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Nothing in Maria Mendoza-Sanchez’s ’13 early life in small-town Mexico or in her long career as a nurse hinted at the public spotlight she would one day attract. But two years ago, the Highland Hospital oncology nurse and mother of four made headlines when she and her husband were deported to Mexico, leaving behind three of their children. Before their departure, however, Mendoza-Sanchez put up the fight of her life, backed by colleagues, community members, and classmates from Holy Names University.

Homeowner, taxpayer, school volunteer. Mendoza-Sanchez’s family’s life was deeply embedded in Oakland, their hometown for over 20 years. Facing deportation, Maria wondered: “What if I raise some community support?” Friends and neighbors gathered signatures in protest of her deportation and encouraged her to write her senator. When all else failed, she took her case to the press.

The heart-rending immigration case, which barred the couple from returning to the U.S. for 10 years, drew empathy and active support from political leaders including Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who worked first to prevent her deportation and later supported her return to the U.S.

Today, Mendoza-Sanchez is back with her children in Oakland, for at least three years. “It was a long fight, but it ended up being worth it for my family,” she says.

At Lee’s invitation, Mendoza-Sanchez attended the February State of the Union Address in Washington D.C., one of many lawmakers’ guests who put a face to national issues.

Mendoza-Sanchez demonstrated determination and resilience from a young age. At 14, she left an abusive home just north of Mexico City for the capitol. There, she supported herself by cleaning homes while earning a technical degree to become an executive secretary. She also met and married Eusebio Sanchez.

After the birth of their first child in 1994, they crossed over the U.S. border to secure work permits and build a life of opportunity for their young family.

Called to Heal

She knew no English but took classes to learn. Working in housekeeping for an assisted living center in Alameda became the gateway to Mendoza-Sanchez’s future career in health care. She earned promotions to receptionist, then administrative assistant. Later, while working in a nursing home, she yearned to offer hands-on comfort. But no nursing credential meant she was banned from even passing residents a glass of water.

Determined as ever, Mendoza-Sanchez trained to become a certified nursing assistant; then a licensed vocational nurse through a community college.

As her career advanced, Mendoza-Sanchez’s aspirations grew: She wanted to earn a BS in nursing and better provide for her family. In 2011, she applied to HNU’s BSN program as an adult degree-completer. She recalls a pivotal conversation with Fay Bower, then chairperson of the department: “Dr. Bower asked me if I could do it while I was working full time, (because) it wouldn’t be easy,” Mendoza-Sanchez says. “I told her that all I wanted was the opportunity—and she gave it to me.

Holy Names was one of the best things that happened to me,” Mendoza-Sanchez adds. “The day I received my letter of acceptance, I decided to work double (shifts) to make it happen.”

Then in 2013, with the degree finish line in sight, Mendoza-Sanchez and her husband were ordered to leave the country. After a series of frustrating legal experiences, an HNU classmate recommended she write Feinstein, who responded within a week.

Meanwhile, Mendoza-Sanchez’s nursing classmates and teachers gathered petition signatures, and an HNU tutor started a Change.org campaign on behalf of the couple. Their efforts worked. Mendoza-Sanchez and her husband received a one-year stay of deportation, largely because she was close to graduating. Thereafter, they were required to renew their work permits every six months, which were repeatedly approved—until President Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Luck of the Draw

In August 2017 their luck ran out, and Mendoza-Sanchez, her husband and their 12-year-old son, returned to Mexico. Separated from her daughters, her career, and home, she sank into a deep depression. Hope, however, was not lost.

Sponsored by her employer, Alameda Health Services, Mendoza-Sanchez entered a visa lottery for an H-1B visa for immigrant workers with specialized skills and advanced degrees. And—“I won the lottery! I’ve never won a lottery in my life,” she says. She returned to the U.S. in December.

Mendoza-Sanchez expresses gratitude at being reunited with her children—and the work she loves.“I care a lot for my patients and now I care even more,” she says. “I think this experience is making me a better person and a better nurse.”