By Celine Klosterman
Rachel and Cesar Santos say it still doesn’t feel real.
The members of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City reunited three weeks ago after Cesar spent a year and a half in his birthplace of Mexico waiting for permission to re-enter the United States.
“I’m so happy to be back. I still can’t believe it,” says Cesar. He received permission March 21 to return to the United States, 16 months after he’d been granted an appointment at a U.S. Consulate in Mexico to determine his eligibility to live here legally. He’d come to this country illegally while seeking work in 1999.
After tying up legal ends, Cesar was reunited April 30 with Rachel and their children Maddy, 5, and Zach, 15 months, at the Quad-City International Airport in Moline, Ill. Father Ken Kuntz, St. Mary’s pastor, and Patti McTaggart, the parish’s youth minister, showed up, too.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” says Rachel, St. Mary’s secretary, of seeing her husband in person. Maddy greeted her dad with the “big smooch” she’d promised and a sign reading “Welcome home, Babby.” She’s still learning the difference between the letters “b” and “d,” Rachel laughs.
Cesar didn’t mind. “When you see your family, there are no words to show how happy you are.” Every single day in Mexico, he’d wished he could be with his wife and children, he says.
He’d left the country at age 17 because he could find no work there, he told The Catholic Messenger in November. He couldn’t afford to pay a fee to apply to enter the United States legally, so he snuck across the border by himself. Not long after marrying Rachel in March 2004, the couple completed paperwork involved in Cesar’s attempt to become a legal U.S. resident. Three-and-a-half years later, Cesar was scheduled for an appointment in Mexico to determine his eligibility for a K-3 visa that would bring him legal status because his wife is a U.S. citizen. That visa was denied because Cesar had previously lived in the United States without documentation. So he applied for a waiver of inadmissibility, which he received two months ago.
While waiting for that waiver, he missed his son’s birth and first steps. But he did get to watch Fr. Kuntz baptize Zach — just hours after Cesar returned from Mexico.
“My son is so big now,” observes the impressed father. “He’s walking; he’s even starting to recognize me.”
Zach had seen his father in person only during a visit to Mexico 13 months earlier. After they reunited April 30, “he just stared at Cesar for the first two days,” Rachel says. But the toddler didn’t cry as he usually does around strangers — he’d seen Cesar through Web camera chats.
When Rachel leaves each morning for work, the child waves goodbye without a tear, Cesar says. “So I guess he likes me now.”
Maddy’s getting re-acquainted with her dad, too. “She’ll say, ‘We’re going to have a daddy-and-daughter day,’” Cesar says. They go to the park, ride bikes and watch movies at home.
He’s also enjoyed celebratory barbecues with his mother and sisters in Coralville — whom he surprised April 30 with his return.
Now, he’s just waiting to receive a Green Card that will let him legally take a job lined up for him at Perkins Restaurant in Coralville. He expects that card to arrive any day. But even without it, he’s quite satisfied.
“Everything is perfect now,” he says. “I feel like I’m back to my normal life.”