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Somewhere between the Mass and reception to celebrate her daughter’s 15th birthday last summer, Cindy Garcia shut down.

It was too much. The Lincoln Park mom of three organized the big party in July for Soleil’s birthday, her quinceañera, a major milestone for Latina girls everywhere. It was a party her daughter had dreamed about since she was a baby.

But Cindy faltered. She lost her cellphone, the same phone she’d held up during the entire ceremony to video chat this milestone with her husband, Jorge, 40, living a separate life thousands of miles away in Mexico after he’d been deported in January. Around her, the music blared, the crowd partied. Life goes on, even when it feels like your own has stopped. 

“I had to think that it was someone else’s party,” Cindy said. “It was too much to think about it.”

More: Long waits, small odds: Changing immigration status in the U.S.

One year after her husband of 16 years, Jorge, was forced to return to Mexico — though he came to the United States as a 10-year-old and had no issues with police — survival has become a daily way of life for Cindy Garcia, 46, and her family. She doesn’t have a choice. She needs to survive for Soleil and her son, Jorge Jr., 13. 

But Cindy, who also has a grown son, Kyle, and a granddaughter, isn’t being quiet either. She’s become a well-traveled advocate of immigration reform during the last year, speaking before colleges and groups across Michigan. She appeared on “The View” and CNN. She attended President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last January as U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell’s guest.

On Election Day in November, passing out leaflets for a candidate running for Lincoln Park City Council, Cindy met a woman who worked at a local school. The two started chatting and the woman mentioned a student who showed great potential but worried about college because he was in the country illegally. 

“I said, ‘You don’t know who I am, but let me tell you who I am.’ She said, ‘Oh, my god, it’s you.’ She said, ‘I’m glad I met you.’ I told her there are ways for him to get to college,” said Cindy, who offered to help the student and his family and gave the woman her phone number. “It was meant to be for us to meet. If you’re living it, you’re going to know.”

But the glare of the spotlight hasn’t always been kind over the past 12 months. In the spring, Cindy pledged to step back for a bit after an appearance on CNN in which she said she couldn’t be mad at Trump “for doing his job” to protect Americans from criminals. 

“The only thing is that my husband was not a criminal,” she said. 

The backlash was strong and swift. Critics questioned her defense of Trump, saying she’d voted for him, which Cindy denies. Others said Jorge should’ve been deported. 

“Stop coming here illegally,” wrote one commentator. “Problem solved.”

The flap was a low point in a year of uncertainty for the Garcia family. The Detroit News followed them throughout the year as they adjusted to living without Jorge, juggling school, family and a ferocious debate over immigration.

There were some high points. The family went on vacation to northern Michigan, near Traverse City, during the summer, a first since trips weren’t an option when Jorge was undocumented. All their money went toward legal fees.

“We couldn’t go on vacation,” said Cindy, who said at one point she had to choose between the family home or paying for Jorge’s case. She chose legal fees.

Soleil, meanwhile, attended a criminal justice camp where she realized she might want to go into criminal justice herself. 

More than anything, Cindy and her kids adjusted to living in limbo. As of early January, Jorge, 40, now living with an aunt in Nicolas, Romero, outside Mexico City, and working side jobs with cousins when he can, was still waiting for a meeting at the American embassy in Juarez, Mexico, to adjust his visa status. 

And even if the meeting does happen and he gets a visa, he’ll still have to file for two waivers — one for  unlawful presence  in the United States and one as a provision to reapply after being deported. That process can take eight months even after his meeting in Juarez.

“It’s devastating,” said Cindy.

Spring

Living without her husband of 16 years, Cindy, who retired from Ford Motor Co. on a medical disability, has had to learn things she never had to before, taking over oil changes and cutting the grass.

“It’s a whole new life,” she said. 

Cindy and Jorge met at a party in 2001. Cindy, who knew Jorge’s sister first, boldly went up to him and asked who he was. They started dating and married at a local courthouse on May 25, 2002. A year later they had a church wedding.

Cindy knew Jorge was in the United States illegally but wasn’t fazed by it. Her own father, Jose Ramos, had been undocumented, but eventually became a citizen. And she’d gone to high school in Detroit with classmates who were undocumented. 

Irma Ramos, Cindy’s mom, said 9/11 changed everything.

“It was easier” to become a citizen, said Irma. “Now it’s harder. Since 9/11, it’s much harder.”

Attempts to adjust Jorge’s immigration status over the years failed, part of which Cindy blames on bad legal representation. A trial in immigration court failed as did an appeal. Stays were granted but eventually those ran out, too.

In April, Cindy, Soleil and Jorge Junior, now 13, traveled to Mexico to see Jorge for two weeks, a trip celebrity Whoopi Goldberg paid for after meeting Cindy on “The View.” They visited family they’d never met and the town where he grew up. They saw the house Jorge’s grandfather grew up in.

But there was a downside: They’d have to say goodbye to Jorge again. 

Summer

Just because Jorge physically couldn’t be at his daughter Soleil’s quinceañera in July, he was still there. Cindy made sure of it.

Throughout the Mass at Christ the Good Shepherd in Lincoln Park, where Soleil pledged to make a difference in the world, Cindy held up her smartphone from the church’s second row. She moved it to the left and right, scanning the church for her husband to take it all in from miles away.

“We love you, Tio,” called out one relative. Tio means “uncle” in Spanish.

“I love you, too,” said Jorge from the phone.

Cindy considered every detail for the quinceañera. A large party bus was in the parking lot, waiting to shuttle Soleil and her court from the church to the reception hall at the Holiday Inn in Southgate.

Before the Mass, Irma Ramos watched as her granddaughter and her court, four teen girls in glittery gold dresses and four boys in tuxedos, stepped from the large party bus and made their way toward the church. She remembered Cindy’s own quinceañera in Detroit, many decades ago. She’d had 14 girls and 14 boys in her court. 

“Too bad her dad can’t be here,” Irma said.

At the start of the Mass, Soleil, wearing a pink cotton candy dress with a lace-up back, tulle skirt and Converse All Star shoes, walked down the aisle with her mother on one arm and her older half-brother, Kyle, where Jorge should’ve been. 

During his homily, the Rev. Edward Zaorski seemed to directly speak to Jorge. 

“We want you to know that she loves you and you love her,” Zaorski said. “And hopefully the things that are in the way of you being with your daughter and your family are changed. You are in our prayers. Hopefully with God’s providence these things will be changed.”

Soleil held back tears.

“I said I’m not going to cry, but it hit me,” said Soleil.

Fall 

In August, the family returned to Mexico again, just for two days, crossing the border in Texas while they were visiting other family.

Life in Mexico is different. It’s hotter and more dangerous than what they’re used to in Metro Detroit. They visited a shopping plaza where a day later a woman’s child was abducted at gunpoint. A fellow customer caught the abduction on video.

“We thought, ‘Oh, my god. We couldn’t live here,’” said Cindy.

The trip meant Soleil and Jorge Junior missed the first few days of 10th and seventh grades in Wyandotte Public Schools. On Soleil’s first day back, a teacher questioned why her family would travel out of the country at the start of the school year.

Soleil said nothing.

“She saw that I wanted to cry,” Soleil said. “I said ‘I’m just going to walk away.’ I didn’t want to cry in front of everyone, so I thought I’d just let it be.” 

Cindy was angry. She complained to a school counselor, explaining the family’s unique situation. The counselor pledged to talk to the teacher and the instructor later apologized.

“You don’t know what kids are going through,” said Cindy. 

In October, a Facebook meme featuring three Latino children in one photo wearing “Make America Great Again” hats on top pieced together with a photo of Jorge saying goodbye to Cindy, Soleil and Jorge Jr. on the bottom went viral. It said, “Their father voted for President Trump in 2016. In 2017, their father was deported.” By late October, it had been shared 6,700 times.

Cindy was horrified. She couldn’t find who created the meme but contacted Facebook to take it down. She threatened to sue whoever created it. 

“We did not vote for Trump,” said Cindy. “My poor kids and I are devastated.”

Winter

By late November, the small Eiffel towers from Soleil’s quinceanara were still on the family’s coffee table at their ranch in Lincoln Park. Nearby was a bright orange poster. In big, black letters, it read “#BringJorgeHome.”

Cindy contemplated boycotting Thanksgiving but decided against it because her nephew would be in town. “That’s our Christmas tree,” she said, pointing to one of the Eiffel towers.

All around the living room were reminders of Jorge. There was a Virgin Mary statue with lights around it on the fireplace mantel, something Jorge insisted they get from Home Interiors. On another wall was art he and Cindy had bought in Mexico.

Calls to the National Visa Center had become a daily way of life for Cindy. But each time she called, she heard the same thing. “Soon,” they said.

“I know more from my Facebook support group,” said Cindy.

Even if Jorge gets the meeting, he could receive one of five bans — a three-, five-, seven-, 10-year ban or a lifetime ban.

Through the Facebook support group she’s come to rely on, Cindy said she’s heard of people who had DUI convictions in Michigan who were deported and returned after two years. Jorge has no criminal record. And yet, they wait.

Cindy thinks the government is making an example out of Jorge.

“If they don’t follow the actual rules, the public will start attacking them,” said Cindy. “‘Why did they get special treatment?’” 

Cindy and her kids, meanwhile, will keep living in uncertainty. They don’t have a choice. As long as the system exists and there are appeals that can be filed, Cindy says they’ll keep fighting to bring Jorge home.

“There’s hope,” said Cindy.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mfeighan

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