Pine Belt News, Hattiesburg

How Mississippi's Senators Saved Southern Miss' Gabe Montenegro's Final Season

By Andrew Abadie

Gabe Montenegro's final season at Southern Miss almost never happened.

The centerfielder had much to look forward to in his last year. Along with returning to a championship-contending roster, Montenegro would also have the rare opportunity to play with his brother, Rodrigo, for one season.

However, a student visa issue almost prevented that, and without the help of letters from Mississippi senators Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, Southern Miss' lineup would have missed its four-year starter.

During the summer of 2021, Montenegro returned to his home county of Guatemala, where he reapplied for his student visa.

As standard procedure, Montenegro gathered his usual paperwork and scheduled his interview at the U.S. embassy in Guatemala and received an unexpected rejection. Despite pulling together more paperwork, his second interview left Montenegro with the same result.

Before those rejections, Montenegro had been approved for a student visa three times.

"They just kept denying it," Montenegro said. "Their reasoning was that I didn't have enough proof to study. They don't want people coming to the States and just staying here. You have to provide proof that you are here to study and then will come back to Guatemala. They just kept saying that I didn't have enough proof that I wanted to come back to Guatemala.

"I gave them proof that I was a student here. I gave them proof that all my family is in Guatemala. They just kept denying it."

After the second rejection, Montenegro's first phone call was to Southern Miss coach Scott Berry.

"It was a pretty wild ordeal," Berry said. "It took a whole lot of people to pull it off. With the situation with immigration and where we were, (there was the) the change of administrations, (and) COVID had sent people home and they were working from the house.

"I went to work on it and tried to use every resource that we had to try it pull it off and move this thing forward. We had many influential people who pitched in and were able to make it happen."

Berry, with the help of USM Director of Athletics Jeremy McClain, contacted an immigration lawyer, who suggested having Mississippi representatives write on Montenegro's behalf. Montenegro’s backers included Berry, Wicker, Hyde-Smith, Congressman Steven Palazzo, and Southern Miss president Rodney Bennett, along with other USM officials.

For Berry, the willingness of all parties to write on Montenegro's behalf was a testament to the impact he has had on the local community.

"After getting denied the second time (we’re thinking) 'What's the deal?'" Berry said. "This kid isn't a terrorist. He's a great kid. He's had great grades here. It was frustrating on that part. They deal with millions of people, I'm sure, so I get it.

"I think the person that (Montenegro) is and with how he is with the community and the people (showed). The people embrace him. I think they understand that he is a long way from home. With all that, you had an (combination) of people wanting to make sure that this kid could finish what he started five years ago."

But the waiting understandably kept Montenegro uneasy.

"The second time (I was rejected), I was freaking out," Montenegro said. "I didn't know what to do. I had all the proof that I needed.

"I tried to stay busy trying to practice by myself. Then it's that weight of trying to contact the senators' office and everything. They aren't going to contact you right away. You have to wait, and there are weeks that are passing by without any news."

The void of waiting carried over into the fall semester and was putting Montenegro even farther behind because he had several scheduled in-person classes.

"I did for a minute (think about what I was going to do if I didn't get back in)," Montenegro said. "I would have just stayed and worked with my mom, and then that would have been sad. It was a mess.

"When I got back, they let me catch up. It was a lot of work. I didn't mind because I was back."

The help from the state's politicians was slowed down because of the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan that summer. Montenegro had not heard anything for three weeks until a sudden email on Sept. 21, which stated that the letters were sent. Also, phone calls had been made by Hyde-Smith and Wicker to the embassy in Guatemala.

Even with all of the help, the suspense still had not abated.

"When both the senators sent their letters to the embassy, I just said ‘okay, we are going to try one more time,”’ Montenegro said. "I had to make another appointment with the embassy. During that final interview, they told me, 'We are going to further review your case.' They didn't tell me no, which was better. They said that (they were) going to keep (my) passport for a week. Then you will get your passport, and it will have either a yes or a no. So now I had to wait another week for them to mail back my passport."

A week later, with his dad by his side, Montenegro opened his passport to find a seal of approval to return to the United States. That same day, a flight was booked for Hattiesburg.

“When I got my passport, I opened it, and it said it was approved,” Montenegro said. “It was like a movie. It was really dramatic.”

The entire ordeal lasted from mid-July to Sept. 30, and coincidentally, the senior arrived the day before the Golden Eagles' first fall scrimmage.

"If it wasn't for them or even Coach Berry, I would have had no shot to get a yes from the U.S. Embassy," Montenegro said. "Every time I think about it, all my worries go away. I can just enjoy baseball now and enjoy being here, because I was almost not here."