Families divided by deportation | VailDaily.com

Families divided by deportation

Daily Staff Report

By Pamela ConstableL.A. Times-Washington Post News ServiceIt was 5 a.m. when immigration agents knocked on the door of the Diaz family’s neatly kept house in Baltimore County, with the twin plaid couches and the Lord’s Supper woodcut over the kitchen table. Edwin, 13, and Cynthia, 8, woke up just in time to see their mother put into a van and driven away. The moment several months ago changed almost everything about their quiet, close-knit life.”Since that day, nothing has been the same,” said Miguel Diaz, 42, a construction worker and labor union representative from El Salvador. “I know my wife made a mistake all those years ago, but we have worked hard, lived decently and never caused any trouble. Shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime? Her place is here with us, with her children. What kind of society is this that would suddenly take her away?”Edwin, listening somberly on the sofa, said it was especially hard having his mother gone at Christmastime. She was not here last week to hear him sing “Jingle Bells” in the school chorus or to arrange her ceramic manger tableau of animals and wise men. “She always did it a certain way,” he said. “In the end, we decided not to put it up.”Fidelia Diaz is one of thousands of illegal immigrants and longtime residents who have been deported this year – cornered by complicated pasts that caught up with them long after they thought the overburdened immigration system had conveniently forgotten or magically forgiven them.Many, like the 38-year-old Salvadoran woman, crossed the border illegally when they were young, single and eager to find a better life. Others came as tourists and overstayed their visas, keeping a low profile or moving frequently to avoid detection. Some were snagged in raids on factories or farms; others were tracked down by “fugitive operations teams” armed with decades-old deportation orders.Caught in the systemStill others committed immigration offenses, such as marriage fraud or traveling abroad without permission, that were suddenly rediscovered and disqualified them when they attempted to apply for legal status years later with help from lawyers who were not fully aware of their pasts.According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 273,289 foreign-born residents have been sent back to their native countries for immigration violations in the past year.Many had been in the United States only a few weeks, but countless others had put down roots, taken out mortgages and raised families by the time the law – and the recently beefed-up immigration enforcement system – came back to haunt them.”I know this is a politically sensitive issue, an emotional issue. But we have to enforce the law, and the law is very clear,” said Michael Keegan, an ICE spokesman. “It states simply that if an individual is out of status, having a U.S.-born child does not qualify the parent to gain legal status. Even if they have relatives who are U.S. citizens, the law doesn’t bleed over to give them the same rights.”Day in courtImmigration judges have limited discretion to consider family circumstances and homeland conditions, but if a deportation order has been issued – no matter how long ago – and the illegal immigrant has failed to appear for the hearing, that person is considered to have already had a “day in court” and is not eligible for special consideration.In some cases, an immigrant’s past catches up with him at an especially difficult moment. Samir Saleh, an Israeli hairdresser, came to the United States in the 1990s as a tourist and married a young American woman in what was later ruled a case of immigration fraud. He appealed the ruling but eventually divorced, remarried and settled in Cleveland.Last April, Saleh was deported to Israel for immigration fraud, just as his second wife learned she had terminal cancer. His attorney, Philip Eichorn, said he filed for a temporary visa on humanitarian grounds so they could be together for the holidays, but it was denied last week. His wife, now bald from chemotherapy, made a decision.”She told me, `I am done with this country. I have a little time left, and I want to spend it with him,’ ” Eichorn said in a telephone interview Saturday. “They were really in love. You couldn’t stage the joy on her face in their wedding photos. She left for Israel yesterday.”For illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes, deportation is both legally automatic and more efficiently enforced than in the past. Immigration officials say they are working with every federal prison and many state and local prisons to ensure such inmates are deported after serving their sentences. In 2007, about 89,000 such people were deported, Keegan said.Sometimes, however, immigration laws end up punishing people who appear to have led exemplary lives. The case of Esperanza Ramirez, 62, who was deported to Mexico in October, has stunned the network of relatives and friends in San Diego to whom she was a quiet but indomitable role model.Ramirez, who crossed the Mexican border illegally in 1979, spent the next 27 years working as a hotel maid, avocado packer and office cleaner to put seven children through school. They earned degrees, found good jobs, got married and produced 12 grandchildren.Along the way, her daughter Norma Ch vez said in a telephone interview, the family made attempts to obtain legal immigration status for her. First they obtained a temporary work permit, which was extended repeatedly. Then they applied for legal residency three times, gathering support letters and waiting for hearings. In September, Ramirez was told to report to the U.S. consulate in Ju rez, Mexico, for an interview.”I guess it should have raised a red flag, but we all thought she was going there to pick up her green card,” Ch vez recounted. “Instead, the consulate told her the application had been denied and that she was barred from returning” to the United States for 10 years. “Just like that, she was gone,” she said.Now Ramirez is living alone in the village the rest of her family left years ago. The children call her often, and she tells them she is doing fine, but Ch vez said she was sounding “a little sadder” as the holidays approached. “We always have tamales at Christmas, but she’s the only one who knows how to make them,” Ch vez said. “Now we are trying to figure out how to do it ourselves.”Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she has seen many cases of unjust and destructive deportations. She said that although immigration enforcement is “an important priority, our laws are so broken that enforcement ends up targeting the wrong people. Families are being ripped apart, and people are being deported for decades-old conduct that they have since rectified.”For immigrant families with young U.S.-born children, the deportation of a spouse or breadwinner presents especially wrenching difficulties. Miguel Diaz said that his children miss their mother terribly but that there is no way he would send them home to be with her. In Baltimore, they are immersed in science and math, church and sports. In El Salvador, they would be surrounded by poverty, crime and gangs.”It is no place to raise a family, with so much insecurity. Even without her, they are better off here,” said Diaz, who plans to apply for U.S. citizenship so he can sponsor his wife for legal residency, which could take 10 years. “This is very hard, and very unfair, but we will get through it,” he vowed. “We are a strong family, and this will make us more united.”

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