Iowa JFON celebrates 20 years of service this year.
Merced, client and volunteer, has been with them through nearly all of it.
In 2003, Ann Naffier, legal director for Iowa JFON, discovered that her beloved, beautiful son was autistic. Still a toddler, he would need constant behavioral therapy provided by compassionate and knowledgeable professionals.
Ann instantly thought of Merced, who had been a social worker in Mexico, specializing in the care of children with disabilities.
“I didn’t have a moment’s doubt,” remembers Ann. “I trusted her completely with my child.”
Merced had also been a client. She had come to JFON when she herself was a new mother—her daughter was barely a year old when Iowa JFON started in 1999. Merced had a U.S. citizen brother who wanted to file a petition for alien relative for his sister, and Merced sought Ann’s advice.
The wait time for sibling petitions from Mexico was—and continues to be—more than 20 years. During these years, the risk of deportation would be ever-present. And when the waiting was over, as an undocumented immigrant, she would be required to return to Mexico to get her papers—and be stuck there for 10 years, barred from entering the U.S. during this time.
But Ann had some good news for her, too. As the beneficiary of her brother’s petition, Merced was eligible to apply for an adjustment of status (green card) under section 245(i)—yes, she would still need to wait 20+ years, and she could still be deported at any time, but she would not need to return to Mexico and be forced to live separately from her family for 10 years. She would only need to pay a $1,000 penalty fee.
Unfortunately, section 245(i) is no longer part of immigration law; it expired in April 2001. Merced, with Ann’s guidance, was able to successfully apply in time.
She still had to wait, however. Wait and keep busy.
This was not a problem for Merced. “She has never let her status hold her back from contributing,” says Ann. “She accepts the limitations of being undocumented without being imprisoned by them. She never, ever let it define her.”
Merced had been an active volunteer with her church—Trinity Las Americas—the church that first founded Iowa JFON in Des Moines. She now became an active and extremely reliable JFON volunteer: interpreting, helping with intake forms and DACA applications, managing the phone line, and doing whatever was asked of her.
“I always want to help people,” she says simply. “I am so grateful to be part of an organization that helps people like me, without financial means, to realize their dream of becoming documented.”
In between volunteering and caring for other people’s children, Merced and her husband reared two successful children of her own.
Her daughter, valedictorian for her high school, was accepted into Harvard, but elected to attend the less-financially burdensome University of Iowa and stay closer to home. Her son studies at Iowa State University and hopes to be a high school science teacher.
“We have a good life in Iowa,” says Merced. “It was difficult at first, with no family nearby, but this was best for the children. There is so much violence and insecurity back in Mexico, it’s hard for children to live peacefully there.”
If Merced has one complaint about Iowa, it’s about the long, cold winters.
“In all these years, and I never got used to the snow,” she confesses, smiling. “But it’s the price you have to pay for 22 years of having a good life.”
When Merced’s daughter turned 21 years of age, she immediately petitioned for her mother—with Ann’s help. Merced is currently waiting for her green card and then plans to become a U.S. citizen as soon as she is eligible.
“It’s necessary if you live in this country to have a vote,” she explains earnestly. “You know, I have always worked in the community, participating in marches, advocating for human rights. But the vote…the vote is so much more powerful.”