How 1 immigration mistake led to this Utah's family yearslong separation

Ana Isabel Cardenas Rodriguez, Mariur Rodriguez Moreno, Cambria Mae Olson Cardenas, Dawson K. Olson, Jose Luis Cardenas Jimenez and Juana Valentina Cardenas Rodriguez pose for a photo Oct. 14, 2023.

Ana Isabel Cardenas Rodriguez, Mariur Rodriguez Moreno, Cambria Mae Olson Cardenas, Dawson K. Olson, Jose Luis Cardenas Jimenez and Juana Valentina Cardenas Rodriguez pose for a photo Oct. 14, 2023. (Mariur Rodriguez Moreno)

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Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah glistened with possibilities when Mariur Rodríguez Moreno moved from Colombia with her husband and three daughters in 2013.

Over a decade later, that decision solidified into several concrete accomplishments and milestones for the family, including multiple college graduations, a marriage and Rodríguez's first grandchild. Rodríguez is now earning a doctorate in chemistry at Brigham Young University, where she is researching cancer treatments.

But the decision to immigrate to Utah also had a darker consequence that Rodríguez never anticipated. It ultimately resulted in her eldest daughter being separated from the family for several years.

It all started with a well-intentioned mistake.

"We had had a hard time in Colombia," she said. "One of the things that we always have clear in our minds is we don't want to be illegal here in the United States. Because for me, it's not OK, it's not right to do that."

The family entered the country legally, with Rodríguez's husband, who began studying at then-LDS Business College in 2013 on a student visa. Rodríguez and her three daughters had tourist visas. The family planned to adjust those visas to F-2 visas, a type granted to the spouse and children of student visa holders.

In the meantime, Rodríguez said the family enrolled the three girls — who were 10, 14 and 16 at the time — in school, at the advice of their immigration attorney.

She didn't know it at the time, but enrolling a child on a tourist visa is against immigration law and can result in future problems when applying for a visa or permanent status. The law firm of Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney said it's a common mistake.

The issue can be further muddled by the fact federal law contradicts itself in these cases since it prohibits public K-12 schools from denying children an education or asking about a child's immigration status to enroll them in school.

"There are no warnings given by the Department of Homeland Security. Foreign nationals are expected to know the acceptable tourist activities for a visitor visa," the law firm states in an article on the topic. "The position of (the department) is that tourists should not be attending school or enrolling their children in school. By the time foreign nationals realize this, it is often irreparable. … This is an example and reminder of how strict and unforgiving our U.S. immigration laws can be."

At the time, though, attending school in the U.S. was a special experience for Rodríguez's oldest daughter, Sara Cardenas, who graduated high school with honors and received a scholarship to attend Weber State University.

"I was with my family and it was a unique experience for me, learning a new culture and adapting to those changes," Cardenas said in Spanish. "But it was a good experience. It helped change my perspective, in general, about a lot of things."

Difficult decisions

With their F-2 visa applications denied, Rodríguez and her daughters decided to return to Colombia and tried to fix the issue with the U.S. Embassy there after consulting with three separate attorneys.

The trip was full of anxiety, Cardenas said, and the family did everything in their power to ensure things would turn out in their favor, including getting a letter from a senator and character recommendations from friends in the U.S.

Initially, it seemed their efforts had been worthwhile when Cardenas' sisters both received their visas.

"When it was my turn, I expected that the same would happen for me, that there wouldn't be a problem," she said. "I expected that, perhaps, it was going to be easy for them to approve it. But it was the complete opposite."

The immigration official denied her visa and application and gave her a three-year ban from entering the U.S. or applying for any type of visa. It was a life-changing moment for Cardenas, who, because she had recently turned 18, faced the news without a parental guardian in the room with her.

"It wasn't just the fact that I wouldn't be able to see my family. The dreams and goals that I had, of studying and going on a mission — all those dreams and plans I had, it was like they died in that moment," she said in Spanish.

It's like part of my heart is in Colombia and part is here.

– Mariur Rodríguez Moreno

The possibility of being split up by the U.S. immigration system wasn't something the family had considered would be a possibility. They were left scrambling to understand.

"It was a little confusing for all parties, even the person I tried to manage that with was confused too," Rodríguez said. "We really didn't understand what the reason was, because we tried to do everything right — that our lawyers said — and tried to fix the problem on time."

Cardenas encouraged her mom to return to the U.S. with her sisters, as she could stay with her grandmother in Bogotá, put in her paperwork to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from there and they'd apply for a visa again once the three-year ban ended.

"It was heartbreaking; it was really hard. Because I left her when she was 18 years old. For some American people, that's enough to let your children fly, but for us, no," Rodríguez said. "I feel sometimes it is unfair because the mistake was not hers; the mistake was ours as her parents. She was a minor, she didn't know. You as a mom are in charge of her papers. So, it was really hard."

Now, at age 26, Cardenas questions imposing such harsh penalties on a teenager and the validity of focusing on a child's immigration status over their education or keeping families together.

"Now, it seems a little unjust to have such so many consequences for a minor," she said. "I didn't know it was such a delicate situation. I think when you're a kid, you're dependent on what your parents tell you and you're not making decisions completely on your own."

Adapting to the consequences

Several years after the family was separated, Cardenas' life looks a lot different than the one she had planned after graduating high school in Utah.

She applied for a student visa multiple times in hopes of studying chemistry at Weber State but was denied. An application to study at a Colombian university was also denied because the school would not accept her American high school diploma, despite the family's efforts to get the degree authenticated.

She has not seen the family in several years, except through video chats, due to a fear of how leaving the country could impact their immigration status. Eventually, Cardenas eventually applied for a tourist visa, in hopes of visiting them and meeting her new niece, but that application was denied, as well.

Jose Luis Cardenas Jimenez, Mariur Rodriguez Moreno, Sara Mayely Cardenas Rodriguez, Juana Valentina Cardenas Rodriguez and Ana Isabel Cardenas Rodriguez pose for a family photo in Farmington in 2013.
Jose Luis Cardenas Jimenez, Mariur Rodriguez Moreno, Sara Mayely Cardenas Rodriguez, Juana Valentina Cardenas Rodriguez and Ana Isabel Cardenas Rodriguez pose for a family photo in Farmington in 2013. (Photo: Mariur Rodriguez Moreno)

Despite those setbacks, Cardenas has built a life and career for herself in Bogotá, where she's worked her way up to a manager at a Canadian bank. But it's still difficult watching her family's lives from thousands of miles away.

"I would love to have the option of simply spending holidays with my family or being able to attend my sister's wedding or meet my niece — because, right now, these are options I don't have," she said. "It's super frustrating and very painful because there really isn't anything I can do. It hurts me that I can't be there, no matter how much I want to."

Rodríguez said the family also keenly feels her daughter's absence. Holiday video chats, she said, often end in tears.

"We are a family that likes to celebrate and love and be together, and maybe dancing. But now it's different. It's totally different because she's not here," she said. "I'm grateful for the technology right now because you can talk and see her all the time, but it's not the same. It's really hard. It's like part of my heart is in Colombia and part is here."

Rodríguez said lawyers have told her the only possibility of getting a visa for Cardenas would be to become residents and then petition for a visa. She added many people don't understand how difficult the immigration process is, or they suggest Cardenas cross the border illegally. But that's never an option the family has entertained, she said.

"We want to do the right thing, but it's hard because the law is not adjusted to the time we live in right now," she said. "The circumstances when these laws were written are different than the circumstances we live in right now."

Although border reform is frequently hashed out the floors of Congress, on national TV and social media feeds, the country's last major immigration reform was in 1986.

It means the family may face barriers to stay in the U.S. as Rodríguez nears the end of her Ph.D. program. Rodríguez, her husband and youngest daughter's visas are all tied to her status as a student. At most, a temporary employment authorization for recent graduates will allow them to stay in the U.S. for three years after graduation.

"After doing my Ph.D., there is no point to come back to Colombia," she said, adding her professional field isn't as developed there. "Our idea is to stay here and work here and live here, but we don't want to be here illegally. So if there is no way to stay here, we'll need to come back — but that will mean losing a lot."

"It's hard because, on one point, you feel like you tried to do the right path, right? But you see so many people doing it the wrong way and they have papers here and they have everything here and their families are here," she said. "But I don't know, I continue to believe that if you continue pushing to do the right way, you'll finally get it."

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Sydnee Chapman Gonzalez is a reporter and recent Utah transplant. She works at the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and was previously at and the Wenatchee World in Washington. Her reporting has focused on marginalized communities, homelessness and local government. She grew up in Arizona and has lived in various parts of Mexico. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, traveling, rock climbing and embroidery.


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