrated that as an American with Indigenous and Spanish heritage and whose family members served and died in the military, she and her family had to go through this.
Her husband hasn’t been able to get a driver’s license since he came back because he can’t prove residency and he doesn’t have a work permit. But despite all of this, she said as long as Zaldivar Mendieta gets to stay with her and their family, she will do whatever it takes to support them, like he has done in the past for them.
“He’s capable and willing to, (so) I shouldn’t have to carry his weight, ” she said. “But I’m willing to do so. My government forced me to become a single parent of suffering children for no good cause. We have plenty of Americans who run away from their responsibilities, and you have these men who are trying to stay and do good. Even without papers, they’re working.”
The father of five said he first entered the U.S. without authorization in 1997 as a young man, and he met and married an American citizen and has citizen children. However, he hasn’t able to obtain legal status due to a series of roadblocks with paperwork, according to his attorney. He came to the attention of immigration authorities after a traffic crash in Jefferson County in 2008.
At the time, Colorado Senate Bill 90 was still in effect, which required local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration officials and report anyone “suspected” of being in the country illegally. The Colorado Legislature repealed the law in 2013.
An immigration judge issued an order to Zaldivar Mendieta for a “voluntary return” to Mexico on July 13, 2011, which he appealed and the Board of Immigration Appeals denied in August 2012. He filed another motion for reconsideration, which the board denied in December 2012.
After more than 15 years of fighting to get legal status and avoid deportation (including 10 requests for deportation stays between Dec. 26, 2012, and Feb. 25, 2019), he and his family agreed that he could be deported to Mexico if he wasn’t coming home. He was being held in the ICE detention facility in Aurora, owned by private prison company The Geo Group, after getting detained in November 2019. The family cited the inhumane conditions at the prison as worse than him being separated from his family and living in a country he no longer knows.
But Christina Zaldivar and attorney Mark Barr continued to fight for Zaldivar Mendieta’s status from afar, taking the case all the way to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. They argued that Zaldivar Mendieta met the requirements to stay in the country and apply for legal residency, particularly because of the extreme hardship his family and a child with medical issues would face without him. However, this type of relief — people who can get their green card for cancelation of deportation — is only provided to 4,000 people in the entire country per year, Barr said.
The Board of Immigration Appeals ultimately agreed that Zaldivar Mendieta could appeal his deportation, but since he was already in Mexico, he was granted humanitarian parole to return to the U.S. He has a hearing scheduled for Dec. 7, but a judge could agree with the joint motion filed and cancel the hearing.
ICE officials did not provide comment on the joint motion.
When Zaldivar Mendieta first saw his family at the airport, he said he was shaking and fighting back tears. He couldn’t believe he was finally home, and he said he was willing to stay in his house for the rest of his life if it means he can be with his family.
If the judge approves the joint motion, the next step will be for Zaldivar Mendieta to apply for his green card. Barr said it’s unclear whether he’ll get it immediately after the judge signs an order or if he’ll have to wait as other applications are awarded first.
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