After Being Forced Apart for Years, Family of Bill De La Rosa ’16 is Reunited

By Rebecca Goldfine
In the fourteen years that Gloria Arellano De La Rosa was separated from her family, her second-oldest son, Bill, graduated from high school and from Bowdoin, earned two Oxford University master's degrees, and is close to finishing his doctorate from Oxford and obtaining a law degree from Yale.
Bill De La Rosa and his mother, Gloria, in Nogales, before walking across the border
Bill De La Rosa and his mother, Gloria, in Nogales, before walking across the Mexico-US border for Gloria's homecoming.

Her daughter, Naomi, and older son, Jim, have also been to college and started careers. Her youngest, Bobby, is a first-year university student.

The family was torn apart on October 13, 2009, the day Gloria left her house in Tucson, Arizona, to travel to Mexico for what she thought was a routine interview to obtain her green card. Remaining behind were her husband—who was a US citizen—and her children, all born in the US. At the time, they were four, nine, fifteen, and seventeen years old.

Instead of receiving her green card, however, Gloria was told she had broken the law by living without documents in the US for longer than a year and was barred reentry for ten years. The process of reentry was then delayed an additional four years and ninety-nine days by COVID, a backlog of immigration cases, and legal setbacks, Bill recently said. 

Gloria's forced absence was just the first catastrophe for the family. In 2011, the children's father had a debilitating stroke. Before the stroke, Jim had enlisted in the marines to earn money for the family, leaving Bill to take care of his father and raise his younger siblings. Eventually, Jim was honorably discharged to care for his father, who died in 2018, a move that allowed Bill to pursue his education at Bowdoin and Oxford. (Read the 2016 Bowdoin Magazine story, "The Unfinished Journey of Bill De La Rosa.")

Though the children continued to pursue their lives and careers, they never stopped fighting for Gloria's return—especially Bill, who shared his story with media outlets, secured the attention of congressional representatives, and educated himself on US immigration law. Their efforts paid off, finally, when Gloria was given her green card on January 9, 2024.

A Reunion for the De La Rosas

On January 20, the day Gloria moved back home, Bill met his mother at her small apartment in Nogales, Sonora, the town she had settled in for over a decade to remain as close as possible to her children. The two left her clean and empty apartment and walked the quiet streets to the nearby DeConcini Port of Entry.

Bill De La Rosa and his mother, Gloria, walk the streets of Nogales as they head to the border
Bill De La Rosa and his mother, Gloria, walk the streets of Nogales as they head to the border.

After officials processed her paperwork, she and Bill made their way, tears in their eyes, up a ramp to meet the crowd waiting for them. Naomi held up a poster reading, "Cruzando la frontera hacia nuestros brazos," "Crossing the border into our arms," while Bobby clutched a bunch of red heart balloons. Gloria alternatively smiled and wept, her face in her hands, as she was hugged by her kids, friends, and well-wishers. 

In the days since she has returned to Tucson, Gloria has settled back into her former house, where three of her children still live. Though Bill for now must stay in New Haven, Connecticut, he plans to return to Arizona when he completes his law degree in a couple of years.

"We’re incredibly excited that finally this nightmare has come to an end," Bill said recently on a telephone call. "But it is couched in bittersweetness because we missed fourteen years. Maybe a fifth of our lives we didn’t spend together."

"My mom returns to children who have grown up without her," he continued. The impact of separation has been uniquely painful for each child, perhaps especially so for Bobby, the youngest, who was just four when Gloria left. "There is a lot of rehealing and rebuilding that needs to happen," Bill said. "She came home but is coming home to a very different household."

Since Bill earned his bachelor's degree in sociology and Latin American studies from Bowdoin in 2016, he has focused on gaining expertise in the field of immigration studies. He has worked or interned for the Pima County Administrator’s Office in Arizona, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and on Capitol Hill.

In 2018 and 2019, he earned his two Oxford master's degrees, supported by a Marshall Scholarship, in migration and criminal justice studies. His PhD thesis in criminology looks at "the role punishment has played, legally and sociologically, in the contemporary development of US immigration law and policy," he explained.

This dissertation, of course, is a scholarly examination of his own personal story. "It extends from how my family has been affected by one of the most punitive policies that has ever been passed," Bill continued, a law that's "emblematic of a pattern that has been happening since the 1990s."

"One of the provisions of law, unlawful presence, was intended to discourage people to come across the border and marry a spouse and have a child, but instead it has contributed to the growth of the undocumented immigrant population," Bill said. "People don’t want to go through the process because they don’t want to be separated."

He added, "People would follow the laws if they could but they don't because they're not functional."

He acknowledged that he and his siblings were in a relatively privileged position to advocate steadfastly for years for Gloria's return. He in particular has been able to garner interest in his family's story, capturing the attention of media and people in power who could help. But millions of other families like his, who are either split up or afraid of being split up, are living in fear and silence, he said. 

Even with all of of his family's advantages, "It was like moving a boulder up a hill. I can’t imagine what families who don’t have these resources do." 

Photos by Manuel Ruiz.