An immigrant New Yorker worked hard for 24 years, sought legal immigration status, but was barred from reentry to the U.S.
Angelo Cabrera, 40, immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 14 years old. Like many others, he left in search of a better future. A chain of letters between him and his mother promised a return with a college degree.
In his early years, Angelo worked in places where he was often exploited. Everything changed when he found a better job at a Manhattan deli and met a generous coworker who helped him pursue a high school degree. While studying, Angelo continued to work for 12 years at a deli where his wages topped out at $9.50 per hour. In 2013 he graduated from Baruch College with a Master’s in Public Administration.
During his time in the states, Angelo was also a leader interested in improving the community in New York. He founded the Mexican American Student Alliance (MASA) which focused on mentoring and educating Mexicans American students and families in the South Bronx. Through this work, he was awarded the “Rising Star Award” from the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, for his devotion to improving the lives of immigrants.
Shortly after graduation, Angelo was offered a job at Baruch College as a community and social services specialist. In this job, Angelo would help enroll other Mexican American students in the City University of New York system. Before he could accept the job offer he had to travel back to his native country to fix his immigration status and do things legally.
Angelo’s plan to return home was risky, but he wanted to apply for immigration the right way. The law in 2014 stated that people who lived illegally in the U.S. for more than a year were prohibited to apply for reentry for 10 years. Angelo was hoping to receive a waiver to this law to go back and work under humanitarian purposes.
After 24 years, Angelo returned home in 2014 to San Antonio Texcala in Mexico. Mariachis and almost the entire population of his town waited for him at the entrance of the village for a welcoming party. His mother, who was now blind because of an illness, was there and embraced him.
“A mother never gets tired of waiting for her son,” said Irma Rodriguez. She patted his face trying to imagine what he looked like.
Angelo waited five months for the American government response for his waiver to work in the United States. His application was denied. Angelo’s whole world started to vanish and he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to apply for another visa until 2024.
“I realized I was in a country [Mexico] that I knew very little about because much of my life has been in New York. My home, for 24 years, was and still is NYC,” said Angelo. He felt lost, devastated and unsure about his future.
Angelo’s story was featured in media outlets throughout the U.S. and Mexico. The press attention helped to garner support from different organizations. Daily Kos and Change.org launched campaigns for his case, which attracted over 25,000 supporters including Congressman Joseph Crowley and Senator Kristen Gillibrand. The campaigns called on the Department of Homeland Security to reverse their decision. Shortly after, Angelo’s case was reopened and his waiver was accepted.
On March 24, 2016, Angelo arrived at JFK Airport in New York with a stamped work visa. His lawyers and friends waited to greet him. His story set a precedent in the immigration community. It was the rare case of an aged-out Dreamer who returned to Mexico and received an immigration waiver to work legally in the United States. For a short time, his dream came true.
Angelo’s time in the United States, however, has an expiration date. His immigration/visa waiver will soon expire on September 30, 2016 and his current job can only offer him the possibility of work until June 30, 2016. His future is very uncertain. Yet, he continues to dream of staying to help other immigrant students in New York to succeed.
Immigration always interested me since I arrived to New York. Being myself one, and struggling with all the difficulties to adapt myself to a new country, made me realize how lucky I was for at least having a visa. I met Angelo Cabrera in 2008 in the South Bronx while he was working at MASA. I soon realized that he was more than an immigrant trying to get an opportunity. He was a real leader for the community.
I started documenting his life, photographing the most relevant moments, like his graduation day from Baruch College and an immigration rally in Washington, D.C. As time passed, Angelo became not only the main subject of the story, but also my friend. I witnessed the first embrace with his mother after 24 years. I comforted him after his waiver was denied. I sent the photo story to all the media outlets that I knew, thinking that maybe it could help him. Finally the story was featured in The New York Times and later in many other newspapers and broadcast channels. My photographs were part of the campaign that Change.org launched, #BringAngeloHome.
I felt nervous when I finally saw Angelo return to New York at the JFK Airport. My hands were shaking and it was difficult to press the shutter of my camera. It was one of the most amazing moments. I was only a small link in the great chain of people that helped Angelo return to New York. The fact that my work helped to create change gives me the strength to continue working as a photographer documenting social issues.