A personal look at immigration: BYU student balances life split by the border

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My husband, Oscar Gonzalez Hernandez, and I pose for a photo outside of our aprtment in Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico, on May 27. I’m currently sheltering in place here in Mexico. (Sydnee Gonzalez)

Leer en español: Estudiante de BYU equilibra una vida partida de la frontera

Editor’s note: Daily Universe editor-in-chief Sydnee Gonzalez has been living in Provo as a full-time BYU student for the past four years but recently joined her husband in Mexico after the university encouraged students to return home due to COVID-19. She continues to lead the Universe staff online.

After two years of doing long distance with my husband, I thought we were in the home stretch — then the pandemic hit.

My husband, Oscar Gonzalez Hernandez, and I have been living apart since we got married in May 2018. I’m finishing up a bachelor’s degree in communications at BYU in Provo, while he waits in Mexico for his visa to be processed. Our story isn’t typical, but neither is life during a pandemic. I’m learning that getting through difficult things like this is all about patience, perspective and perseverance.

We didn’t start out in a long distance relationship. We met in the fall of 2016 at a Latin dance spot in Provo called Afuego Fridays, a place my roommate and I went almost every Friday back then. One thing to know about my husband — he’s a great dancer. As we got to know each other, I was pumped to finally have a male friend I could dance with if I wanted a break from guys hitting on me on the crowded dance floor.

I didn’t view him in a romantic light until one night in February when we went to grab a bite to eat and then went dancing after. As I write this, I realize that sounds a lot like a date. But at the time, I just wanted a break from Cannon Center dinners and he had a car. Sometime that night, something clicked and I finally started to see something more in our relationship.

We started dating exclusively over the next few months. Neither of us was staying in Provo after the summer ended, though. He had to return to Mexico to renew his visa and I was starting a volunteer program teaching English in Guanajuato, Mexico. We’d be in the same country but not close — about 12 hours apart. We saw each other once during my four-month program and made plans to meet up in Mexico City, where we got engaged before flying to his hometown of Villahermosa to spend Christmas and New Year’s with his family.

In January 2018, he wasn’t able to get back into the U.S. We had to decide whether to postpone our marriage and try to apply for a fiance visa, or to get married in Mexico and apply for a CR1 spousal visa.

I remember one of my family members calling me and telling me to just wait, to let my fiance work out the visa stuff and then we could get married. But that’s not how I wanted to begin my marriage. I wanted us to start off by being a team and supporting each other. So after a few free consultations with some immigration attorneys, I decided the best choice would be to get married in Mexico.

I finished winter semester in Provo, then packed up and left the minute I completed my last final. I spent about a month in Villahermosa before we got married.

It was bittersweet for me. On one hand, we were finally getting married. But on the other hand, the day I had imagined — being surrounded by my family and friends — wasn’t happening. Only my parents were able to come. My four younger siblings, both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends were all back in the U.S.

I couldn’t help but be a little frustrated that the wedding we had originally planned in my hometown of Queen Creek, Arizona, where his family and friends could’ve attended, wouldn’t happen.

My husband and I during our first dance on our wedding day on May 26, 2018. (Lolita Hernandez Juárez)

This would be the first of many events — like holidays and birthdays together or shared friends and experiences — that I’ve missed out on as we’ve lived apart while waiting for Oscar’s CR1 visa, the visa available for spouses of U.S. citizens who have been married for less than two years.

That process was supposed to take nine to 11 months. But as we’ve learned, each immigration case is different and there isn’t always a one-size-fits-all timeline. Once granted, the immigrant must use the visa to travel to the U.S. within six months. After 90 days in the U.S., the immigrant must file for a green card — a step that comes with a $680 price tag plus $1200 in government fees and whatever additional lawyer fees have already been paid.

We’re currently in the last step of the visa process. We submitted the final round of paperwork at the end of February. Now we’re just waiting for the U.S. embassy in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, to assign Oscar an interview date so an officer can ask him questions to determine whether or not our marriage is bona fide. 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic caused all U.S. embassies in Mexico to suspend all routine consular and visa services on March 18 until further notice. In other words, we’re in limbo. 

Luckily, I’ve been forced to learn how to embrace uncertainty during the two years we’ve been married but living apart. I’ve lived my life one semester at a time, not knowing where or with whom I’ll be living the next semester.

I’ve found a few rare month-to-month housing contracts, discovered a complex desperate to sell their last contract half-way through the semester and purchased multiple contracts from people selling on Facebook. Luckily, I have an aunt that lives in Alpine. Otherwise, there have definitely been a few times I would’ve been living out of my car due to the difficulty of finding housing in Utah Valley that doesn’t come with a year-long contract. That’s the struggle with needing to have the flexibility to move when Oscar’s visa is approved.

After 11 moves in the past two years as I’ve gone between the U.S. and Mexico (never in the same apartment/house in either country), I’ve got my packing system down flat and don’t even bother breaking down my moving boxes at this point.

Finances are another thing that have grown a little more difficult due to the visa process. Besides helping each other out now and then, Oscar and I pretty much keep our money separate — it’s just easier that way when you’re living in two different places and have two separate costs of living.

Paying for school and the slew of international flights I need to see Oscar (usually I have to book two or three to get to where he is in Mexico) is difficult working part-time as a BYU student employee. Until recently when the economy went down with the pandemic, I also had a side gig editing articles remotely that I could fall back so I could still save money for tuition and other expenses if I had to travel to Mexico (where I unfortunately don’t have a work visa). It’s the job I used to support myself during Fall Semester 2018, which I took off to spend with Oscar and work through our visa application with our lawyer in Mexico.

It’s definitely been frustrating not being able to plan out my life more than a few months in advance. On the bright side, it made accepting the unknowns of the pandemic really easy for me. 

Now I’m in Mexico with Oscar. I bought a one-way ticket a few weeks after BYU moved all classes online and encouraged everyone to return home. Everyone that knows I’m here has asked me, “When are you coming back to the U.S.?” Right now, with so many unknowns in the world because of COVID-19, I honestly have no idea. 

I still have two semesters left of school to finish, so as long as BYU has in-person classes in the fall, I’ll find a way to be in Provo. I’ve sacrificed a lot — not the least of which is nearly two years of my marriage — to get to this point. There’s no way anything, even a global pandemic, will prevent me from graduating.

From left: Sydnee Gonzalez, Andrea Cabrera and Caroline Richards interview Evan Dantzcher for a project for the BYU School of Communications. I’ve been able to take advantage of many opportunities at BYU, but there’s also been some I’ve missed out on while I’ve been in Mexico. (Kris Boyle)

I think there are a lot of us who don’t know what the next week, month or year is going to look like now that our lives have been turned upside down by the virus. Maybe you have to miss out on having your loved ones at your wedding, or you’re not sure how you’ll be able to find a job, or you’re struggling with not seeing your family and friends for an extended period of time. Or maybe you’re just scared. 

As I’ve gone through every single one of those situations in the past few years, the only thing that’s gotten me through it is remembering that nothing can last forever. Sooner or later, better times are coming — they have to.

Take it from someone who’s gone through all those things and who has learned to embrace not having a plan: we’ll all get through this and we’ll be stronger for it when it’s all over. 

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