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“She Was There For Us”: Immigrant Family Remembers Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Efforts To Keep Them Together

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Oakland resident María Mendoza said that California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who died on Sept. 28 at the age of 90, will “forever” be in her heart. The registered oncology nurse was not just a constituent. She credits the late Senator with helping her return to the U.S. and her daughters following her senseless deportation by the Trump administration in 2017.

“‘Senator Feinstein was the answer to my prayers,’ María said Friday. ‘From the first time I reached out to her for help, she was there for us,’” KQED reported.

The family’s saga to stay together in the U.S. stretches back years. It was 2011 when Mendoza and her husband, Eusebio Sanchez, learned that an immigration judge had decided against them. They sought help from Senator Feinstein, who filed a private bill (a bill to legalize their status, but only for their individual case) in their support. But they faced imminent deportation again two years later, when they learned their appeal had been denied. Buoyed by their clean criminal records and letters of support from the Senator, they were allowed to continue living and working in the U.S., as long as they checked in diligently with federal immigration officials. 

“We didn’t have any problem until 2016,” Mendoza told the “Immigrants Are Us” project. “But once President Trump became the president, I automatically knew that wasn’t good for us. Trump signed an executive order calling for deportations and that caught up to us in May 2017.” 

While the indicted former president claimed he was targeting so-called “bad hombres,” his executive orders made almost everyone a target for detention and deportation, including parents and workers like Mendoza and Sanchez. Their imminent removal was protested by hundreds of community members, including fellow health workers from the Alameda Health System. Lawmakers including then-Senator Kamala Harris and Rep. Barbara Lee joined Feinstein in condemning the administration’s actions. “This is a mistake,” Feinstein said at the time. “This shouldn’t happen.” 

But despite the massive show of support for Mendoza and Sanchez, the Trump administration refused to halt the deportations and the couple was ordered to leave in August 2017. KQED reports that the day before the deportation, Feinstein asked to visit the family at their Oakland home. 

“We were confused because we didn’t know what [Feinstein’s office] meant,” Vianney, the couple’s eldest daughter and a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, told KQED. “And it turned out that the senator had her staff drive her from her office in San Francisco all the way to our little neighborhood in East Oakland. She came into our house, took my mother by the hand, and let her know, ‘I’m sorry that I couldn’t stop this. But your kids are going to be okay. I promise you that they’re going to be okay.’ And she hugged my mom. She hugged us.”

The following day was filled with heart-wrenching images of the family saying goodbye at the airport. “I’m not leaving this country defeated, because I graduated from the university and that was not in my plans when I came here, or when I was a kid,” Mendoza told reporters at the time. She knew this was not the end of her story.

“With Feinstein’s help, a year and a half later, María Mendoza was able to return to California and her job at Highland Hospital on an H-1B visa, a temporary visa for skilled workers,” KQED reported. During the time that Mendoza was in Mexico, Feinstein also invited Vianney and her siblings to her Thanksgiving dinner. Following Mendoza’s return (dad Eusebio sadly is still separated from the family in Mexico) Feinstein again dined with the family, and unprompted, connected Vianney with an internship in her office. That role helped lead to an Alameda County District Attorney’s office position helping crime victims.

“The senator is someone who, to this day I hold near and dear to my heart,” Vianney told KQED. “She truly demonstrated to me the impact that one person can have.”

Senator Feinstein reportedly authored more private immigration bills than any other member of the U.S. Senate, and was a stalwart defender of child migrant rights, authoring the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act, which guarantees basic humanitarian protections to vulnerable children who arrive to our border by themselves, HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield said.

When the Trump administration attacked these protections as “loopholes,” Feinstein pushed back. “I know the intent of these laws because I authored two of them,” she wrote in a 2018 op-ed. She said she recalled watching the news and “seeing a 15-year-old Chinese girl trembling before a U.S. immigration judge. Despite having committed no crime, she was shackled and sobbing. She couldn’t speak English, and it was clear she had no understanding of what the judge was saying or what would happen to her.”

The girl had already been held for eight months by this time. Even though a judge would grant her political asylum, she continued to remain in detention. “This situation would not be allowed to occur today because Congress has enacted laws to provide basic humanitarian protections to unaccompanied immigrant children,” Feinstein continued in her op-ed.

“She was a strong supporter of the rights of Dreamers brought to this country when they were young,” Hetfield continued. “Senator Feinstein also shared HIAS’ position that members of Congress must work together to pass bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform to meet the challenges of global displacement. Her leadership will be missed.”