Many people who are undocumented have no legal pathway to residency, so it was great news when some Mexican friends of ours discovered a pathway open to them. They immediately contacted an attorney, who had to dash their hopes. They did indeed qualify to begin the residency process, but it would be 22 years before their case could be considered. US immigration policy requires undocumented people to get in line—in some cases a very long line.
Another friend, Axel, was fortunate to qualify for a shorter line, albeit one fraught with heavy expense and high-stakes risk. His story began in a home of twigs carefully woven like a basket around poles planted in the Guatemalan earth. As a child, playing on the dirt floor of his home, he was unaware of the ominous forces that would curtail his options and limit his opportunities. He may have feared the forces that caused the nearby volcano to rumble on occasion, but another source would prove far more disruptive. Powerful players like the US-owned United Fruit Company conspired with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to overthrow a popular, democratically elected, Guatemalan government.
This CIA intervention was disastrous for the people of Guatemala. Following the coup, a series of repressive governments secured power by means of genocide against indigenous peoples and the infamous “disappearances” of suspected political dissidents. A few years into this repression a civil war broke out that endured for 36 years and was still raging when Axel was learning to walk and talk.
To escape the insecurity that lingered in the aftermath of this war, Axel migrated to the United States. Ironically, even though the US played a major role in creating the problems that caused him to migrate, he was the one labeled as “illegal.” For 17 years living in the US, he hid in the shadows, undocumented and without status. Despite the difficulties of navigating life without documents, Axel was able to earn enough money to help his parents—who were still back in Guatemala—build a new cinder block home with a real concrete floor.
Axel, his American wife Lisa, her two children, and their child found a warm welcome at West Charleston Church of the Brethren. At our church, he encountered a positive spiritual force that would have great impact on his life. The church has opened its doors to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Honduran immigrants and asylum seekers, and offers a bilingual worship experience.
Axel’s faith in Christ has grown as he has experienced the welcoming love of the church. With the support of his family and the church, he decided to begin the difficult and expensive trek through a mountain of obstacles to seek legal residency.
He and his wife were growing increasingly fearful of the risk of being separated by deportation. They lived with the constant stress of knowing that any little mistake, such as a minor traffic violation or even working—since undocumented persons are not permitted to work—could result in exposure and deportation proceedings. With some church assistance, $6,000 in attorney’s fees and legal costs were paid to finance the years of legal process involved in building a case for legal residency for Axel.
When these preparations were completed, his attorney felt Axel was ready to take the required step of moving to “the back of the line.” This would involve returning to his home country for a residency interview. This was a frightening requirement because there is no guarantee that those who take this step will be allowed to return to their homes in the United States.
The US Embassy in Guatemala City set the interview date for the worst of possible times, near the due date for the birth of Axel and Lisa’s second child. For weeks, they agonized over whether or not to go forward with the interview. If Axel went for the interview in Guatemala, he would not be home for the birth of his child. Worse, his return home could end up being delayed or denied altogether.
They decided to go forward, asking their co-pastors to accompany them, while the church prayed. I would go to Guatemala with Axel, and my wife would go to the hospital with Lisa for the birth of their child.
Axel stepped onto the plane with a one-way ticket, holding onto the little metal cross his wife had given him. He was taking an all-or-nothing risk, and for this reason he hadn’t slept well for months. He had with him the two-inch-thick stack of legal documents prepared and organized in an expandable folder. He hoped he would return home soon, as a US resident. He feared never being allowed to return to see his newborn son and family.
After 17 years away, he was greeted at the Guatemala City airport by family in an emotional reunion. His mother, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and cousins were all there with tears and laughter for hugs and pictures. One of the many costs of living without documents is not being able to leave the country to visit family. For this reason, Axel had never seen two of his brothers and a sister born after he left Guatemala.
Life conditions in Guatemala are harsher than Axel remembered. His sister and her family, with whom he would stay for his visit, wash their clothes by hand. Their roof leaks when it rains. There is no sink in the kitchen and the toilet has to be flushed with a bucket of water. Axel helped them dismantle an old worn-out box springs to salvage firewood for cooking a pot of salsa.
Axel’s first appointment in Guatemala City was with a US government-approved medical clinic. He was suffering severe stress-induced headaches and an unsettled stomach, but the clinic would not treat these symptoms of the residency process. It would instead assess whether or not his physical health met US residency standards. He was given required vaccinations. Lab tests and x-rays were ordered. His blood pressure was taken and, alarmingly, it was not within approved limits for US residency! Yes, a person must have have normal blood pressure to quality for US residency. We spent an afternoon trying to help him relax enough to get a normal blood pressure reading. By late afternoon he got through this first crisis by passing a second blood pressure screening. His “clean bill of health” medical results were sealed for delivery to the US embassy.
Heavily congested traffic in Guatemala City makes travel across town tedious and time consuming. On the day of Axel’s interview, we got at up 3:30 a.m. to get to the embassy in time for the all-important 7:30 a.m. interview. Axel checked, double-checked, and triple-checked his documents as he anxiously waited to enter the embassy alone. Pastors and other supporters are not allowed to accompany those being interviewed.
Upon entering through tight security, Axel was interviewed in a prison-like arrangement, standing before one of a series of glass windows. He had to try to tune out the interviews taking place to his left and right as he tried to hear his interviewer through the poor-quality speaker. He began telling his story, but the interviewer stopped him and told him point-blank that he didn’t care.
The harsh attitude of the person conducting the interview soon had him so shaken that his hands were trembling. This made it hard to locate needed documents, further increasing the impatience of his interviewer. More troubling, he was told his Guatemalan passport—which was due to expire in four months—was unacceptable. The US government requires a passport good for at least six months.
His case was declared pending until a new Guatemalan passport and other documents could be produced. Axel left the embassy with a heavy heart and expressed in tears his profound grief and fear.
Thus began several frantic and futile days of trying to get his passport quickly renewed. To renew the Guatemalan passport, Axel learned he first had to have a valid Guatemalan government-issued identification card (DPI). Worse, he learned that it usually takes a month or more of background checks and data verification before a DPI card can be issued. All the needed paperwork and applications were completed. Days grew into weeks of delays. I had to return home, leaving Axel behind to face an uncertain outcome.
Members of the West Charleston church continued to pray and provide financial support, knowing that the costs and stakes involved in this process were enormous. On top of the initial $6,000 investment in attorney’s fees and legal costs, it was estimated that the trip to Guatemala and related requirements were adding up to nearly $5,000 of additional expense. The longer Axel’s return was delayed, the higher the cost would be. The additional costs included the airline tickets, paying for required medical tests, US embassy interview fees, DPI and passport renewal fees, ground transportation, international phone communications, food, and—significantly—the hidden cost of lost employment income for the duration of the process.
Axel was fortunate to have a sister living in Guatemala City; otherwise he also would have had hotel and restaurant costs. If for some reason the process would be delayed for months, as happens in many cases, costs like lost work time begin to escalate. In addition, there are other things that take a toll beyond the monetary valueseparating a family and subjecting them to such anxiety and uncertainty. Of course, the suffering may be worth it in such a highstakes gamble if residency is gained in the end.
The anxiety suffered by Axel’s family during these setbacks pushed them near the breaking point. In the midst of it all, baby Noah Axel was born. Far away in Guatemala City, Axel heard the first cries of his child by phone.
A long month passed, but finally and fortunately all the residency requirements were met and Axel received a visa for his return home. A green card would soon follow. He held his newborn baby for the first time when he stepped off the plane in a US airport. “He is beautiful,” he said.
Axel’s story has been eye-opening for the members of the West Charleston Church. Most had no idea what people have to go through to obtain legal status in this country, if they even get that far. But one thing is certain: spiritually life-transforming experiences and profoundly meaningful relationships in Christ are being formed as this congregation tries to put in practice the teaching of Jesus to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.”
In loving, the congregation has tapped into the power of God to overcome ominous forces and generate blessing. Thanks be to God.
Irvin Heishman has been serving as co-pastor of West Charleston Church of the Brethren in Tipp City, Ohio, with his wife, Nancy Sollenberger Heishman. The couple are former mission workers for the Church of the Brethren, having served for several years in the Dominican Republic.