Bienvenidos: Juana Flores (center with flowers) was welcomed home Sunday at Oak Park by “Team Juana”: from left, (back row) Rose Muñoz, Ron and Sally Burns, Kraig Rice, Stuart Kasdin, Paula Perotte, Frank Ochoa, (bottom row) Cristina Flores, Andrés Flores, Salud Carbajal, Paula Lopez, and Bill Burke. Below, Juana and her husband, Andrés, and two of her granddaughters. | Credit: Erick Madrid

When Juana Flores heard the news — that she’d be able to return home to Santa Barbara — she couldn’t believe it.

She’d spent the last two years in her native Aguascalientes, Mexico, suddenly deported in 2019 after the Trump administration suspended the humanitarian waiver permitting her legal residence in the U.S.

Juana Flores is greeted by two of her granddaughters upon arrival at Oak Park, where her welcome home party was held. | Credit: Erick Madrid

Flores had spent most of that time alone, away from her husband, Andrés, and her 10 children and 18 grandchildren in Goleta, where she’s lived and worked for 30 years.

But now, to her delight and surprise, it was finally time to go home.

“When my daughter called me and told me [I could come home], I told her, ‘That can’t be true. I don’t believe you,’” Flores said in Spanish. “I couldn’t believe that I could be with my family again, to see my house again.”

More surprises were in store for Flores upon arriving in Santa Barbara last Friday. On Sunday, about 60 loved ones gathered at Oak Park for a surprise celebration in her honor, complete with savory taco plates, live mariachi music, and the warm embrace of family and community.

Juana and her husband Andres Flores. | Credit: Erick Madrid

Walking into the party, Flores was shocked.

“It was so nice,” she said. “I never expected my family to welcome me like this.”

A contingent of family, friends, attorneys, and elected officials have worked for years to find a way to bring Flores home. The deportation meant that she would have to wait 10 years before asking to return to the country, per federal law, but a legal team including retired Judge Frank Ochoa and immigration attorney Kraig Rice was committed to reuniting Flores with her family much sooner.

Finally, Congressmember Salud Carbajal successfully appealed to Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and secured Flores a one-year humanitarian parole. The work will continue in order to get her permanent residency before the parole is up.

Settling back into her Goleta home, Flores is happy, although it’s a transition, she said. To be gone for so long and to now suddenly be back feels “un poquito raro” — a bit strange — especially considering how abruptly this whole situation began.

Juana Flores by Erick Madrid

Flores entered the U.S. without a visa in 1988 and had received several humanitarian extensions over the years allowing her to stay in the country. She went to regular check-ins with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement until one day in February 2019 when they didn’t renew her extension and, two months later, told her she’d have to go back to Mexico. She went voluntarily, but it wasn’t easy.

“Everything happened so quickly,” she said. “We were all very sad.”

Flores grew up in Aguascalientes but going back to live there now hardly felt like a homecoming for her. She and her husband left Mexico decades ago. Returning as an adult, Flores said, was like going to a new place altogether, where she hardly knew anyone and felt unsafe being there alone. She twice had her husband and daughter visit her, but for most of her two years in Aguascalientes, she said, she felt depressed and alone.

“Sure, one might want to go back to their homeland,” she said, “but not in this way.”

There’s still more to do, but Flores and her community are hopeful to find a way to protect her from another deportation. Many in the community, including the entire Goleta City Council and Santa Barbara City Council, have advocated on behalf of Flores, the matriarch of her family and a loving, hardworking Santa Barbara community member.

Juana Flores talks with U.S. Congressman Salud Carbajal at her welcome home party. | Credit: Erick Madrid

Under the Protect Patriot Parents Act — legislation that was reintroduced by Congressmember Carbajal earlier this year and has not yet been signed into law — Flores could receive permanent residency as an undocumented parent of a U.S. military member: her son Caesar Flores, a U.S. Air Force sergeant currently stationed in Turkey.

There may be other options, too. But for now, Flores looks forward to soaking in everything she’s missed over the last two years: enjoying time with her daughters, celebrating birthdays and holidays with family, and getting back into her everyday routines.

Sometimes all the support can be touchingly overwhelming, but Flores doesn’t take any of it for granted. And though at times it may be hard for her to believe it, she’s got a big group of people — “Team Juana” — rooting for her.

“I’m so grateful that a lot of good people have helped me and have given [my family and me] such strong support,” she said.

“Ever since I left [to Mexico], they’ve never left me alone in this.” 

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