Blog Archive

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

As immigration fight grinds on, family's options are dwindling

Herald Tribune
Saturday, October 2, 2010

SARASOTA - Wendy Garcia has lived in Sarasota under political asylum for more than a decade, and the 21-year-old has built a life and family here.

But political changes in her native country of Guatemala led the U.S. to revoke her asylum status and technically make her an illegal immigrant.

On Monday, Garcia, her fiance and their 3-month-old son will travel to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Tampa to find out if her request for a one-year reprieve from deportation will be granted, or if she and her baby will have to immediately leave the U.S. They are scrambling to get together food and money to support her and baby Christopher if they are sent back to Guatemala, as expected.

The move by ICE to deport Garcia appears to contradict recent statements and memos by top federal officials, including President Barack Obama.

John Morton, the head of ICE, recently directed agents to make it a priority to deport only those immigrants with criminal records. He even suggested that the agency cancel deportations of some immigrants who were likely to win legal status, which could include Garcia.

President Obama has said he objects to deporting immigrants who do not have criminal records, saying in a 2008 speech that "nursing mothers torn from their babies," would be an example of immigration failure.

And yet ICE continues to pursue deportation of many immigrants low on the priority list. That means people like Garcia, who, according to records, has never had so much as a speeding ticket in Sarasota and has had political asylum for years.

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency has deported a record number of criminal immigrants and still has an obligation to deport illegal immigrants, even if they are not high on the priority list.

"This administration is committed to smart, effective immigration reform, prioritizing the arrest and removal of criminal aliens and those who pose a danger to national security," she said.

But, she added, "our agents are mandated by Congress to enforce U.S. immigration laws."

ICE officials would not comment on why Garcia and her parents were targeted. But the long, and some say sordid, relationship the U.S. had with Guatemala from the 1950s to the 1980s could be a factor.

According to the Washington Post, documents declassified in the 1990s showed that the U.S. government was closely aligned with Guatemalan security forces for decades, despite the fact that those forces battling leftist insurgents had killed thousands of civilians in the Central American nation during its long and bloody civil war.

In 1999, the Post reported, former President Bill Clinton said America was wrong to have supported the security forces that reportedly tortured or killed thousands of civilians, mainly of them rural Mayans.

Garcia came to the U.S. a decade ago with her father, a former soldier in the Guatemalan army. The family, including her mother and two brothers, were granted political asylum because her father had been a soldier in the American-backed war, Garcia said. Two years ago, the family was told the political asylum had been revoked because the country was considered safe again for army veterans.

Since then, the family has filed various appeals, all denied. In July, her father was arrested at work in Sarasota and deported after being held for a week in a detention center in Miami. Her mother, brother and nephew left voluntarily.

The stress and uncertainty of Garcia's immigration status has left Garcia and her fiance, Eliezer Rivera, 27, unable to sleep at night. Rivera, a full-time student at the University of South Florida who supports the family with a music-recording business, has lost clients and seen his grades drop since the ICE letter arrived. Rivera is a legal resident from the Dominican Republic and can apply for citizenship in November.

"I always wanted to have a family and for everything to be normal," Garcia, 21, said recently as she bounced son Christopher on her knee in their north Sarasota rental home. "It's going to separate us and I don't know for how long."

Garcia wants to stay, get married, gain citizenship and raise her child in America. Immigration lawyers say her chance of gaining citizenship is minimal, but could be bolstered by a recent federal appeals court ruling that allowed a Guatemalan woman to avoid deportation and seek political asylum due to her gender.

The California court reversed a deportation order for a Nevada woman based on an argument that because 3,800 Guatemalan woman have been murdered since 2000, just being a woman could qualify Garcia and other female illegal immigrants for asylum.

For now, though, if Garcia's plea for a reprieve is denied in Tampa Monday, she will be forced to leave, taking Christopher with her. Rivera would then try to bring her back legally.

The couple have packed away most of their belongings and baby toys; Rivera must find a cheaper place to live in order to support himself here, and Garcia and the baby in Guatemala.

But on the fridge remains a magnet with a calendar the couple made in happier times. "I hope to see you in love every single one of these days," it says in Spanish.

The uncertainty over Garcia's immigration status has stalled her wedding. The couple said they weren't sure if getting married would be seen as a false attempt to keep Garcia in the country.

"I respect the immigration law, but I hate the inhuman decision," said Rivera, who has been with Garcia for three years. "The government doesn't care if you're a student and fighting for a future. They don't care."

The couple worry in particular about how baby Christopher will fare in Guatemala. The small city where Garcia is from, Huehuetenango, has no running water and scarce electricity. Education is limited.

A one-year reprieve would give the couple time to raise money to make life easier if they had to return to Guatemala.

Cheryl Little, the executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, a Miami-based organization that provides pro-bono legal support to immigrants, said that despite Morton's directive to ICE agents, she still sees many cases like Garcia's. Comprehensive immigration reform must be passed by Congress, she said.

"It's been very frustrating for us because we constantly hear immigration officials talk about how they're targeting dangerous criminals, and yet when we go into the detention centers that's not who we're seeing," Little said.

In Congress, comprehensive reforms that could allow Garcia to stay in the country has stalled due to partisan disagreement.

Maggie Davis, a local writer and client of Rivera's music-recording business, heard the couple's story and wrote letters to numerous government officials, pleading to give Garcia that year's reprieve.

"I have a feeling that what's going on in Tampa is an attempt to produce some very pretty numbers," she said. "This is my guess: that they are picking up people who are easy to locate. Why are we deporting people who we gave asylum to? Of all the people we could pick to deport, Wendy is down on the list."

Navas, the ICE spokeswoman, said that Garcia had the "full due process of law," and that her appeals had been exhausted.

"ICE is continuing to work with Ms. Garcia-Alfaro on her arrangements to depart the U.S. while remaining sensitive to her family situation and needs," she said."

Rivera is distraught. "It's like somebody's cutting my fingers off," said Rivera. "How am I going to prepare for this?"