As immigration lawyers our focus is almost always on bringing people—workers, family members, clergy or artists—to the U.S. But immigration goes in all directions. In this original blog post we share the experiences of former PB&L paralegal Sonia Molinar who moved to Mexico last September after marrying a Mexican man and making a family with him and his two children. This is her version of the Immigrant Experience, of relocating to a new country and culture and tangling with the bureaucracy of the Mexican Immigration Service. Please note that all views expressed are Sonia’s.
Immigration, Mexico Style, Part One
The Cancun immigration office consists of a small compound of several small offices on a busy street. A block of rows of connected plastic chairs sits outside with a backdrop of constant traffic whizzing by. People of all ages fill the seats and more mill around, in outfits varying from very prim and proper to provocative. A women sets up her makeshift stand of tamales and sodas in front of the block of seats, as if a maestro preparing to direct her orchestra.
There’s a young rent-a-cop with a crew cut at the door to the main office screening people before letting them in. My husband explains that we’re here to inquire about filing the papers for my temporary resident card. The rent-a-cop gruffly tells us to go inside and take a seat at the back of another block of connected chairs.
The office is tiny for as many people as are in it. The rows of chairs are so close together that my knees are almost flush up against the back of the chair in front of me. My husband Marco cuts his foot through his shoe on the sharp, rough edge of the base of the row of chairs while struggling to squeeze ahead to the next row. There are approximately 10 chairs per row, and we’re at the back of the 6th row or so. There’s no standing allowed, and anyone who tries to stand is quickly reproached by the rent-a-cop and ordered to take a seat or wait outside.
But at least there’s air conditioning. The December weather is a balmy 80 degrees with 100% humidity, so I’m much more comfortable waiting inside than out. And we’re all just waiting to get up to the standing part of the line for the Information Desk. If we were ready to turn in documents today, we would then get a number for the Document Submission desk, but we’re strictly doing reconnaissance today; the website is not the most intuitive, or clear about the requirements for the application. And although my visa is good until March, we got married in November and want to get the paperwork going before the fees increase after the New Year.
In my previous life, I was an immigration paralegal in Portland, Oregon, so this is all very amusing to me. I came to Puerto Morelos for a week’s vacation in February of 2015, and met my now husband Marco Antonio, and two stepchildren, Ian Carlo and Anaeli on my first day here. And that was that; I fell in love with the three of them. No one was more surprised than I at the turn of events; at 47, single and childless by choice, it was the last thing I expected to happen to me.
Of course, I immediately assumed that Marco would jump at the chance to come with the kids to the States; I mean I had worked for five years with immigrants from Mexico that sacrificed everything to get there. A big part of my job was to find every terrible story and damning statistic about how awful Mexico was, and what a hardship it would be for an American citizen or permanent resident spouse to relocate to Mexico. And plenty of research about the sad state of the Mexican education system. But Marco just said “But, I thought you’d want to move here.”
But Puerto Morelos is a charming, small (if growing) tourist town, located between Cancun and Playa del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera. Besides the occasional barking dogs and birdsong, Villas Morelos II, the neighborhood where they live on the other side of the tracks, is quiet and peaceful. Not a lot goes on, but you can walk around in safety and leave your bike outside without a lock for reasonable periods of time. After spending a week and half with them in their humble abode, and after a few strongly worded emails from my friend Mary who has lived in Mexico for over 10 years, I realized that it made a lot more sense for me to make the move. The kids were young, 13 and 9 at the time, and were both amazingly well-adjusted and happy despite the chaos of having being raised by a single father. They joked about the time they ate nothing but potato chip sandwiches for a week, or bathed in cold water because the electricity was turned off, or watched the original Star Wars saga on video over and over again until Ian Carlos, the younger of the two, memorized all the lines and Anaeli resorted to hiding the videotapes. Marco turned all the shortages and tribulations into games and inside jokes, and instead of complaining about what they didn’t have or what they would like to have or what other kids had, they seemed to just be actually content with what they did have.
All this aside, Marco has his Master’s in Education, and he had raised them to be inquisitive learners, and to set and achieve goals. Both excelled in school. Anaeli had been taking gymnastics since she was four, and now competed on a national level, and Ian Carlo was working toward receiving his black belt in Tae Kwon Do in December. So, despite all the struggle, they led rich lives. To paraphrase my friend Mary, how in the hell could I even consider uprooting them from this beautiful environment when I spoke Spanish and could live and work here? “You won’t make as much money as in the States, but you don’t need as much money either,” she pointed out.
So this is how nine months later, I found myself in this alternate reality of my past life, sandwiched between my new spouse and a sea of humanity looking for a fresh start (or at least a fighting chance) in Mexico.
The odd game of musical chairs advanced slowly but steadily and after an hour or so, we made it to the exciting point of being in the standing part of the line, near the door where we had come in. Mr. Crew Cut was apparently on break, because new people were entering the office and would immediately just stand behind us, assuming that it was the end of the line. It didn’t take two seconds before the front row of seated people would loudly let them know that the back of the line was back THERE.
When we finally got up to the counter, we were greeted by a serious but polite young woman dressed in an army green puffy vest with the Mexican immigration logo on it. She answered all our questions efficiently, and even went through the list of application requirements with us, double underlining and placing stars what she deemed to be the important parts. The application was a two-step process, and the first part was essentially applying for permission to apply. She gave us the list along with a form for us to take to the bank to make the payment of P1,120 pesos, at the time roughly $66 USD, and return the bank payment form with our documents and application which we would fill out online. Once I had been “approved”, I would pay a second fee and complete the second step which involved supplying photos and having my fingerprints taken. We thanked her for her help, and I shoved the papers into my folder as quickly as possible to make way for the advancing tide of applicants.
We fought our way back through the throng to the exit door. There seemed to be even more people in there than when we started. The abrupt change from air conditioning to mugginess was a disappointment for me, but welcomed by my hot-blooded husband who breathed in the hot air with a sigh of relief. The block of chairs outside was mostly empty, but there were still a lot of people waiting. The woman selling tamales was doing brisk business. An older black man in a worn business suit spoke heatedly on his cell phone, gesticulating at the caller with his tattered briefcase. A pale, drugged out girl in a royal blue sateen night shirt and teetering on ridiculously high heels, hung from both arms around her boyfriend’s neck while he smoked a cigarette. No one seemed to give me a second look, but I wondered what I would look like to them if they had.