Story by Corrie Boudreaux and Angela Kocherga for El Paso Matters
CIUDAD JUAREZ – As the first day of classes neared, violinist Rodrigo Cardona Cabrera was filled with anticipation. After years of hard work and an impressive resume of performances across Mexico and the United States, the 19-year-old Ciudad Juárez native earned a scholarship to study music at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
“Of course, I’m very nervous because it’s a new experience for me,” Cardona said. “It’s like a new life. But I know that it’s going to be an amazing experience. I’m going to learn a lot about music and a lot about myself, and life.”
But his dream of studying music abroad nearly came crashing down when the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez was shuttered because of COVID-19.
“I had all my paperwork from the university and in June I made my (visa) appointment and paid all the fees but they told me that the appointments were delayed due to the pandemic. So they had given me an appointment for Aug. 12 and 13,” he said.
“The visa process was becoming very complicated because there are various decisions that the American government has made, because of the pandemic, to reinforce safety at the border and in the consulates,” said Gabriel Cardona, 50, Rodrigo’s father.
The result has been a delay for international students who need an appointment to complete their visa process to attend universities and other schools in the United States. Rodrigo’s family worried he would not get a visa in time for the start of the fall semester.
The Juárez native picked up his first violin as an elementary school student in 2011, when his parents urged him to audition for Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca. The renowned youth orchestra was founded in Ciudad Juárez when drug violence was raging to give children a path to a better future.
“I chose the violin because it was the only orchestra instrument that I recognized. And little by little, I began to have great affection for it,” Rodrigo said during a recent interview.
Gabriel Cardona said he and his wife encouraged their son’s talent. “He has always been very focused, very determined in wanting to continue his professional studies in music,” Gabriel said.
“We obviously had options here in our country, in Mexico. However, we believe that the educational system in terms of music is more organized in the United States,” the father said. The scholarship was also key to Rodrigo’s decision to attend a U.S. university.
A pandemic creates a visa application backlog
Rodrigo, like an untold number of international students, found their visa applications on hold. The shutdown of U.S. consulates as a COVID-19 precaution created a backlog of applications, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico acknowledges on its website.
Consulates in Monterrey, Guadalajara and Tijuana began accepting appointments for student visas again the first week of August. The Ciudad Juárez consulate noted in a statement posted on Facebook, “there are a limited number of appointments available” but expect delays.
The U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, the largest in the world, has not provided details publicly about how long those delays will last or the number of students struggling to get a visa appointment.
“If applicants have less than a week until they start class, they can request an emergency appointment,” according to a message from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico posted in Spanish on all consular websites.
The backlog of appointments means “students have been basically grounded,” said Sukant Misra, vice provost for international affairs at Texas Tech University
About 3,000 international students were enrolled at Texas Tech last school year and the university expected as many to attend this fall. At least 50 international students have notified the university they will not have their visas in time to attend the first day of classes Monday and more are likely. Some students have deferred their admission until the spring semester.
The university has waived all additional fees or other potential penalties for deferment.
Others may take classes online in order not to fall behind according to Misra.
“Unfortunately, there is very little we can do as an institution to assist with visas…” Misra said. Texas Tech provided students with letters verifying their admission and start date and stating that they had to be on campus “in the hope that they can use these letters to get an emergency appointment,” he said.
The impact in El Paso
The University of Texas at El Paso, which has about 1,400 international students enrolled this fall, said some have also experienced delays. “Throughout the month of July and August, F-1 (student) visa applicants have reported cancelations of their visa appointments due to the volume of applicants or shortages in personnel, at their corresponding U.S. Consulate,” UTEP officials said in a statement.
The backlog includes students of all ages who need visas. The delay in holding in-person classes has relieved some of the pressure for elementary and high school students from Ciudad Juárez who under normal circumstances cross the border during the school year to attend classes in El Paso.
“This has not affected us yet,” said Socorro de Anda, president of the Lydia Patterson Institute, a private school in El Paso Segundo Barrio which serves students on both sides of the border.
The school has about 300 students and about 70 percent commute from Ciudad Juárez and half of them have student visas. The other half are U.S. citizens who live on the Mexican side of the border.
Lydia Patterson is following the same schedule as the public schools in El Paso, which are not expected to resume in-person classes until mid-October. The delay in reopening means Lydia Patterson Institute students from Ciudad Juárez joined their classmates in El Paso in remote learning.
“We’re online and they can stay online as long as they need to until they get their student visas,” De Anda said.
But once schools reopen their doors, the visa backlog could affect students from Mexico who want to attend classes in person. “Their appointments at the consulate are being extended into, my understanding is, November and December,” De Anda said.
Finding a way to get a visa
When his visa appointment was rescheduled twice by the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, Rodrigo Cardona traveled to another Mexican city 800 miles away.
“At that time, my appointment had been moved to September, so it was impossible for me because I start classes at the end of August. Then, fortunately, I got an appointment in Guadalajara,” he said.
His father said the travel expenses were worth it even as the family dealt with economic hardship because of the pandemic. “We didn’t think twice. We decided that Rodrigo would change his appointment to Guadalajara so we could accelerate the process.”
Rodrigo was finally able to get his visa to cross the border in time to start the fall semester at Texas Tech University on Monday.
It’s a bright spot in a year filled with heartache for the Cardona family. His mother, Patricia Cabrera died of COVID-19 in mid-May and did not see her son leave for college.
“My wife, Rodrigo’s mother, departed to a better place some months ago due to the pandemic,” Gabriel Cardona said. “The future seemed very difficult. Without my wife here, the economic panorama of our family was complicated. With Rodrigo’s college studies very near, we had had an economic plan for that, but suddenly it came apart.”
He’s grateful to family, friends and coworkers for their help. Rodrigo is also filled with gratitude.
“I’m very grateful to my family who has always motivated me since the beginning. All the people who have been behind me, who have also been like part of my family,” he said.
The freshman is honoring his mother’s memory by working even harder to attain his dream.
“In life there are no excuses. In spite of being in a pandemic or suffering the loss of a very beloved person, this doesn’t mean that life ends. Just the opposite, it should be a reason to fight for what you want. You have to take courage from those experiences to keep going further,” he said.
Cover photo: Rodrigo Cardona of Ciudad Juárez was awarded a scholarship to Texas Tech to study music, but struggled to obtain the necessary student visa because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
Angela Kocherga contributed to this story. In addition to writing for El Paso Matters, she also serves as news director at public radio KTEP. You can listen to stories by her on air at 88.5 FM online at KTEP.org.