A Mexican mother’s struggle to say goodbye to her dying daughter in the US

Border agents denied Lucía Méndez entry four times. She was unable to see Alma before the latter’s death from cancer, and is now fighting to attend the funeral

Alma Hernández, 36, passed away on June 19 in Dallas, Texas.
Alma Hernández, 36, passed away on June 19 in Dallas, Texas.Cortesía

Alma Hernández, a 36-year-old mother of four, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2022. It was stage four and had already metastasized in her lungs, liver and brain. Her mother, Lucía Méndez, was almost 1,000 miles away in Aguascalientes (Mexico) where Alma was born. Alma had lived in Dallas (Texas, USA) with her husband for almost 20 years. Parkland Health, the Dallas hospital treating Alma, sent a letter to Lucía in late March with information about her daughter’s deteriorating health. Lucía immediately traveled to the US border with the letter, but was turned away by US immigration agents. They repeatedly denied her entry as Alma’s condition worsened, rebuffing Lucía’s pleas to see her daughter before it was too late. “They call it humanitarian parole, but there’s nothing humanitarian about it. Your grief doesn’t matter to them,” said Alma’s sister Adriana in a phone interview with EL PAÍS. Alma passed away on June 19 without her mother at her side, and now the family is fighting for permission to enter the US for the funeral.

With the hospital’s report in hand, Lucía and Adriana arrived on April 1 at the Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas, Mexico) border crossing. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authorities denied them humanitarian parole because Alma was still undergoing treatment and her death was not certain. “They told us to come back when she only had a few days to live,” said Adriana.

Weeks of chemotherapy treatments went by, and Alma’s condition deteriorated. On April 17, Lucía and Adriana tried again and showed immigration authorities more medical information from the hospital, Alma’s birth certificate as proof of the family relationship, and information about the person responsible for them during their stay in the US (Alma’s other sister, Leticia, a US resident) But they got the same answer–come back later.

On June 15, Parkland Health gave them devastating news. “The patient is hospitalized in intensive care due to rapidly spreading cancer and is not responding to treatment. Unfortunately, we cannot cure her. Her breast cancer is very aggressive and affects multiple organs. Her life expectancy is less than three months,” reads the document that the hospital sent to the Mexican consulate in Dallas.

“They [the hospital] were about to discharge her,” said Adriana. So the two women once again boarded a bus for the 12-hour ride from Aguascalientes to the Nuevo Laredo border crossing. Again they were denied humanitarian parole. The immigration agents now thought that their repeated attempts were a clear indication that they intended to remain in the US illegally. “I just wanted to see my daughter before she died–that’s all,” said Lucía Méndez. They pleaded with the authorities to no avail, and were even warned that any further attempts would impact future visa applications.

Lucía’s daughter was dying, but she couldn’t just wring her hands and do nothing. They decided to try the Piedras Negras (Coahuila, Mexico) crossing across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. “It was even worse there,” said Adriana, referring to all the migrant caravans that arrive there. “They wouldn’t let us approach the checkpoint to talk to the agents.” They asked the US immigration authorities if Leticia, a legal resident, could come to the border crossing and assume responsibility for them. “She would be accountable,” said Adriana. “If we don’t leave, then she goes to jail. We’re not interested in staying in the US–I have my husband and children in Mexico, and my mother has her own home. We just wanted to see my sister.” But that didn’t sway the authorities. “They said we were denied entry because Alma was undocumented.” Lucía and Adriana returned to Aguascalientes, disheartened. Alma died two days later.

Now that Mexico has been turned into an immense retaining wall for migrants trying to enter the United States, procedures at the official border crossings have become even stricter. “Everything was very confusing. We were told that the Mexican consulate doesn’t intervene in situations like ours. We were very uninformed,” said Adriana. They were later told that they should have gone to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ branch office in Aguascalientes to ask for help right from the start.

Journalist Wendy Selene publicized Lucia’s plight on social media, and their story eventually made the Mexican authorities take notice. On June 20, the Mexican consul in Eagle Pass, Ismael Naveja Macias, informed Lucía and Adriana that they had been granted humanitarian parole permits allowing them to attend Alma’s funeral on June 23-24. “We will be waiting for them to arrive so we can complete the process. The consulate is ready to help,” wrote Naveja.

As she boards the bus that will take her back to the border, Adriana Hernández thinks of her sister. She described Alma as a young woman who loved music and makeup, and was determined to care for her four children. She was usually reserved, but sometimes made daring posts on Facebook. “She was a serious woman, but loved to joke around once she got to know you,” said Hernández, as she started the journey to say goodbye to her sister.

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