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Visiting Where Others Cannot

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Photo by Jude Joffe-Block

Benigna Mota in her Mexico City restaurant with photos of her grandchildren in Phoenix, and her son, Luis Alberto.

PHOENIX -- As reporters, it's not unusual to find ourselves in places where other members of the public usually aren't: waiting at the scene of a crime to talk to police, inside a press conference with a high-ranking official, or taking notes in a courtroom during a trial.

In April I had the strange feeling of being some place fairly ordinary, yet not accessible to the person who very much wanted to be in my place.

I was at a simple restaurant in Mexico City. It was run by a 73-year-old Mexican woman named Benigna Mota.

Mota's 22-year old grandson, Emmanuel, lives in Phoenix and would have liked to trade places with me. He hasn't seen his grandmother since he left Mexico nine years ago to cross the border illegally with his mother.

Emmanuel isn't authorized to be in the U.S., though he considers it to be his home. While he longs to visit Mota and that family restaurant back in Mexico, he won't leave the country for fear of not getting back in.

His siblings haven't been back, either. And Emmanuel's youngest brother has never met his Mexican grandparents, since he was born in the U.S.

I got in touch with this family because I was collecting stories of Mexican families who have been separated between the U.S. and Mexico, and their hope that comprehensive immigration reform could change that.

Back in Phoenix, Emmanuel gave me a big envelope containing photos of himself and his siblings to show his family back in Mexico.

I sat in Mota's restaurant in Mexico City as she opened Emmanuel's envelope. She was joined by her son and daughter who still live in Mexico and help run the restaurant.

As Mota spread the photos out on the tablecloth in front of her, she wondered out loud which of the two youngest grandchildren was which. After all, she hadn't seen one in nine years, and the other she had never met.

Mota and her husband have tried twice to get American tourist visas to visit their daughter and grandchildren in Arizona.

They've been rejected both times, losing hundreds of dollars in the application fees.

On one hand, Mexico sends the second largest number of visitors to the United States every year, after Canada. In fact, those tourists are in demand, and attracting those tourists is one of the reasons Phoenix officials visited Mexico City last month on a trade mission.

Last year, 10.6 percent of Mexicans trying to get tourist or business visas were rejected. I thought the number of denials would be higher. But many Mexicans who want a tourist visa never apply because they are convinced they won't be successful.

There are multiple steps involved to apply, such as obtaining a Mexican passport and ponying up a nonrefundable fee of $150. Applicants must also demonstrate strong ties to Mexico and sufficient funds to travel in the U.S.

Those State Department criteria are meant to discourage would-be immigrants from using tourist visas to enter the country and then overstay. After all, about 40 percent of the unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S. overstayed visas.

Mota claimed the first time she applied, the official at the U.S. Embassy told her "she needed a lot of money" to finance a trip to the U.S. — though he didn't specify a dollar amount she needed. She claimed the second time she applied, the official didn't study her bank account information, or the fact that their savings had grown.

Mota thought that since she owns a business in Mexico City, that would be enough to prove she has ties to Mexico and intends to come back.

"I only wanted to go for three weeks. I can't leave this place alone," Mota said while gesturing to her restaurant. "I have a lot of family here in Mexico, my mom is very old and I have to take care of her here."

Despite the rejections, she said she plans to apply again.

Jude Joffe-Block Senior Field Correspondent, Fronteras Desk - Phoenix KJZZ Senior Field Correspondent Jude Joffe-Block got hooked on radio while working as an assitant to a radio reporter in Mexico, and has been happiest wearing headphones and pointing microphones ever since. Joffe-Block began serving KJZZ in October 2010 as a Fronteras: Changing America Senior Field Correspondent based out of Las Vegas, Nevada. She joined the Phoenix newsroom in July 2012. Before joining the Fronteras Desk, she contributed stories on immigration and criminal justice to KALW in San Francisco and multimedia content in both Spanish and English to The Associated Press in Mexico. She is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and Yale University, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico.