When Jose Garcia’s wife applied for her green card in 2007, the couple thought they had a straightforward case.
Jose’s wife, Griselda, would go to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico for her visa interview, and she would return to their home in Hood River a few weeks later with her residency. But things didn’t go quite as planned.
In 2009, Griselda’s visa was denied, and she was barred from returning to the U.S.
For Garcia, who is a U.S. citizen, being separated from his wife and daughter was just the beginning of the story. The separation took a dark turn that he never anticipated.
This is how Jose Garcia, 28, visits with his wife, Griselda, and their two children — Yaquelin, who’s 8, and Sergio, who’s one-and-a-half. He sits at his kitchen counter watching a pixelated Skype screen.
Garcia asks Yaquelin about her homework. Sergio toddles across the screen in diapers. When I ask if he’s talking yet, Garcia’s not sure. He asks his wife.
“Ya habla el niño?” Garcia asks.
“No, todavia, no! Todavia no habla,” she answers.
Garcia says it has been difficult to be separated from his family for nearly five years. He misses his wife and his daughter, and he barely knows his son. He’s gone to counseling for depression.
But he never could have guessed how much more difficult things would get. In January of this year, while en route to visit his family in Mexico, Garcia says he was kidnapped and held for three weeks while family members in both countries scrambled to raise his $150,000 ransom.
Garcia’s family never reported the crime to U.S. law enforcement or State Department; an uncle in Mexico says he reported the kidnapping to police there, but they took no action.
OPB could not independently verify Garcia’s story. But family members and friends corroborate some of the details. Experts in Mexico say kidnappings there are routinely under-reported because families fear reprisals.
Stephen Manning, Garcia’s attorney says, “It’s a total tragedy and it was and is completely avoidable.”
He’s been working with the Garcias since 2010. He says Griselda’s visa should have been approved and argues the consular officer in Ciudad Juarez misread a document. The officer believed she had previously left the U.S., which would trigger a bar that prevents her from returning for at least ten years.
Manning says Griselda has affidavits from doctors — as well as pay stubs — that prove she never left. But the evidence hasn’t helped.
“Consular officers see many people.They’re humans, and they make mistakes. The system, however, is not designed to correct mistakes,” Manning says.
In fact, it’s not even designed to review mistakes. That’s because of something called the “Doctrine of Consular Non-Reviewability.” This means consular officers’ decisions are final and there is no process for appeal — aside from, Manning says, essentially pleading with the officer to reconsider.
The Garcias did make a plea, with the help of U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.
Merkley’s office says a casework team spent more than a year corresponding with officials at the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez – trying to help Garcia and his family.
A State Department spokesperson said she could not comment specifically on the case, but Manning says they did convince the officer to take another look. Still, the officer didn’t change the decision.
“And now the officer is engaging with peoples’ lives, totally disrupting peoples’ lives, subjecting this family to a permanent separation because he or she doesn’t want to look through the papers,” Manning says.
But the biggest disruption to Garcia’s life began last January. He flew into Guadalajara, Mexico and rented a car to drive to see his family, as he’d done many times before. But as he drove down the highway this time, he says, he noticed that he was being followed by a pickup truck full of armed men.
“I thought that they were following somebody and they were making me just pull over out of the road so they can continue because it was two-way,” Garcia recalls.
But when Garcia stopped, he says, they also stopped. He says masked men pulled him out of his car at gunpoint.
“They just said, ‘Get out of the car and follow our orders.’ And then they took me into the back of the pickup truck. They covered me with a blanket. And then, I calculate we drove for two hours into this place. And then we got to the place. They pulled me out of the pickup. Their faces all covered up so I didn’t know who they were. All of them were carrying long rifles. I was handcuffed, and then my face got covered with something. I don’t know what it was, but I couldn’t see where I was,” Garcia says.
Once they arrived at their destination, Garcia says he was handed a cell phone and given orders.
“Call one of your relatives that could help you the most, and tell him that we want two million pesos for your life. If not, then we’re going to kill you.”
Garcia called his brother in Hood River. He told him he was kidnapped — to sell all of his possessions and to borrow money from friends and family.
Garcia thinks he was spared the worst abuses by his captors because he was being held for money.
But he says others held near him weren’t as lucky. He couldn’t see anything for himself because of the blindfold. But he says it sounded as though other captives were being beaten. He believes one of them was murdered in an adjacent room. He says he heard a gunshot. Then he heard his captors discussing how to decapitate and dismember the man.
“I didn’t see it directly, but I could hear it, the conversations that they were having. Because I was listening to everything. And then later I could hear that they were cutting him in pieces,” Garcia remembers.
Shortly after that, he says, he smelled smoke. Later, one of the captors told him that if he tried to escape or if his family didn’t pay his ransom, this would happen to him.
“I didn’t sleep at all. All those three weeks I was there, I was always awake because I was afraid if I’d sleep, they would kill me while I was asleep. So, every day, I would be just thinking of my life, of my kids, my family. I was just hoping the best. But at the same time, I was expecting the worst.”
After two-and-a-half weeks, Garcia’s family managed to raise $130,000. Family members in the U.S. say they sold off their belongings and relatives in Mexico put liens on their properties.
Garcia’s captors accepted the amount and arranged his release. They drove him to a nearby hotel for a shower, then put him in a taxi to meet his uncle at a shopping plaza. Garcia’s ordeal was over.
Or so he thought.
“I came back to the States and then I thought I was okay, but I think the toughest weeks, months have been after my release. Not those three weeks. It currently is the toughest weeks, months.”
Garcia says he’s been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He takes medication for anxiety and depression. He’s trying to support his wife and kids in Mexico while paying back the money that was borrowed to save him.
“It’s still stressful. It’s stressful for me. I’m still paying for my life,” Garcia says
He’s also still trying to bring his wife and children back to the U.S. Attorney Stephen Manning is preparing a lawsuit against the United States in which they’ll ask for another officer to review the case.