He was known in Santa Fe as a man of the community.

Damian Herrera’s catering company served people across the city. His workout classes became a hit in fitness circles. And he was known to cook for hungry and homeless families as a volunteer.

But now he’s in a cell awaiting deportation, and his wife is unsure whether he’ll ever be able to return.

“This person being treated as an illegal human is the love of my life,” said Damian Herrera’s wife, Amy Herrera, unable to hold back tears.

Damian Herrera’s tragic story has not only resulted in a broken family and a saddened community, but it exemplifies the plight undocumented immigrants can face in this country even when they become upstanding members of society.

It also demonstrates the real-life impact of the Trump administration’s efforts to tighten the screws not only on illegal immigration but legal immigration.

Herrera came to the U.S. some 20 years ago from Mexico and arrived in Santa Fe with his wife in 2007. He began working at restaurants and in other jobs to support himself and his wife, as well as his family back home.

He became a staple in town over the years — a chef and server at popular dining establishments from Tune-Up Café to Counter Culture to Jambo Cafe — and eventually started Juicy Foods, worked as a private chef and launched a catering business of his own.

Despite these successes and his nearly two decades of life in the U.S., Herrera was still undocumented. He longed to finally go through the legal process of becoming a citizen.

In 2018, he turned to an immigration law firm. His wife said attorneys advised him to voluntarily return to Mexico to request a visa at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez — the first step in the process to citizenship.

“The lawyers that we hired in Albuquerque were like, ‘Oh yeah, you’ll be fine. Go. This is a perfect case,’ ” said Amy Herrera, an American citizen who owns a colonics business on Avenida Aldea.

It wasn’t so perfect, as it turned out.

In Damian Herrera’s final interview, he was told his visa sponsor — his wife — hadn’t earned enough money the previous year for him to qualify, Amy Herrera said. And that was it — application denied.

Damian Herrera’s application was turned down due to the “public charge” rule, his wife said, a standard used to restrict certain immigrants on grounds that they could be an economic burden on the country.

The Herreras said no such burden existed because Damian would not need to rely on government benefits. That low-income year had been an anomaly for Amy, and her husband made plenty of money in Santa Fe, as his co-sponsors attested, she said.

While Damian Herrera remained in Mexico over the next year and a half, he filed a number of appeals to the decision, spending thousands of dollars on the process, his wife said. The appeals were repeatedly denied.

“They never fixed this thing called public charge,” Amy Herrera said of her husband’s lawyers at the time. “I don’t know immigration law. I just trusted these people to do what they said they were going to do.”

After the repeated rejections for a process that was supposed to be easy, and so much time far away from his wife, Damian Herrera decided to reenter the U.S. the way he had 20 years earlier — illegally.

“Immigration is so screwed up. It felt like it was never going to happen,” Amy Herrera said. “I know it’s wrong, but he thought he needed to come back.”

Shortly after crossing the border by foot in California last month, Damian Herrera and a group of migrants were picked up by a driver who was soon pulled over by the U.S. Border Patrol on Interstate 8, near El Centro.

For the past month, Herrera has been held under the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service at San Luis Regional Detention Center in Arizona. He’s been called upon to testify against the driver of the vehicle and is expected to be deported after that.

“When he went to Juárez, he feels he was very surprised his application was not approved,” said Christian Ham, a San Diego-based criminal defense attorney and public defender who is representing Herrera as a material witness in the case of the driver.

“I think he felt very desperate as his life was here, his wife was here,” Ham added. “Now, he’s in this situation.”

The Albuquerque law firm that represented Herrera during the consular process, Amparo Alevante, declined to speak about the specifics of his case.

When asked about Amy Herrera’s criticisms of the firm, attorney Santiago Juarez said he hadn’t had any communication with her recently and suggested a malpractice lawsuit would be an “appropriate place” to deal with any accusations.

“Immigration is really complicated,” Juarez said about the family’s complaints. “It’s not that simple to be able to say that.”

The Herreras ended their engagement with the firm months ago, and Juarez said he was unaware Damian Herrera had been detained.

Regardless of how the case was handled, the initial denial of Herrera’s application would appear to be the effect of President Donald Trump’s repeated efforts to clamp down on both illegal and legal immigration.

Under Trump, it has become much more difficult for immigrants applying for visas or green cards to overcome the public charge ruling, said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a new public charge rule in February that imposed more stringent requirements on applicants. After the rule was challenged in court, an appeals court allowed the federal government to resume applying it last month.

“The bar has been significantly raised based on this public charge ruling,” Brown said.

That comes on top of an already complex labyrinth of rules and procedures that can make it very challenging for people to immigrate legally.

“The bottom line is the system is extremely complicated,” Brown said. “It’s easy to do something wrong.”

Back home in Santa Fe, Herrera’s friends and former colleagues are devastated by the news.

Sabah Peach, co-owner of Railyard Fitness, said Herrera was a big hit with her members.

He would work out at the gym every day and began making salads and raw food desserts that the gym sold to members. Soon, he started a boxing circuit training class on Saturdays.

“Everybody in the gym loved him. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to help you if you needed a hand,” Peach said. “He’s one of those people who’s the nicest, friendliest, sweetest, most hardworking people you’ve ever met.”

Before Herrera left for the consulate in Mexico, Peach attended a goodbye gathering at Cowgirl BBQ on Guadalupe Street. She said everyone expected to see him again very soon.

“It doesn’t make any sense that a married couple can’t be together — who love each other,” Peach said.

It also doesn’t add up that a valuable, well-regarded member of a community couldn’t put himself on the path to citizenship, Peach said.

“Damian went over there to fix things,” Amy Herrera said about her husband’s trip to Mexico. “He wanted to do things the right way, and then this is the outcome of it.”

Amy Herrera isn’t sure what to do now. She said she’s only allowed to speak with her husband for three minutes a day while he’s in detention.

She’s also worried her husband’s testimony against the driver could lead a criminal enterprise to retaliate against him once he’s back in Mexico.

Mostly, she deeply misses him and wishes they could be living their life together in Santa Fe again.

“I have not been doing very well. I’ve been struggling a lot,” Amy Herrera said. “I really wanted him to come back.”

Reporter

Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

(24) comments

Comment deleted.
Tania Martinez

Where in the article did it say he didn’t pay taxes? You have no idea who these people are. To take the time and write something judging someone you don’t even know. He was following lawyers orders. Nothing here says anything about them being above the law.

Lee DiFiore

In order to present both sides of the immigration story, how about a couple articles on illegal immigrants here committing violent felonies like murder, sexual assault, child abuse and robbery?

John Raifsnider

For anyone who says "Laws must be followed. Period!" step back and ask yourself this question: "Have not laws been written by human beings to benefit human beings?" When the benefits decline, in proportion to the loss and pain certain laws continue to blindly impose, why then continue to follow words written in crumbling stone? Why then do we not look at the consequences of some laws on the books which act mechanically and without mercy, which have not the ability to bend and adapt to actual human needs in a human way that does not wound a greater living spirit within us? Why must certain laws, written imperfectly by imperfect men (mostly men) be thought more sacrosanct than human life and value, more important than the well being and happiness of those who live and work beside us? Does there not come a time when some laws must be changed, transformed or struck down entirely, simply because we are evolving into a more mature society--now capable of serving one common good out of of compassion rather than the rigid belief in punishment and pain? Let us question our failing system first. Let us restrain the worthless impulse to blame vast numbers of people who are being crushed under feet as casualties of cruel and feckless laws whose time to die has come.

Stefanie Beninato

Wow!!! The lack of empathy from most of these posters is truly depressing. Certainly Damon Herrera was a kind, concerned and contributing member of our community. Why diss him? Would you want to rely on a process that could come down to a whim of an official or if you hadn't done "well enough" in any given year and the government refuses to look at say 5 years of income....If I was an immigrant, I would be terrified to try this process and if I was already here with a family I might, like he did, keep my head down for years avoiding the risk.

Yazmin Lara

[thumbup]

Tania Martinez

Damian is one of the kindest most hard working people I know. This couple spends Thanksgiving morning making breakfast burritos and driving around town passing them out to the homeless. After they invite family and friends over for a morning run to make sure we keep moving our bodies even on holidays. They feed whoever comes into their home. They teach. We need more people like this in this world. How can we keep this kind of person out of our country?

Yazmin Lara

[thumbup]

Andrew Lucero

You know, it’s always easy to take cheap shots at whoever is sitting in the White House and blame them for this. God knows, I can’t stand Trump and have more than my fair share of grievances with him. But, it’s pretty disingenuous to lay this man’s predicament at his feet. I’m 78 years old, and if we are going to be honest about this, we have to acknowledge that the Trump Administration has done no more or less in enforcing immigration laws than any other Administration has done in my lifetime. We also cannot ignore one undeniable fact. That Mr. Herrera knowingly and willingly chose to enter this country illegally. I have always been 100% pro- immigration. But I am also 100% anti-illegal immigration. Mr. Herrera sounds like a fine man. The kind of hard-working and enterprising individual that we want in our country. I would be far more sympathetic to his plight, if he had taken personal responsibility for his actions and also not chosen to wait 20 years to do something about his immigration status. I sincerely wish him well and hope everything works out for him and his wife. I will happily welcome him back with open arms as soon as he completes the legal immigration process.

Shawn Chafins

👍

Angel Ortiz

[thumbdown][thumbdown][thumbdown]

Irene Edwards

Perhaps when that man in the White House is voted out things can be changed for the people like the Herreras. I know of another family caught in a similar situation. Very sad when those positive contributors to society are punished by ignorant rules and processes.

Pam Walker

I too wonder why he waited 20 years to do it right. But in this instance he sounds like a fine man I do hope eventually they do it right. I have no problem with legal immigration in any way. Welcome with open arms. I do believe the ones slipping in, endangering their families need to be stopped period. The burden on the country is real and we all have to pay for them whether we want to or not.

Carlos Vasquez

like the Natives who tried to befriend you whites; and the Africans you stole ...WE made the country, we are the people who were here when America was named after an Italian immigrant, we are the ones whose blood sweat and tears are at the foundation still, and we will be the ones who remain when you are gone.

Yazmin Lara

[thumbup]

Nancy Lockland

One less immigrant.

Carlos Vasquez

one more white supremacist

David Ford

said the immigrant...

if his skin color was orange instead of brown it may have changed his outcome...

Yazmin Lara

Wow one less immigrant. [censored A

hard working one that even fed the homeless, etc! At least he wasn't burning the system like some of the citizens I know. Or wasn't at median with a sign. Most Immigrants work sometimes even two or three jobs.

Angel Ortiz

Where did you transplant from?

Steve Spraitz

This goes to show you that you cannot trust a lawyer , particularly when you see their lips move , as long as they get a cut from your pocket .

Red Eagle

This story is sad, however why did Damian Herrera wait 20 years to decide to go through the legal immigration process?

Also, when did reporters get paid to report their opinions, “ Regardless of how the case was handled, the initial denial of Herrera’s application would appear to be the effect of President Donald Trump’s repeated efforts to clamp down on both illegal and legal immigration.” I thought newspapers were suppose to report facts no speculation.

The fact remains Mr. Herrera is being detained for crossing the border illegally.

Carlos Vasquez

hey brother, good thing trump and the whiteman treats you so well...

Shawn Chafins

Sounds like a nice guy.

Written laws are to be followed. It's unfortunate he waited 20 years to address this and to put his wife through difficult situation.

Michael Grimler

"....I thought newspapers were suppose to report facts no speculation...."

Hahahahaha!

That's a good one!

So-called "journalists" and "newspapers" have been pushing the Liberal/Democrat/Socialist agenda and indoctrination via their "reporting" for decades.

This is just more of that.

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