Melissa Aguillon, 5, is lifted by her father, Luis Aguillon, to put flowers… (Mayra Beltran, Houston…)
HOUSTON — The couple, farmers from a village in the Mexican state of Veracruz, had traveled more than 1,200 miles to see their 26-year-old daughter, who was dying from an inoperable spinal tumor.
Jose and Ninfa Sanchez, both 48, had applied to cross legally at the Texas border city of Hidalgo under a program called humanitarian parole, designed to allow foreign nationals to come to the United States for emergencies, such as medical crises, court hearings or funerals. It was up to U.S. border officials to decide whether the parents could see their daughter, Maria, before she died.
Humanitarian parole is one of the quirks of U.S. immigration policy. It's sparingly granted under a system that is largely discretionary.
Applications come from across the globe, but in the southern border region, requests for humanitarian parole underscore the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.
And as the case of the Sanchez family shows, it's hard to predict who will be granted humanitarian parole and who will not.
"It is very difficult to obtain," said T. Douglas Stump, an Oklahoma City-based lawyer and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.
He said about 20% to 25% of applications are approved. "It's purely discretionary to the agency," Stump said.
Daniel Cosgrove, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said there are no set criteria for approving the applications. Applicants must show an urgent, humanitarian reason for entering the country temporarily.
After the earthquake in Haiti three years ago, Cosgrove said, the Citizenship and Immigration Services saw a spike in humanitarian parole applications to more than 4,500. It granted 891, mostly to children in the late stages of being adopted by families in the U.S., Cosgrove said.
Last year, the agency received 1,210 applications for humanitarian parole and granted 353.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection granted 3,054 humanitarian parole requests last year, according to Bill Brooks, a spokesman for the agency. The year before, it granted 6,726, he said. Brooks called humanitarian parole "an extraordinary measure."
Critics say that because there are no set criteria, humanitarian parole is granted unevenly.
"A lot of times it depends where they cross and who their border officer is," said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Judge Oscar Gabaldon of El Paso sees two or three parents cross the border each month under humanitarian parole to attend his court hearings.
Gabaldon, whose court handles drug, abuse and neglect cases in which children have been removed from their parents, reached an agreement with border agents in such cases. A bailiff meets Mexican parents at the bridge connecting El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and escorts them to court, he said.
The judge recalled a case two years ago in which Antonia Campos, a mother of five, was allowed to return to El Paso for custody hearings on humanitarian parole after being deported to Mexico. Her children, all U.S. citizens, had been placed in foster care when Campos was caught trying to return to El Paso illegally after visiting her ailing father in Juarez. After the hearings, Gabaldon returned the children to her in Juarez.
"This is all humanitarian — the willingness of the court authorities to come up with this understanding," Gabaldon said. Hearings could be held via teleconference, he said, but that can't replace attending in person.
Gabaldon said the way humanitarian parole is handled in his court is in stark contrast to the Sanchez case.
"Had those people been in El Paso, I suspect the authorities would have worked with them," he said, noting that he had an uncle in Mexico who was granted humanitarian parole to visit his cousin before he had surgery in El Paso a few years ago, though "he wasn't even dying."
Jose and Ninfa Sanchez said in a phone interview from Mexico that they had no intention of using humanitarian parole to move to the U.S. illegally. They have two young sons, care for a grandson and have the farm to tend, they said. They just wanted to see their daughter before she died.
Maria was the oldest of their six children, petite with pale skin, large brown eyes and black hair that hung below her shoulders, usually in a ponytail. She crossed the border illegally as a teenager and settled in Galveston, Texas, where she worked three jobs — washing dishes, cleaning houses and waiting tables — and sent money to her parents.
Three years later, she met Luis Aguillon, 37, a welder born in Mexico and living in Galveston as a legal resident. In 2008, the couple had a daughter, Melissa.
In 2010, Sanchez was diagnosed with a spinal tumor, stopped working and was hospitalized in Houston.
In December, she was discharged to die in a Houston apartment with the help of hospice, and told Aguillon she wanted to see her parents.
"It was her last wish," he said.