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.”