SAN FRANCISCO — Vianney Sanchez woke up early on Saturday, the 485th morning she'd woken up in her family’s Oakland home without her mother, Maria Mendoza-Sanchez. Vianney was anxious and so she went to work — cleaning her room, the kitchen, and planning how she’d decorate the home with “WELCOME BACK” signs. She wanted to buy flowers, get balloons, and line the walls of their living room with pink pom-poms.
After all, Saturday was a day Vianney, 24, and her siblings — ages 13, 17, and 22 — had long yearned for: Her mother was finally coming home on an H1B visa after being deported in August 2017, swept up by immigration officials, despite the fact that she had no criminal record, held a high-paying job as a cancer nurse, and owned her own home. Along the way, as politicians rallied for her, she became a symbol of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration.
Even though Vianney could see the email showing that her mother was landing at 4:24 p.m. at San Francisco International Airport, and that her mother was set to be greeted by friends, lawyers, politicians, and a horde of media, she didn’t quite believe it. Not yet. She needed to feel her mother, see her in the flesh, before she’d allow herself to think it was real.
Earlier in the year, through a miscommunication, the kids thought Mendoza-Sanchez was coming home. The next day, her mother called to say she would be staying in Mexico. That scarred Vianney.
“I won’t believe it until I see her here,” she said.
For Vianney, it had been a long wait to see her mother. More than a year ago, she bawled at the airport as she saw parents walk away, toward the security line, ready to be deported to a tiny Mexican village just north of Mexico City. Unlike her siblings, Melin, 22, Jesus, 13, and Elizabeth, 17, Vianney is not a US citizen, so while her DACA status allows her to work and live in the United States, she could not travel to Mexico to visit her parents.
At 4:23 p.m., Vianney, waiting in a private room arranged by airport officials, got the word: Her mother's plane had landed. Her palms began to sweat profusely as their reunion felt imminent, but she’d have to wait longer for her mother to clear Customs. Her sister held tight a sign that read “We love you Mom.”
“You excited?” she asked Jesus. He nodded. “You know,” she said, “this means you can’t play video games all the time anymore.”
Then, just after 6 p.m., Vianney heard her mother and ran toward her, ahead of the other kids.
“You’re home,” Vianney said, as they both sobbed. “It’s okay.”
Soon the other kids came over and they embraced one another in silence. Maria held them close to her, rubbing their shoulders, and crying. Later, she told the kids: “I can’t believe I’m back! I’m here!”
At a news conference, Mendoza-Sanchez told the crowd of TV cameras, the same group that was here more than a year ago when she was deported from the same airport, what her return meant to her.
“This is really a dream that I never expected,” she said, “Thank god for everybody. I’m really happy to be back. One of the most painful things in life is the separation of a mother and a kid.”
Such a return would have been impossible for many deported people. But the hospital that employed Mendoza-Sanchez sponsored her for an H1B visa, which allows foreign workers to live in the United States to hold positions that are otherwise hard to fill. Once the application was granted, Mendoza-Sanchez had to win the approval of the US Embassy in Mexico City to circumvent the usual prohibition against a deportee's return. An interview with a consular official went well and other agencies signed off. She had won her case.
Before their mother arrived Saturday, the kids had spent hours organizing their house, hoping she’d be comfortable when she returned.
Since their mother was deported, Vianney and Melin had been sleeping in their parent’s room, so the sisters gathered up their clothes, cleaned up, and put on new bedding for their mother. The room was emptier and no longer held their mother's things but it was still their mother’s room. They folded up her hospital scrubs and left them out for her for the day soon that she is back at work.
As they prepared their home Saturday, a neighbor stopped by, standing outside their home with a message: “I was crying this morning! I’m so happy. I can’t wait. I know y’all happy huh?” the neighbor yelled out. “Me, too. I can’t wait to give her a huge hug. Tell her I’m waiting! I don’t care what time it is!”
Once the reality began to set in of her mother being back, Vianney thought of how she’d be able to focus on herself again and her future after spending the past 15 months becoming the de-facto mother and guardian of the family. Though her mother was home, her father, Eusebio, would remain in Mexico.
Mendoza-Sanchez praised Vianney's willingness to shoulder the burden of caring for her siblings. “She took a role that didn’t belong to her,” the mother said at the airport.
The children thought too about the traditions they’d try to continue, like eating breakfast together or packing a lunch for their mother before she heads off to another shift at the hospital.
Finally, the airport news conference ended. After more than a year apart, the family was ready to go home — together.