Deported Oakland nurse wins H-1B visa lottery, will return to U.S.

An Oakland oncology nurse who was deported to Mexico last year will return to her four children in the United States after winning a lottery drawing for an H-1B visa, her attorney said Friday.

Maria Mendoza-Sanchez, 47, and her husband Eusebio became the focal point of a national immigration debate last year when they were deported amid the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. The undocumented couple had steady jobs, no criminal records and three children who had been born in the U.S.

Mendoza-Sanchez had to abandon her job as a registered nurse at Highland Hospital in Oakland, where she cared for patients with cancer, heart, and kidney disease for two years. But she was dealt a lucky hand this summer when her petition for a visa was one of an estimated 85,000 petitions selected in an H-1B lottery.

Under the H-1B program, American companies can hire skilled foreign workers in specialty occupations, such as IT, finance, architecture, engineering, and medicine, where there may be a shortage of suitably trained domestic employees.

A State Department official at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico approved Mendoza-Sanchez’s application this week and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Friday cleared Mendoza-Sanchez to return to the U.S. under an H-1B visa. Buzzfeed News, which followed Mendoza-Sanchez’s journey to Mexico, first reported the decision.

“All the legal hurdles are over,” said Camiel Becker, an Oakland immigration attorney who represented Mendoza-Sanchez during the application process. “We’re celebrating but until that visa is attached to her passport on Monday I also give a little bit of caution.”

Becker said they expect Mendoza-Sanchez will receive her H-1B visa as early as Monday but that it may take a few days to process.

Highland Hospital submitted the visa petition on Mendoza-Sanchez’s behalf earlier this year. The petition requires evidence that proves the position is high-skilled.

The H-1B, intended for jobs requiring specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher, has itself become a flashpoint in America’s immigration debate, with tech companies pushing for an expansion of the annual 85,000 caps on new visas, and critics charging that U.S. firms use it to supplant American workers with cheaper, foreign labor.

“From a medical need perspective, oncology nurses and nurses, in general, are always difficult to find,” said Terry Lightfoot, spokesman for the Alameda Health System, which oversees Highland Hospital. “The fact is her background really helps us as an organization that treats a number of people from different backgrounds — immigrants, undocumented folks. Her ability to communicate in a different language in addition to her skill set makes her a very valuable part of our care team.”

But in addition to her skills was the care she showed for patients, said Lightfoot.

“Even as she was getting closer and closer to her own deportation, she continued to focus on her patients.”

Because Mendoza-Sanchez has several strikes against her — illegally crossing the border with a child, living in the U.S. illegally for more than two decades, and a deportation order — her H-1B visa application would normally have been automatically denied, according to Becker.

But a little-known waiver for applicants of specialized visas like the H-1B cleared those strikes and made it possible for her to return, Becker said. The waiver was recommended for approval by the State Department this week, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made its final decision Friday, allowing Mendoza-Sanchez to return to the U.S.

USCIS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Becker said the heavy media attention and pressure from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, likely caused the government agency to rush its decision.

“If you’re a government officer…you want this off your plate,” he said.

Feinstein, who advocated for Mendoza-Sanchez’s return, called her a “hard-working, devoted mother” and said she was “delighted” that Mendoza-Sanchez will be reunited with her children and will continue to serve her cancer patients.

“I’ve met with Maria and kept in close contact with her children over the past year,” she said in a statement Friday. “It’s been a long road, and today they are one step closer to being reunited. Given the importance of family unity and Maria’s contributions to her community, I’m pleased this wrong is finally being rectified. This is the kind of common sense and compassion our immigration system desperately needs more of.”

Mendoza-Sanchez said she arrived in Oakland from Mexico in 1994 when she was young and in love. She began working in a nursing home, where she was promoted several times, then studied to become a nurse. Eusebio had started working in construction and later graduated to become a truck driver for the last 12 years.

After years of trying to obtain green cards to stay in the U.S. legally, their requests denied by immigration judges then overturned through appeals, their luck finally ran out in May 2017 when an immigration officer gave them 90 days to exit. By August, they were on a flight to Mexico City, despite national outrage over their deportation.

The couple left behind their three oldest children in the U.S.: Vianney, 24, Melin, 22 and Elizabeth, 17. Though they originally took their youngest son, Jesus, 13, with them to Mexico, he has since joined his sisters back in Oakland.

Her husband, Eusebio, would stay in Mexico if her visa is approved, Becker said.

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