Jiovanna Campbell was 9 when her uncle killed himself.
Beyond her parents, he was the only family she had known since coming illegally to the U.S. at age 3. Her parents sold everything they owned to take his body back to Mexico, she recalled. They stayed for a few months while her parents coped with the death. Then they returned to the Bay Area, crossing the border illegally with others in a car. Campbell finished high school, enrolled in college, married a U.S. citizen and bought a home.
As Campbell prepared to graduate, she felt she couldn't continue living without legal status in the U.S. Typically, experts say, people like Campbell have a decent shot at getting a visa if they return to their home countries to apply. So, on the advice of a notary public, she went to Mexico to request legal status as the wife of a U.S. citizen.
Once in Ciudad Juarez, Campbell learned that her childhood trip to Mexico meant she would be barred from the U.S. under current immigration laws.
Now she is 24 and seven months pregnant, living in the home of an aunt she barely knows, in a country whose language and medical system she doesn't completely understand.
Because of a little-known provision in a 1996 immigration law, many people who otherwise would be eligible to legalize their status are prohibited from doing so because they left the country and returned. The ban has been applied to those, like Campbell, who left as children with their families, even for short visits. It also has been applied to teenagers who are otherwise eligible to adjust their status, immigration attorneys said.
Immigrant rights advocates say the law unfairly punishes people for decisions over which they had no control. Recently, the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. attempted to challenge the provision with a brief filed with the Board of Immigration Appeals in a case involving a 17-year-old who would be barred from the country. They say consular officials and others misinterpreted a law that Congress never intended to apply to children.
In the tangle of laws, rules and decisions that make up the country's immigration system, contradictions and inconsistencies are common, advocates say. Actions by minors are provided various safeguards within the system, including protections from being excluded for juvenile delinquency. But when it comes to having crossed the border, those safeguards disappear.
Campbell "is the prototypical example of why this is ridiculous," said Stephen Manning, who co-wrote the brief. "What is the point that they're trying to get at? … If you're saying you're trying to get tough on immigrants who are crossing the border illegally, you can't do that for a 9-year-old."
Campbell remembers little about the trip that has so affected her life.
"I remember my uncle was going through a hard divorce and he was living with us at the time," she said. "I remember seeing … my dad crying for the first time."
In Mexico, her father fell into a difficult depression. Her mother enrolled her in a nearby school, where she struggled to keep up, especially when it came to Mexican history. They left after about four months. She was glad to be back in the U.S.
She met Ryan Campbell in high school. Soon after they started dating she told him about her immigration status and asked if it was something he could deal with.
"I loved her," he said. "So I couldn't let anything like that stand in between us."
She enrolled in community college, then transferred to Cal State Stanislaus to study kinesiology. As graduation approached, she said, "I just didn't want to be in the U.S. illegally anymore. I wanted to do things right."
Campbell talked with a notary public, who explained that despite being in the U.S. illegally, she probably would qualify for a waiver to return to the country as the spouse of a citizen. But she had to apply from Mexico.
"I've never worked illegally," she said. "I've never had a job in the U.S. I've never even gotten a ticket. I do community service. I thought my chances were going to be pretty good to be able to get my visa."
At the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, a woman asked her several questions, including whether she'd ever left the U.S. Without having the exact dates in front of her, Campbell mistakenly replied that she'd left for a few months when she was 10 years old. At the end of the interview, the woman handed her a paper that said she was ineligible for a visa. Two weeks after the interview she learned she was pregnant.
The ban applies for 10 years.
Campbell sleeps on an aunt's couch in Toluca, near Mexico City, the nation's capital. News reports make her fearful of going out alone, so she stays inside, reads "What to Expect When You're Expecting" and researches ways to challenge her case. She occasionally visits a local clinic for prenatal care and has begun looking into nearby hospitals to figure out where she might give birth.
"It's just a very scary thing, thinking that I'd have to be out here for at least 10 years before I'm able to apply for a visa again," she said. "We're doing everything we can to be together and provide a good life for our son. But it would be really difficult to do something like that being in different countries."
She holds out for one possibility, based on a technicality, that things might change. When she told the consular official that she left the U.S. when she was 10, it meant that she had been in the country illegally for more than a year after the 1996 law went into effect. Because of that, the trip triggered the 10-year ban. She has since found documentation showing she left a year earlier, meaning the ban wouldn't apply. Consular officials recently promised to review the case.
For many other young immigrants who have crossed the border since the law was passed, there is no such option.
Since Manning, the immigration attorney, filed his brief, at least three people a week have contacted him to say they were in a similar situation.
"The size of the class we're talking about just keeps growing," Manning said.
Attorneys expect to get a ruling on the case later this year.