Southern California immigrant with DACA status travels to Mexico so he can become a legal permanent resident. But instead of getting the OK for a green card, he’s prevented from re-entering U.S.
Jose Palomar packed only a small suitcase because he thought his trip to Mexico would be brief.
Seeking legal permanent residency, he had no choice but to go. But now, nearly two months later, he’s still in Mexico and barred from returning to his home in the United States.
The hold-up: Palomar admitted that he previously used marijuana, which is legal in California but isn’t under federal law.
The 26-year-old Corona resident, who grew up in Anaheim, has temporary legal status in the United States. He’s married to a U.S. citizen and is the father of American children. He traveled to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in June only to fulfill certain requirements needed to be granted a green card, which would identify him as a permanent U.S. resident.
Christine Palomar, 29, at her home in Corona on Thursday, July 11, 2019, shows a wedding day photo taken on Valentine’s Day 2014 with her husband Jose and daughter Emily. Jose, who has temporary legal status under DACA and is married to a U.S. citizen, traveled to Mexico as part of the process to become a legal permanent resident but when he admitted to immigration authorities to having used marijuana in the past, he was denied re-entry. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Part of that process involved a physical. And, during that exam, Palomar was asked whether he had ever used any illegal substance. He answered truthfully: He used to smoke weed.
That answer put the brakes on his residence application – and on the life he’s built in Southern California.
The government has denied his request for a green card and refused him re-entry into the country where he’s lived almost all his life.
“Right now, I’m in a strange world,” Palomar said in a phone interview from Mexico.
Palomar is not alone. There is considerable confusion over marijuana use and its implications on immigration.
“It happens all the time,” said Los Angeles immigration attorney Ally Bolour, a board member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Palomar was 6 when he arrived in the United States.
He grew up in Anaheim, where he said he worked hard to learn English and earn As in school. He went to Sunkist Elementary, then Sycamore Junior High and later graduated from Anaheim High. He tried out for the basketball team but wasn’t tall enough, so he stuck with soccer and made it to the school’s junior varsity team.
In 2012, as soon as he learned about a then-new immigration program called DACA – or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – he applied. Because he’d been a child when he was brought into the country illegally, he qualified for the DACA protections advocated by then President Barack Obama.
Since then, Palomar has renewed his DACA status three times. That has allowed him to legally live and work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation hanging over him.
At about the time he was learning about DACA, Jose Palomar met Christine. He thought she was cute, and the feeling was mutual. Soon, they started dating.
She had two children already, but that didn’t scare him off.
“I literally fell in love with the kids as well,” Palomar said.
They married about two years later, on Valentine’s Day. They had a baby of their own by then, Emily, and they’ve since had another baby girl, Melanie, who is six months old. The older kids, April and Joshua, are now pre-teens and Palomar said he considers them his children as well.
Palomar worked in construction. But when his wife got a promotion, in advertising sales, he took a night job at a warehouse, freeing him for child-care during the day.
Five years of marriage passed and Palomar qualified to apply for a green card. Once he gets that, he can later apply to become a naturalized American.
“I have bigger goals,” Palomar said. “I want to become a citizen.”
Telling the truth
Palomar admits to having smoked pot, though it’s been awhile.
Christine Palomar, meanwhile, never really approved. She doesn’t even like the fact that, two years ago, California voters approved the recreational use of cannabis.
So, while getting ready for his trip and a physical in Mexico, Jose Palomar said he’d stopped smoking pot almost three months before leaving. Not just because of his upcoming test, he said, but because he was looking to stop altogether.
To make sure the drug was out of his system, he tested himself – four times.
“Every test came out negative,” Christine Palomar said.
Still, he was advised by his attorney that when asked anything he should answer truthfully. So he did.
“I admitted to have used (marijuana) in the past,” Palomar said. “I was told by my lawyer that during the process in Juarez to speak about nothing but the truth as it would hurt me to lie. So I was honest, but apparently it still affected my case.”
Refusing to lie meant he lost his I- 601 waiver, the paperwork that would allow Palomar to re-enter the country.
“Does the government want us to be truthful, or does the government want us to lie?” Christine Palomar asked.
“If you’re truthful, look what happens. (But) if you lie, you can still get in trouble,” she added. “It’s not fair.”
The use of cannabis for medical purposes is now legal in 33 states plus the District of Columbia. Eleven states, including California, and D.C., allow recreational use of the drug. But for immigration – which follows federal laws – marijuana presents a thorny issue.
“You can’t use it. You can’t work in a dispensary. And even if you’re a U.S. citizen working in the cannabis industry and your income is cannabis related, that income is not eligible to satisfy the affidavit of support to become a sponsor,” said Bolour, the L.A. immigration attorney.
“You won’t get a visa. You won’t get a green card. You won’t get a waiver,” he added. “It happens a lot.”
The Immigrant Legal Resource Center advises non-U.S. citizens to not use marijuana or work in marijuana shops. The San Francisco-based organization also warns immigrants against carrying a medical marijuana card, keeping text messages on their phones that might connect them to marijuana, or even wearing a t-shirt that bears a pro-pot image.
According to a January 2018 advisory from the center: “A real danger posed by state legalized marijuana is that immigrants will wrongly believe that it is ‘safe’ to disclose apparently lawful conduct to federal officials, when in fact this can result in catastrophic immigration consequences.”
That’s why the center says immigrants should be advised that “there are very few instances when it is advisable to admit to having possessed or committed other conduct relating to marijuana.” It is better to decline to answer the question, even if it means a denial, according to the advisory.
‘Bar is extremely low’
In the case of Jose Palomar, it’s unclear whether government officials are claiming he tested positive for marijuana or if they’re relying solely on his honest responses.
“Even if they admitted to drug use just once, say back in high school, it makes them inadmissible to the federal government,” said Bolour, who is not representing Palomar but has seen similar situations.
“The panel physician may determine – at their discretion – that the applicant is an abuser. They will relay the information to the visa office, which will result in a finding of inadmissibility based on drug use and/or trafficking, depending on other facts,” Bolour said.
“The bar is extremely low for such a finding.”
That may be just what happened in Palomar’s case.
The U.S. Consulate office in Ciudad Juarez reported that a doctor established that Palomar was a drug abuser or addict, according to the office of Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who is looking into the case at the request of Christine Palomar. Calvert’s office said such cases are determined by medical tests and the applicant’s statements. In this case, no evidence was presented by the Consulate office that Jose Palomar tested positive.
“This is the first incident in my Congressional district that’s been brought to my attention where an immigrant has had their legal status impacted, at least in part, because of the conflicting legal classification of marijuana under state and federal law,” Calvert said in an e-mailed statement.
“I think this situation only further underscores the inherit problems with the contradictory legalization of marijuana. Until something is passed to change the federal classification of marijuana, individuals, businesses and even state/local governments should be mindful that the use, distribution and sale of marijuana continues to be crime in the eyes of all federal agencies,” Calvert wrote.
Calvert’s office is looking to see what waiver options may be available to allow Jose Palomar to return home.
Meanwhile, Christine Palomar said she’s at a loss without her husband.
“I’m all alone. My in-laws were helping me, but they will be leaving… I can’t do this by myself,” she said, choking back tears.
“I cry myself to sleep every night.”
Jose Palomar, in a separate interview, also broke down as he described his life in Guadalajara. He’s living with a relative he doesn’t know well, and in a country where he has to use Google to translate words he doesn’t remember in Spanish.
“I miss my family,” he said. “And I can tell they’re struggling without me.
“I have never been unemployed. I (pay) my taxes,” he added. “I did everything like every other American. And when this happened, it crushed me.”
“Because of that one thing, I’ve basically lost my family.”
Christine Palomar says this of her husband: “He’s an American…He doesn’t know anything about Mexico.
“This is crazy this is happening.”
Unless he finds some option, Jose Palomar stands to stay in Mexico for at least a year, possibly many more.