WEST, Texas (MCT) — When Sandra Villalobos left her home here in February to go to Mexico, the plan was to return with her 11-year-old daughter, who had been raised there, and a green card.
She brought her disabled 7-year-old daughter, Mariana, with her. Villalobos' husband accompanied them for a short time and returned to West. In three months, Villalobos hoped, they would all reunite in the United States.
The plan was to live here legally as an ordinary family of four, splurging on McDonald's after Mass, dressing up for quinceaneras.
On April 17, that dream was shattered.
The West fertilizer plant explosion killed Villalobos' husband, Mariano Saldivar, 57, along with 14 others. It destroyed the family's apartment and the white Chevy sedan they had paid off in December.
Then came another blow. When Saldivar died, the approved green card petition for his wife was automatically revoked.
Now Villalobos' quest for legal status, a difficult process even under the best circumstances, has become tangled in red tape.
"In the immigrant community, people know that this is complicated, and there's no guarantee, and things could go wrong at any time," said Karen Crawford, Villalobos' attorney. "Of course, she had no idea how wrong it was going to go.
"Nobody would have seen this coming."
The 33-year-old mother came back to the U.S. in August on humanitarian parole, a temporary protection.
On school day afternoons, Villalobos sits in the living room of a modest West house where she's staying with relatives. What's left of her own home — a plastic bin filled with photo albums — is stashed in a closet.
She waits on borrowed time for papers that might not come.
A West ISD bus delivers Mariana to her mother after school. Before the blast, her father was the one who unloaded the girl's little wheelchair covered in Dora the Explorer stickers.
Mariana, who is repeating first grade, was born with spina bifida, a congenital defect that paralyzed her from the waist down. She has no bowel or bladder control.
Mariana is an American citizen by birth. She depends on Villalobos for survival, but as a minor, she can't request a green card for her caregiver.
Villalobos' older daughter, Karen, is still in Mexico. That's where Villalobos said she would be if she could. But what future would Mariana have there?
"I adapt to any life there, but she can't," Villalobos said in Spanish.
In 2005, Villalobos, then a single mother, came to the United States after deciding to take up Saldivar's offer to help her. Seeking a better life, she asked her mother to look after Karen and ventured across the Rio Grande with a smuggler.
Mariana was born in Fort Stockton in January 2006. The girl was the witness at her parents' surprise courthouse wedding on Valentine's Day of that year.
The couple wore jeans. There was no money for a ring.
"I owe it to you," Saldivar told his wife.
But there was something else he could give her. Saldivar offered to request a green card for Villalobos. He was a legal permanent resident, but she could be deported any day.
Villalobos said no. Husband and wife were 25 years apart in age, and people were already talking about her motives. She didn't want to validate rumors.
The family moved to West five years ago. Saldivar's health was sliding. Arthritis plagued him. The family relied on his disability benefits to pay bills.
By last fall, Saldivar had lost 50 pounds. Sometimes he didn't want to get out of bed. But he had finally convinced Villalobos about the green card. He told her that Karen could come to the U.S. through the same petition. He urged Villalobos to think about Mariana, too.
"At this age, if something happens to me, what about the girl?" Saldivar told his wife.
The couple scraped together $4,000 by borrowing from family. In 2010, Saldivar petitioned for a green card for Villalobos that would also benefit his stepdaughter, Karen.
The petition was approved, and immigrant visas became available this year. In February, Villalobos traveled to Ciudad Juarez for processing at the American Consulate.
Because she had been in the U.S. illegally, she applied for a waiver of inadmissibility, stating that being denied entry would impose "extreme hardship" on her husband. The approval rate for waivers filed abroad was 88 percent last year, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"My only crime is entering here illegally," she said. "I have not robbed; I have not killed."
Waiver processing can take about six months. By April, the delay became more frustrating as Mariana weakened from urinary tract infections.
Villalobos updated her husband in West on the phone daily, but on April 17, he didn't pick up. She called his friends and relatives, who told her about the blast. His son Saul Saldivar flew from Oregon to find him.
Two days after the explosion, Mexican foreign affairs officials confirmed Saldivar's death.
"My world fell on me," Villalobos said.
After Saldivar's death, Villalobos was briefly let back into the country for his funeral. Then in mid-August, she was granted permission to return to West. She can remain as long as her green card application is being processed.
A recent federal policy allows people like Villalobos to ask for reinstatement of a green card petition under certain criteria. She has to prove she resided in the U.S. when her husband died and that she continues to live here while seeking relief.
Villalobos considers the things she'll do if she receives the green card: Bring Karen to West, find her own place, get a driver's license, take English lessons.
Ask Villalobos what she'll do if the green card doesn't come through, though, and anguish creeps into her face.
"I don't know," she said. "I don't know what I'll do."