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How long is legal route to Utah? It could be 58 years for mom

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Celeste Galbraith | Courtesy From left to right: Cindy Sigua, Carolina Pangilinan, Corazon Espinosa, Celeste Galbraith, Fides Bondoc, and Teena Jensen.

By Lee Davidson

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Sep 21 2013 01:01AM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:34PM

Corazon Espinosa, 66, has struggled more than half her life — a frustrating 35 years — trying to immigrate legally to join her Filipino family in Utah. Every Sunday, she knew she was missing another family gathering with food, jokes and laughter. She missed marriages, births and deaths.

It especially hurts her knowing that she could be a legal resident now if her mother — her immigration sponsor — had lived just five months longer, until government officials had approved her application after a 16-year wait.

It was only one of many frustrations.

Her earliest application was voided because she got married. Immigration officials could have granted waivers to help her, but refused. If she had immigrated illegally, other rules would have made her a legal resident by now. Then there was the application that the government lost, causing a decade-long delay.

Immigration officials now tell her the best way to join the 76 members of her extended family in Utah permanently and legally would be to start the process over again — which would take an estimated 23 years more. She would be 89.

"I cannot comprehend why others who took the back door in getting to the USA have more chances than I, who have done all legal measures," Corazon says from Australia, where she now lives. "I am not happy at the immigration process now in place. I wish it could be more humane and compassionate."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has been trying to help Corazon, says her experience shows the system is broken.

"If we don’t fix legal immigration, how will we ever solve illegal immigration? We have a higher moral obligation to try to help those who try to enter legally than those who don’t."

Corazon’s Utah attorney, Ernest Messerly, says her treatment at the hands of the U.S. government has been "unconscionable, even inhumane."

Try • Corazon began trying to immigrate to the United States in 1978. She was sponsored by her mother, Zenaida Sigua. Sigua tried to sponsor her husband and all seven of her children living abroad after she had immigrated following the marriage of one daughter to a U.S. citizen while attending BYU-Hawaii.

Corazon — living up to her name, which means "heart" in Spanish — had immigrated to Australia in 1976 for a secretarial job. She says she hoped to help her family out of poverty and assist "my younger siblings get a better education. I have lived away from them ever since."

Although she would become an Australian citizen, U.S. immigration considers her Filipino because of her birth. That put her in much longer country-specific waiting lines for an immigration visa.

In 1979 at age 32, Corazon was married after her Filipino boyfriend went to Australia to join her. That voided her first petition because, as Messerly says, rules allow legal permanent residents, like Corazon’s mother, to sponsor only unmarried children. U.S. citizens, however, can also sponsor their married children.

Try • Zenaida Sigua became a U.S. citizen in 1984 and filed a new application for her now-married daughter.

"But the file was lost," says Jennifer Andelin, an aide to Chaffetz. "They found it years later, after we were insistent" and a more serious search was conducted.

However, Andelin says the current file is incomplete. After it was found, immigration officials said Corazon’s mother had never sent in requested documents — so the application must have been denied. However, Andelin notes that the file contains no denial letter. And she says the mother was meticulous with her immigration applications and record-keeping.

"So it’s hard to believe she didn’t do it in this case. But it is considered denied," Andelin says, even after requests for reconsideration by Chaffetz.

Without knowing the file was lost, Corazon waited patiently thinking she was in line for immigration. In 1993, she received a letter from the U.S. consulate in Sydney, Australia, saying that the long-awaited time to move on her application had arrived. It asked her to complete and send a form.

She did, but soon received a letter saying she was denied — because she was married.

It turned out that the consulate was acting on the first petition, which Corazon knew was invalid because she was married. Immigration claimed no other petition had ever been filed. "I was devastated," Corazon says.

Try • Not knowing what else to do, Corazon’s mother sponsored a third application in 1994 and on Nov. 9, 2010, officials sent Corazon a letter saying she was finally eligible for immigration.

"I would have jumped with joy if I received this news when my mother was still alive," but Sigua had died five months earlier, Corazon says. She realized that when an immigration sponsor dies, the application expires with them.

"Rather than joy and happiness, it turned into frustrations and disappointments," she says.

A recent change in the law, says Messerly, allows immigration applicants to continue the process after the death of a sponsor — but only if the prospective legal resident already lives in the country.

"Many of those who will benefit" from that law "have been living illegally in the U.S. while waiting for the petitions to become ‘current.’ Whereas, Corazon has always faithfully left the U.S. in a timely manner, never overstaying her visitor status," he would later write to immigration officials.

And try again • Corazon applied for a humanitarian reinstatement of this application, with Messerly arguing that her troubled history of attempted legal immigration deserved consideration.

The attorney also noted that Corazon had a stroke in 2004, and "she would greatly benefit [from] being close to her siblings, many of whom are considerably younger." Additionally, he said Corazon and her husband had purchased a house in Utah and that the two had sufficient income to assure they would not be a drain on the public treasury.

Officials denied the application.

Rosemary Langley Melville, director of U.S. Customs and Immigration Service, listed several reasons, including that Corazon "has lived in Philippines since birth and has never resided in the United States."

The denial also acknowledged Corazon’s poor health but said her application failed to establish "the unavailability of treatment in the Phillipines."

Messerly notes that Corazon has lived in Australia since 1976, so officials appear not to have read their own files. Finally, the denial said Corazon had failed to prove that the long and repeated delays in her application were the fault of the government.

"A favorable decision is to be given only to an alien when compelling factors exist. Such has not been established.... There is no appeal to this decision."

Effects • Corazon’s sister, Celeste Galbraith, describes some results of the 35-year runaround. Memories of one was prompted by a photo of the large extended family taken this past Memorial Day at the grave of a niece who died giving birth to her sixth child. Everyone is in the picture — except Corazon.

"Corazon was so brokenhearted she could not be with the family to grieve with us," Celeste says.

It brings back memories of when their mother died three years earlier.

"If they had approved [Corazon’s application] she would have been here when our mother was alive. That never happened," she said.

Instead, Corazon only occasionally visited and missed almost all of the big family gatherings every Sunday in her mother’s house in Orem — the one Corazon and her husband had purchased. "It was small. But my mother cooked dinner every Sunday, and we piled in there on top of each other, except for Corazon. We missed her."

The weekly gatherings have since continued at another sister’s home.

Chaffetz’s office pressed the immigration agency’s ombudsman for help, but was eventually told nothing could be done. It has since asked a different agency branch to take another look at the case, which is ongoing.

Chaffetz said in the meantime he is preparing to introduce a private relief bill to allow Corazon to immigrate, although such bills rarely pass.

"It may literally take an act of Congress to help her," Chaffetz says. "I want to help solve her problem, but think we also need to solve the problem that is the current immigration system."

Desires • Despite the seemingly endless string of disappointments over the years, Corazon is still eager to immigrate.

"I feel that I need to be with my family as I grow older because living close to them makes me happy. I want to be with them always. I want them to feel I love them."

She has enjoyed visits, but says they become bittersweet because she realizes how much she misses her family and how much has happened in her family’s lives while she has been away from them.

"I would have enjoyed the company of my mother while she was still alive. I would have been enjoying the Sunday get-together of the family at my mother’s house. I have missed a lot of my family … whether sad or happy events."

She adds, "The thought of having my siblings near keeps me going regardless of problems and sorrows that come my way. Being with them every day will compensate for the many years I have been away from them."

She concludes, "I want that we all will live close to each other until our final rest. Speaking of final resting, I want to be eternally rested next to my father and mother [in Utah]. Being with my family is my ultimate happiness."

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