Everyone called him Don Julio, giving him the courtesy title not only because he was elderly, but because he had dignity, and was unfailingly polite. He came to the US from Mexico when he was already in his late 40s, after his wife died and his children had emigrated. He sold his small piece of farmland to pay for the journey and the smuggler; he couldn’t keep a farm going without his wife’s help. He planned to live near one of his children and work at whatever he could find; he had no grander hopes than mere survival. He believed his true life ended when his wife died.
The US held a surprise for him, though. A year after he arrived in Seattle and found work as a construction laborer, he met 25 year old Diana at his son’s house during a birthday party for his grandson. He was entranced by her quiet self possession and her seriousness; he found her small, neat figure and her shy smile beautiful. She loved his courtly manners and his lean strong looks, and was moved by the way he listened closely to whoever spoke to him. They were both from rural Nayarit, the Mexican state on the Pacific side of the country, and both were in the US without documents.
He got up his courage, feeling like he did when he was 17 and asked his future wife to walk out with him for the first time, and called Diana a week after the party to invite her to a restaurant for a Saturday night dinner. She said yes. He was more nervous than he could remember ever being as he got ready for that evening, and went to pick her up. He berated himself for being an old fool who wouldn’t have the first idea about what to do with a young girlfriend, and a dullard who would have nothing of interest to say. He felt so discouraged that he almost called Diana to cancel, but the memory of his wife’s words came to him. A few weeks before she died, his wife said, “Promise me that you will do your best to enjoy your life; promise me. Our lives are so short….” He hadn’t thought about those words until now. He took it as a sign, his wife’s blessing.
The first date went well, and so did the others. Don Julio and Diana married a year and a half after their first meeting, and had their daughter Lissette a year after that. Three years later, their son Rodrigo was born. Don Julio continued healthy and strong, and worked construction through his early 60s. He then found work as a cashier in a Mexican butcher shop in Burien, a small town south of Seattle, until his late 60s, when he became too tired to stand on his feet all day in the busy shop. Diana insisted that he stop work; she said that her salary as a hotel maid, and Lissette’s earnings at McDonald’s, were enough to keep the family going. Don Julio finally agreed to stop work at the butcher shop, but he did all the family cooking and cleaning and laundry. Diana joked that she lived like a queen at home.
Don Julio now had time to listen to the radio in Spanish in the mornings; his favorite show was a daily news program that had an immigration attorney for a weekly show on immigration law. At least once on each weekly show, someone called in to ask the attorney about immigration options for people who had been victims of serious crime in the US. The attorney would say, yes, if you have been the victim of a crime like domestic violence or a gun or knife attack, and reported the crime to the police, you might be able to get legal status for yourself and your family. The purpose of the U visa, she said, was to encourage undocumented people to report crime to the police, without fear of deportation for doing so. This is so we have a more secure society, for all of us, she said.
Don Julio made up his mind to consult the attorney, and Diana agreed. Years ago, when Lissette was seven and Rodrigo was four, Don Julio suffered a ferocious knife attack in their home, during a Thanksgiving dinner they hosted. One of their guests, a single young man who they had met at their church, suddenly picked up the carving knife and stabbed Don Julio three times in the chest before fleeing. They called the police; an ambulance shortly arrived and took Don Julio to the hospital, where he stayed more than a week, recuperating. The police caught the attacker and charged him with the crime. Don Julio still had shortness of breath due to his scarred lung, but the attack didn’t make them stop inviting guests to dinner.
Don Julio and Diana were both worried about their undocumented status. President Obama had not done what he promised to do to reform the immigration laws and provide a path to legal residence for the country’s 12 million undocumented people. They had neighbors, friends, and Don Julio’s oldest son all who had been arrested by ICE and given voluntary departure, but who had returned to the US again. Diana’s employer, a large hotel chain, had recently begun the process of checking staff social security numbers to verify legal status and permission to work. If she lost her job, only Lissette’s minimum wage job would stand between them and losing their house trailer. It would be two years before Lissette would graduate from community college with her associate’s degree in nursing, and two more years before Rodrigo would graduate from high school.
They went together as a family to the appointment with the attorney, the kids included. The attorney asked a lot of questions about their history in the US, and then said that it sounded as though Don Julio might be eligible for a U visa, for victims of crime, and that Diana would be included in the visa. With the visa, they both would have work permission for three years, after which they could apply for legal permanent residence. It would be a two-step process: first to get the police and the prosecutor to certify that Don Julio had been a victim of the crime of felonious assault, and that he had helped the police in the investigation of the crime; and second to apply for the visa, proving that Don Julio had suffered “substantial harm” as a result of the crime. But the crime happened more than 14 years ago; would the police still have the record and be able to certify that Don Julio helped in the investigation? The attorney said it might not be possible to get police or prosecutor certification, but that she would try for it, if the family was willing. They were.
The attorney submitted the paperwork to the police to begin the process; sometimes police departments take a month or so to respond. A month went by, and still no response. Then, Diana called the attorney. Don Julio had been very ill just in the last few weeks; his doctor did tests, and said that Don Julio had cancer, advanced cancer. “Will I still be eligible for the U visa if my husband dies?” she asked. How very cold and heartless she is, the attorney thought; while her husband is dying, she is focused on herself. Yes, the attorney said, you will be, as long as the police will certify you as a victim as well, since you were by his side when your husband was attacked, and suffered psychological trauma. You also were a witness, and gave your statement to the police.
Over the next few weeks, while the attorney pursued the U certification with the police, Diana called twice more, each time to ask the same question. Each time, the attorney said the same thing: yes, you will qualify as long as the police will certify. At each call, Diana reported that her husband was getting weaker; his cancer was too advanced for chemotherapy, and his only treatment was pain medication. Then, another call to the attorney. This time, it was Lissette, Don Julio’s daughter. My father died yesterday, she said; he insisted nearly every day, since he was diagnosed with cancer that we assure him that my mother would still qualify for the U visa after his death. We told him that she would, but it was so important to him that he made my mother call you several times. Yesterday, before he died, he said that at least he will die happy, knowing that she will qualify.
Don Julio was buried in the US, where he wanted to be. Others had their ashes sent back to Mexico so they could be buried there, but he told Diana that he had a second and happy life here, and wanted to be close to his wife and children, in death as in life. Diana is still waiting for the police or the prosecutor to certify the crime against her, and she is still hopeful. But she knows that the time is coming when her employer will check her status to see if she has work permission. And then? Will Rodrigo have to quit high school to support the family? Will Lissette have to quit college?
To be continued….