Ruben Zamora, a Mexican immigrant living in New York, seems like a perfect candidate for legal status. He's lived most of his life in the U.S., is married to a U.S. citizen, and has two young children born here.
But for the last year, he's been stuck in Mexico, barred from re-entering the U.S. and seeing his family—all because of his tattoos.
Zamora's legal status application was denied, his lawyers say, after the American consulate in Mexico falsely assumed that his tattoos were gang-related.
“My kids, like every day they ask me for their dad…When is he coming back and I don’t have an answer for them,” his wife Vanessa Ruiz told the New York Daily News.
Zamora was brought to the U.S. illegally at age eight. After marrying Ruiz, he decided to try to get legal status, and left for Mexico in July 2014 as part of a visa process. He thought he'd be able to come back after two weeks—but has been barred from returning since.
His lawyers say the hold-up is because of his tattoos: a headdress stretching across his back, faces on his arm, and word across his chest. The State Department can deny immigrants a visa because of known membership in a criminal organization, and tattoos can be one way to determine that, immigration lawyer Charles Medina wrote in a blog post.
"However, the presence of certain tattoos, by itself, should not a basis for finding the applicant inadmissible," Medina writes. "The consular officer must also consider the applicant’s own statements under oath during the visa interview and the applicant’s personal, criminal and immigration history."
Zamora has no history of gang membership, Ruiz said. In fact, Zamora got the tattoos not in Mexico but as a teenager living in Queens, and they're not gang-related at all.
The State Department supported the consulate's decision in an email to Zamora's lawyers last week. “It is a probability, supported by the facts, that the alien is a member of an organized criminal entity,” the email read. (A spokesperson declined to comment to the Daily News.)
There's no way to appeal a denial—but the family can provide more evidence to convince the State Department to reconsider.
This isn't the first example of someone being denied a visa for a tattoo. Hector Villalobos, a Mexican man living in Colorado, was also denied legal status in 2012 after leaving for Mexico because of his tattoos.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.