A dream delayed


Tampa, Fla. - A year ago, Dr. Salvador Galindo sat in an immigration holding facility in Miami, waiting to find out if he would be forced to leave the United States - the place he built his career and called home for more than a decade.

Tampa, Fla. — A year ago, Dr. Salvador Galindo sat in an immigration holding facility in Miami, waiting to find out if he would be forced to leave the United States — the place he built his career and called home for more than a decade.

On the rebound: For Dr. Salvador Galindo, paperwork errors led to a year-long struggle to return to work in the United States.

By now, he has returned to the United States after watching his finances shrink, his marriage fall apart, and his dream of becoming a board-certified veterinary surgeon put on hold.

But speaking by phone from his sister's home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico — more than 200 miles outside Mexico City — in October, only a little more than a week before his return to the United States, Galindo says he is not bitter, but simply looking forward to starting over ... again.

"It's been a very difficult time. I don't wish this for any one of my colleagues," says 38-year-old Galindo. "Now I have to restart everything. I lost my marriage. I got divorced. It was a nightmare."

Born, raised, and educated in Mexico, where he earned his DVM degree in 1995, Galindo first arrived in the United States in 1998 to see his infant son, Christian, born to an ex-girlfriend he met while she was teaching in Mexico. He wanted to be involved in Christian's life, so he studied English to get a job as a veterinary technician near Chicago so he could obtain a work visa.

Three years later, Galindo married and applied for a green card for permanent residency. But the marriage lasted only a year, and his green card application disintegrated with it.

But Galindo kept getting new visas over the next several years. For three years, he got professional training and student visas while he interned in the veterinary surgery and oncology departments at Purdue. He continued his training, without any grants or funding for his studies.

Eventually moving to Florida, Galindo got a surgical residency at a private practice and settled in Tampa. He re-married in 2007 and once again applied for his green card in pursuit of permanent residency in the United States.

But when his interview rolled around in August 2008, a paperwork error that would lead to a year-long immigration struggle came to light.

A warrant had been issued for Galindo's arrest because he had been summoned for an appearance after his first green card application. The summons was sent to an old Chicago address, returned to immigration services, and placed in his file, alongside his new information and work visas.

"Had someone looked into it further, they would have seen he had proper status and was in Tampa," says Galindo's attorney Jennifer Roeper.

The warrant meant Galindo would be deported, unless Roeper could get his Chicago case reopened and transferred to Tampa before he was put on a plane.

Immediately transferred to a holding facility in Florida from the hearing, Galindo was shuttled between Miami, Oklahoma, Texas, and then back to Miami to avoid hurricanes. He was shackled at the ankles, his wedding ring was lost, and he was rarely able to talk to his wife or attorney.

"They detained me and told me they were going to clarify things. But in the end they completely detained me," says Galindo, who had lost more than 20 pounds and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome by the time he eventually was released on bond. "I ended up staying (in holding facilities) for two months. I think our animals in the kennel live much better. They just mix you up with these criminals."

Sitting in the holding facilities, Galindo said he could remember taking the train to work in Tampa and seeing the homeless beg for money and wonder where he went wrong.

"I see these guys in the street just asking for money. I wish I could have their priorities. My taxes are paying for all these people somehow, yet the system comes and attacks me. I have no criminal record. I helped contribute to education and helped to teach Americans," he says. "It's amazing how these things work. And all that from one single mistake."

Reaching out to professional organizations yielded little support for Galindo, who only remembers one letter, from a foreign-born veterinarian in Arizona who could offer only words of comfort.

"I reached out to (various veterinary organizations), and I never got a response," he says. "I felt alone, to be honest. I have no family in the U.S. except my son. My family was basically my colleagues, and the people I used to count on, even the places I did my residency ... I felt they betrayed me."

But there is only so much professional organizations can do, Roeper explains.

"The immigration process is so complicated right now. There's really not much else (professional organizations) can do," says Roeper, adding the best that can be done is to refer veterinarians with visa problems to a good immigration attorney. "There are so many pitfalls along the way. Here's a case for a professional we thought was going to be perfectly smooth, but a paperwork error basically derailed his entire life. There are people who don't speak English or know our system. How are they supposed to get through this?"

Though he and his wife tried to fix their marriage, the stress of Galindo's immigration problems was too much for the couple and they divorced in June 2009. As a result, his new green card application was dismissed. Work visas can only be granted for six years, after which immigrants must pursue permanent residency through employer sponsorship or marriage. Since he was married, that's the road he took, Roeper says, but by the time his marriage fell apart, Galindo's six-year clock had run out and there was no time to pursue an employer-sponsored green card.

"Here's this nice guy that was in a brilliant career, making wonderful money, and this cost him his job and his marriage," says Roeper. "It's just so heartbreaking."

So, after escaping deportation, Galindo had no choice but to board a plane back to Mexico in mid-September with no money, no identification, and no right to work as a veterinarian.

"I was in shock because it was six or seven years that I didn't step foot into Mexico. When I came here, it's a whole different world," Galindo says, adding he would have to take additional training and exams to work in Mexico after letting his old license expire. "I see animals on the street and I can't take care of them. I don't have a license here anymore. I couldn't even work."

His old roommates from Purdue, now practicing veterinarians in the United States, sent him money to help until he got on his feet. In early October, word came from his attorney that he was awarded a new visa and could return to the United States on Oct. 14.

When he returned to Florida in late October, Galindo began working for Tampa Bay Emergency Services, a hospital where he used to moonlight that agreed to sponsor his new work visa. He's giving himself a year to develop clientele for the practice and will then turn his focus to preparing for his surgical board exams. His dream is to become board-certified in veterinary surgery, a feat he says no other native Mexican veterinarian has achieved.

"I call Mexico my home country, but my heart belongs to the United States."

Going forward, Galindo says he only wants to move past his problems of the last year and keep working toward his dream of becoming ACVS-certified. He plans on taking his boards in 2011.

"I feel I'm reborn. It's a new phase for me, and ... I've learned a lot," Galindo says. "I'm going back a different person, a more optimistic person."

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