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Rocinante High School students learned about immigration during a panel discussion Monday morning. Hannah Grover, hgrover@daily-times.com

Local musician, wife and children likely headed back to Honduras

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FARMINGTON — Mauricio Espinal loves his home country of Honduras. He plans to return there someday and work to improve it.

He just hopes that's not for several more years.

Espinal, the music director at Templo Sinai Assembly of God church on McCormick School Road in south Farmington, came to Farmington with his wife and two children nearly five years ago on an R1 religious visa, which he renewed two and a half years ago.

That renewed visa is set to expire June 3, and Espinal's efforts to obtain a residential visa — which would allow him and his family to remain here for another 10 years — has been stalled with the federal agency that oversees such applications.

That leaves the family facing the distinct possibility of being uprooted from its life in Farmington and returning to Honduras, where an uncertain future awaits the Espinals.

Mauricio Espinal is a well-known figure on the local music scene, having become a part of the various community bands and orchestras based at San Juan College. He regularly performs and/or records with such highly regarded local artists as Delbert Anderson and Sheldon Pickering, and he has converted his office at Templo Sinai into a small home studio, complete with keyboards, microphones, a mixer and a computer where he likes to work on small recording projects.

Tuesday morning, he calmly and in great detail laid out the dilemma he and his family are facing, insisting they aren't looking to cut any corners and that they aren't seeking special treatment.

"We've been here legally, not illegally," he said. "We've been paying taxes. We've built our lives here. I've built my credit here. My kids have been in the schools of the area. … We bought all our furniture here. We live in a nice apartment. We have a normal life — a very, very normal life."

Espinal knew the R1 visa he had obtained with the help of his church was going to buy him only a certain amount of time in the United States. The R1 allows religious workers — defined as ministers or those employed in the religious vocation — to work in the country for up to five years, according to the website immihelp.com.

So, more than a year ago, he began the process of seeking a long-term residential visa that would give him and his family the security they were seeking. With the help of an immigration lawyer, they secured and submitted all the necessary applications and paperwork, hoping their application would be approved in a timely fashion.

Espinal was directed to a federal website where he could monitor the status of his application through the various stages of approval. He watched as his application proceeded through the first three categories smoothly, but when it reached the fourth category in March 2017, he waited in vain for additional action. His application has been stuck there for a year as federal officials process a backlog of applications.

If that approval doesn't come by early June — and Espinal's attorney has warned him there is no reason to expect that to happen — he and his family will be forced to return to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, a crowded city of 1.5 million people where his family lives.

He finds that prospect distressing, to say the least.

"The situation in Honduras is not so good right now," Espinal said quietly. "My country has been struggling with political corruption and organized crime, drug lords. And there is a lack of opportunities for artists like me."

Anderson, a local jazz band leader and adjunct faculty member at San Juan College, and Pickering both rave about Espinal's musical talent and character.

"He's probably the best (piano) player in the northwest (New Mexico) area," Anderson said. "He's a very good reader, composer and music producer. He kind of does it all, really. He has a deeper connection with all that stuff. He's definitely a pro."

Espinal played strings and synthesizer on Pickering's 2018 recording "Along for the Ride" and will be featured on his new disc due out this spring. Over the course of their friendship, Pickering estimates that Espinal has performed on more than two dozen of his tunes.

"I think there is so much potential for him here," Pickering said. "He's such a gifted composer and arranger. There's no one in our area who can do that as well and as fast as he does. He's just brilliant at what he does."

Espinal has a way of making any project he gets involved in better, Pickering said.

"He's so good. You kind of give him your vision, and he hears it," Pickering said. "He can play any style and do it really nice."

Anderson recalled how he and Espinal joined forces to record and produce a CD titled "Christmas in B flat." The two chose the music together, but Espinal did most of the heavy lifting in terms of arranging all the tunes. That's typical of his work ethic, Anderson said.

"He always does more than he's asked to," Anderson said. "When you work with him, he makes sure you get the very best of him."

Mick Hesse, a member of several local brass music groups and a board member at the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation, said a group he performs in called Celebration Brass recorded a CD with Espinal's help, and he couldn't have been more impressed with Espinal's professionalism.

"Mauricio has such command of the editing software he uses, he made us sound great," Hesse said.

Espinal's involvement took the project to a new level, Hesse said.

"He had good ideas about what the sound should be and how he could enhance it in the software," Hesse said.

Espinal and his wife Elisa both have a college degree — his is in music education and hers is in preschool education. But Espinal has no idea if he will be able to find work in Honduras, and his family has no apartment, no furniture and no car there. They will be forced to rely on his family for support until and unless Espinal can find a way to provide for them.

"Being here in the United States has been a great opportunity because it gave us the opportunity to give our kids more doors," he said. "Those are doors we don't have in Honduras. It's been a blessing for my family, the education of my children and the opportunity for them to go to college."

Espinal and his wife hope to remain in America long enough for their children — 17-year-old Adrian and 14-year-old Sofia — to graduate from college and possibly start families of their own. At that point, they would welcome a return to their native country, where they could apply many of the things they've learned and admire about the United States.

But going back there now would be disruptive to his family, Espinal said.

"I think the hardest part for my family would be for my son Adrian," he said. "He'll be a senior next year, and he won't be able to finish high school in the United States. His friends are here, and he's involved in the music program. I thought we were going to see him graduate from (Farmington High School), and we're not going to have that."

More: Farmington pianist, composer breaks new ground on latest disc

Espinal's daughter would be able to resume her life in Farmington upon the family's possible return with a new visa, but he said Sofia was so young when the family moved here that life in America is her main reference point.

"Anything she knows about schools and friends, it's here," he said.

Pickering recalled how he had Espinal and his family to his home one year for a Christmas celebration, and they immediately became close.

"They sort of became part of the family," he said. "His kids are so talented and smart. They're the kind of people that if you could ever think of having model citizens in this country, it would be them."

If Espinal's residential visa application remains stuck in limbo, the family can reapply for another R1 religious visa after leaving the United States for a year, and that is what Espinal plans to do. He has received strong assurances that his job at Templo Sinai will be waiting for him when he returns, and he is grateful to have the support of his pastor and church community.

Espinal and his wife have chosen to leave their car and furniture here to avoid the expense of shipping them to Honduras and to ease their transition back to life in America when they return. But that leaves them starting from scratch in Honduras.

And with that June deadline rapidly approaching, he knows there is only so much his church can do for his family.

"Right now, in this moment, we need resources to live in Honduras," he said. "The church can help us some, but they can't help us with a full-time job, because I (won't be here)."

Pickering regards the imminent departure of Espinal and his family as unacceptable.

"I think it's a sad time in our country when it has to be so hard for people to do things the right way," he said. "We give them so many hoops to jump through."

Espinal and his family continue to contribute a great deal to their church community and the local music community, Pickering said, in spite of the fact that they are increasingly focused on their own survival.

"These aren't bad people. These are amazing people," he said. "But they're caught in this bureaucratic nightmare of paperwork that could keep them jammed up for years."

Hesse said he respects the approach Espinal has taken to his situation.

"He's very optimistic about the future, and he puts everything in God's hands," he said. "So, in one sense, that might make it easier for him."

Uneasy as he is about returning to his home country under difficult circumstances, Espinal insists he and his family will play by the rules when June rolls around. If he has to spend a year in Honduras biding his time until he can secure a visa to return to the United States, so be it, he said.

"This is the only way," he said. "We want to respect the law. We are ready to go through this process. My family and I are people of faith. We believe we can do good."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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