Ruben Zamora got the tattoos when he was 16. There’s the headdress on his back. His mom's last name stretching across his shoulders. The laughing and smiling faces inked into his bicep.
At the time, he was hanging around with a new group of guys; he was just trying to be cool. He liked how they looked, and thought, why not.
But now, Zamora’s tattoos have torn his family apart. Even though he’s lived in New York since he was eight, is married to a U.S. citizen, and has two young children born here, he hasn’t been allowed to return home from Mexico for more than a year.
Getting tattoos “was one of my biggest mistakes in my life,” he told me in a phone call from a suburb of Mexico City, where he’s been living since he was separated from his family in July 2014 while trying to get legal status.
The State Department claims the tattoos are evidence that he’s a member of a criminal organization—and he’s not the only immigrant to be denied a visa for his ink. But Zamora, 29, says that he's never been a gangster and the tattoos alone shouldn’t be enough to bar him from the country where he’s lived most of his life.
“My only crime was to get these tattoos,” he said.
Last year, hoping to get a job with benefits and give his family a better life, Zamora decided to pursue acquiring legal status. The fact that he was married to a citizen and had lived and worked in the U.S. for decades made him a prime candidate, and he was told he just had to go back to Mexico for two weeks while he submitted his application.
Things took a turn when Zamora went in for the medical exam at the American consulate in Juarez and a nurse told him to take his clothes off. “She saw my tattoos and she started writing,” Zamora said.
In the interview, Zamora thought he’d be asked about his family, his job, where he lived. But it seemed like all the officials were interested in were the tattoos. And then he got the denial letter, letting him know that he wouldn’t be going back to New York.
Last week, the State Department supported the consulate’s decision in an email to Zamora’s lawyers. “It is a probability, supported by the facts, that the alien is a member of an organized criminal entity,” the email read.
“I just thought it was going to be coming here, doing the interview and going back home,” he said. “If I ever thought that I would have been having problems with my tattoos, I would never have risked coming back here.”
The separation is taking a toll on his family. In an interview in her fifth-floor walk-up apartment in the Bronx, Zamora’s wife Vanessa Ruiz said she had put off medical bills and almost lost her housing after her husband, the breadwinner, went away.
"They broke my heart" when Zamora was denied a visa, Ruiz said. Their two sons, Ryan, 10, and Aiden, 3, are struggling without their dad. "They ask me every day, when is papa going to come home, and I don't know how to explain it to them," she said.
In February, they went and visited Zamora in Mexico. They stayed in the state of Puebla, going out every night to a festival, and the boys’ faces would light up.
“It felt like we were a family again,” Ruiz said.
It was hard for Zamora, especially to see how much he had missed, especially with his three-year-old. “You have that image of your kid when you left him and you expect to see him the same way,” Zamora said. “He’s grown fast.”
Now, they communicate over FaceTime. "Te quiero mucho," Ruiz told him, sobbing, as she hung up a call on Wednesday night.
Living in Mexico with his aunt, Zamora said the tattoos even make it hard to get a job there. He’s working part-time at a bakery, making a few dollars a day.
A State Department spokesperson said that they could not comment on individual cases, but said that “a consular officer considers all available evidence regarding potential gang affiliation during the visa process.”
The tattoo that looks the most suspicious is the two faces on his left arm, one laughing and one crying. It’s associated with the Sureños, a Mexican-American gang. Zamora says the guys he was hanging around with as a teenager suggested it, and he stopped seeing them soon after. Barely a year after he got the tattoos, he started a job as a busboy at a bustling Jamaican restaurant in the West Village and met Vanessa. He held the same job for 11 years.
“How would he even have time to be in a gang?” Ruiz asked. He would work double shifts, and spend his weekends with his family.
One of his co-workers, Gabriel Zapata, said the idea of Zamora being in a gang was ridiculous. "He was always calm, always a good person," Zapata said. He thinks the denial has to do with prejudice against Latin American men with tattoos.
"I'm standing here, not a problem for anyone," Zapata said. He pulled up his pant leg, showing a colorful design snaking up his ankle. "And now I'm a danger to society."
Zamora isn’t the first person to get denied a visa because of his tattoos. Several other Mexican men have had the same problem. One Colorado man, Hector Villalobos, sued the State Department in 2012 over what he said was an unjust decision.
Attorney Patrick Taurel, who represented Villalobos, said the lawsuit was thrown out in court, and the State Department's internal appeal was a dead end. “In our case, they were so sloppy they didn’t even get my client’s name right in their decision,” he told me. Villalobos has been living in Mexico ever since.
A Supreme Court decision handed down last year seemed to close the courthouse door on any chance of judicial review, backing up the notion of “consular non-reviewability,” that as long as State Department has some bona fide reason for denying a visa, a denial can’t be appealed to courts. The idea is that if even a fraction of the millions of people who apply for a U.S. visa each year decided to appeal a denial, the courts could be overwhelmed.
The only option, it seems, is for Zamora and his family to convince the State Department to reconsider by giving them as much evidence as possible that he’s not a gang member. Audrey Carr, his lawyer, said an expert in Mexican gangs has written an affidavit saying Zamora is not a gang member. They’re also hoping to put public pressure on the agency.
“You can’t deny someone a visa solely because of his tattoos,” Congressman José Serrano, who represents Ruiz, said in a statement. “I believe the process needs to be examined to ensure it is fair and that applicants’ rights are protected, especially in cases like Mr. Zamora’s where you have someone with deep roots and family ties in the United States.”
Of course, Zamora is also thinking about having the tattoos removed. He’s made plans, he said, to get rid of at least the one associated with the Sureños.
But he knows that even if he can take the ink out of his skin, the State Department still has the photos on record. All he can do is hope for a change of heart.
“They shouldn’t just judge me because of the appearance of my tattoos,” he said. “I just want to see my family again.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.