Immigrant tattoos draw scrutiny, visa denials

Por en English 12/13/12 11:36am
Courtesy of Madeline Cardenas

Rolando Mora-Huerta married Madeline Cardenas, a U.S. citizen, in the summer of 2008.  Like many loving couples, they support each other through hard times.

“I went to school to get my nursing degree,” Cardenas said. “He was the one working to pay the bills so I could go to school.”

The difference today is, they’re separated, not by choice but by the powers vested in the federal government.

And whether they are able to reunite might depend on how the federal government views Mora’s tattoos.

Mora is a 26-year old Mexican national who came to the United States illegally in 2004 and left on August 29, 2009 after receiving permission for voluntary departure from an immigration judge, according to court records.

After a routine traffic stop June 8, 2008, Mora was placed into deportation proceedings.

The Department of Homeland Security did not at any point allege that Mora was a gang member, and his criminal record (two misdemeanors, for failing to purchase a license and underage drinking) doesn’t suggest such activity.

For Cardenas, it’s been painful to be separated from the man she loves.

“It’s affected both of us emotionally, financially,” Cardenas said. “It’s put a strain on our marriage.”

Cardenas petitioned United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on her husband’s behalf for a visa, which was approved September 29, 2009. Following up on the application, Mora was granted an interview at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez.

He presented himself at the consulate on March 5, 2010 and that’s when he was asked repeatedly by an officer if he was in a gang. Mora kept denying the allegation, according to court records.

The consulate asked him to return three days later.

He did.

At this point officers took photos of his tattoos.

Mora has his parents’ names and birthdates on his body, the letter “M” for Mora, “R” for “Rolando,” a rose for Madeline, and a tattoo of two faces – “one happy and one sad.”

Commonly known as “Smile now, cry later,” the tattoo resembles Comedy and Tragedy masks. He got the tattoo when he was 14 in Mexico.

On July 2, 2010, the consulate denied his visa, asserting that he wanted to return to the United States for gang activity, that he’d been ordered deported (the consulate later revoked this assertion, as Mora has never been ordered deported) and that he’d been unlawfully present in the United States.

The consulate finally provided its evidence that he was a member of a gang in an email written by an unknown consulate officer July 20, 2010:

During Mora’s arrest on June 16, 2008, he had been a passenger in a friend’s car who was “identified as gang associate” in Nampa, Idaho, where Mora lived with his wife.

That, “as well as information gleaned during the consular interview,” gave the consulate “reason to believe” Mora has ties to an “organized street gang,” according to court filings.

As a result of the ruling, Mora is ineligible for a visa and has no recourse for a waiver. That leaves Mora in a precarious situation, shared by many others.

A chart representing the consistent increase over the past five years

According to the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, two immigrants were denied visas due to purported gang affiliation in Fiscal Year 2007. The number of denials has grown every single year since.

There were 124 denials in FY 2011, the most recent year available.

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece this summer about a Colorado man, Hector Villalobos, caught in similar circumstances.

Chicago attorney Mary Goering told us she has a client in limbo due to the happy and sad face tattoos. Cain Oulahan, an attorney in Milwaukee, is handling a case with a Mexican national that he believes is being held up “based on his tattoos and the officers’ false suspicions that they are gang-related.”

Government officials say that tattoos are playing a bigger role in the visa process due to an increased understanding of their role with gangs.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a State Department official this summer saying, “More attention has been paid to tattoos as indicators of a gang affiliation during the visa process” as law enforcement has better understood the relationship between “certain tattoos” and gangs.

Mora’s attorney, Maria Andrade, thinks the increase in denials might be attributed to the Mexican drug war, which began at the time denials started rising, but also to tattoos becoming more mainstream.

“They used to be sort of rare and now everyone has one,” Andrade wrote in an email.

Once Mora’s attorneys received the consulate’s email, they went to work on proving that their client isn’t a gang member. They submitted a letter from the Nampa Police Department indicating Mora has no gang affiliation. Mora’s file also includes a letter from the police department in Mora’s Mexican hometown, Acambaro Guanajuato, pointing out he has no criminal history there. (See the letter from Nampa PD here, and from Acambaro here.)

“After conducting a thorough search of Nampa Police Department records, I have been unable to locate any criminal gang documentation or contacts that would indicate Mr. Mora Huerta was a gang member prior to or at the time of his arrest,” wrote Corporal Brandy Sutherland on September 13th, 2010.

“We figured that letter from the police department eliminates any evidentiary value of that police report [about the friend” said Maria Andrade, Mora’s counsel. “But the only thing remaining was the tattoos.”

Feeling that the Department of State violated his due process rights, Mora and his wife filed a lawsuit against the federal government this past July. (See the document here.)

“I don’t think you’re going to find people in favor of letting gang members into the United States,” Andrade said, “but the broad brush with which they’re denying people is crazy.”

After Mora filed suit against the federal government, the consulate agreed to grant him a second interview, which took place November 7.

The family might not know for months whether the consulate will reverse its prior determination. The ordeal has left Cardenas upset with what she feels is an “injustice.”

“To me, the injustice is that they’re not taking a good look at this case,” Cardenas said. “If they really truly took a deep look at his case and looked at all the evidence, it would show to them that he’s not in a gang.”

Follow Gregory Pratt on Twitter @royalpratt