MARYVILLE, TENN. - Vicente Saldana immigrated to the United States without legal status in 1998 and built a life in Tennessee. The father of five American daughters recently decided to "make things right" by hiring an attorney, paying penalties to the government and following the proper steps to finally obtain legal residence.
The final step turned out to be a surprise stumbling block that has stranded him across the border in Mexico, now denied the ability to return to his family, home and business in the United States. Furthermore, he has been told he is barred from re-entry for 10 years.
Earlier this week, Vicente Saldana flew with his wife, Alicia Wright, and their seven-week-old daughter to Mexico to complete the final step that would allow him to re-enter the U.S. legally. They now say they were given bad advice by the Florida attorney who has since abandoned them.
"The attorney took our money [more than $8,000] and lied to us. He assured us everything would be fine and now they've abandoned us and are not doing anything to help," said Wright. "There were no deportation orders. He immigrated without legal status, but has completely followed the law, paid his taxes and paid penalties to the government. He is such a wonderful father and was trying to do the right thing. We started this process several years ago and left the country voluntarily as part of that process. He is not a gang member, he does not sell drugs, he is not a criminal. He is a loving father who was being honest."
Wright said her husband has remained in the U.S. since entering in 1998 with one exception. At the end of 2002, he briefly returned to Mexico to attend his grandmother's funeral and again re-entered the U.S. without legal status.
That second illegal entry was not on Saldana's paperwork. Saldana claims he told his attorney about the trip to Mexico, but the attorney advised against including it on the paperwork because multiple background checks showed no record of it.
"He was completely honest with his attorney, who said not to put it on the paperwork. He was told it was not a problem. Now he is accused of lying and barred from entering the U.S. for 10 years," said mother-in-law Judy Saldana, who has the same last name because she is married to Vicente's uncle. "He had all of this approved and this was supposed to be the last step to becoming a permanent legal resident in the United States."
The Saldana family hired the law firm of Jorge Rivera in Miami, Florida. Wright said they dealt with the lawyer via telephone, email and mail without ever meeting in-person. She said they were assured they had the proper documentation to cross the border and do the interview at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, directly across the border from El Paso, Texas. As of Thursday night, no one at the Jorge Rivera firm had commented on Saldana's case.
Knoxville attorney Rachel Bonano said choosing the right lawyer in an immigration case is critical to gaining citizenship.
She’s had clients describe the difficult reality of trying to immigrate legally.
"I've had so many clients come to my office and say we've tried to do everything the right way and we tried to do it ourselves and we got accused of lying," she said.
She advises people to investigate any person offering help by visiting state resources and databases listing qualified attorneys.
"If you find an attorney who tells you 'we don't have to put that down on your application, they'll never know about that' yes they will, yes they will,” Bonano said.
In Saldana's case not telling the government about a trip to Mexico has kept him there.
"He should've been advised before he left the country he wouldn't be allowed back because of his departure and return within a 10 year time period,” said Bonano.
"BRING MY DADDY HOME"
Saldana's daughters spent Thursday making posters that ask for his return to the United States. He and his wife say they have a weak internet connection, but were able to connect to video-chat with their daughters in Maryville, Tennessee.
As the daughters took turns showing Vicente their artwork, the family was unable to hold back their tears.
"I just want to be able to go back to my girls. I don't know what to do. I don't think this is fair. I just want to be with my family and take care of my girls. And I know they can find something to make me available to go back. I don't want to be here [in Mexico]. My life is not here. My home and my life is in Tennessee," said Vicente Saldana.
Wright said if there was any doubt her husband was a true Tennessean, people need only hear the name of their youngest daughter.
"My husband, my Mexican husband, wanted to name our daughter 'Dolly' after Dolly Parton because she is from his home and is so generous to other people. We are Tennessee people," said Wright.
WBIR spoke to several people in the Maryville community about Saldana. From all accounts, Saldana has been a hard-working role model and family man who is known at the local elementary school for walking each of his daughters to their classrooms. He is also known for donating his time and money to help children with special needs, an issue close to his heart as he helps care for a niece with Down syndrome.
"People might ask why we don't all just go to Mexico," said Judy Saldana. "That's not fair to his American children or his American wife when he was trying to do the right thing. His family is also more than his immediate family. He helps take care of me and my other children, his brother-in-law and sisters-in-law. He helps so much with my daughter with Down syndrome. We cannot give up the health care she needs in the United States and go live in Mexico."
HASHTAGS & LAWMAKERS
The Saldana family has tried to rally public support with the hashtag #BringVicenteSaldanaHome on social media. Friends and family have contacted the offices of multiple lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan and Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.
The outreach to lawmakers has made minimal impact so far. Corker's spokesperson, Micah Johnson, told WBIR, "Our office is aware of the situation and has been in contact with the family."
Wright said they have also reached out to the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition for help.
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