HOUSTON -- The couple, farmers from a village in the Mexican state of Veracruz, had traveled more than 1,200 miles to see their 26-year-old daughter, who was dying from an inoperable spinal tumor.
Jose and Ninfa Sanchez, both 48, had applied to cross legally at the Texas border city of Hidalgo under a program called humanitarian parole, designed to allow foreign nationals to come to the United States for emergencies, such as medical crises, court hearings or funerals. It was up to U.S. border officials to decide whether the parents could see their daughter, Maria, before she died.
Humanitarian parole is one of the quirks of U.S. immigration policy. It's sparingly granted under a system that is largely discretionary.
Applications come from across the globe, but in the southern border region, requests for humanitarian parole underscore the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Mexico.
And as the case of the Sanchez family shows, it's hard to predict who will be granted humanitarian parole and who will not.
"It is very difficult to obtain," said T. Douglas Stump, an Oklahoma City-based lawyer and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
He said about 20 percent to 25 percent of applications are approved. "It's purely discretionary to the agency," Stump said.
Daniel Cosgrove, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said there are no set criteria for approving the applications. Applicants must show an urgent, humanitarian reason for entering the country temporarily.
After the earthquake in Haiti three years ago, Cosgrove said, the Citizenship and Immigration Services saw a spike in humanitarian parole applications to more than 4,500. It granted 891, mostly to children in the late stages of being adopted by families in the U.S., Cosgrove said.
Last year, the agency received 1,210 applications for humanitarian parole and granted 353.