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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Deported Mexicans leave two small kids in Lodi

By Stephen Magagnini
The Sacramento Bee
Nov. 2, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

LODI – Every day, 2-year-old Kimberly Vrabo peeks around her apartment complex for her mom. If she hears police sirens, she runs inside.

Kimberly's mother, Maria Magdalena Perez-Rivera, got into a fight with her boyfriend, Vicente Tellez, on a Saturday night.

The next morning, Perez-Rivera's sister called Lodi police. Two days later, the undocumented couple were deported to Mexico, leaving behind Kimberly and the couple's 3-month-old son Anthony Tellez.

Their swift removal has shattered the family. And Sacramento's Mexican Consul General Carlos González Gutiérrez and UC Davis Law School Dean Kevin Johnson question whether justice has truly been served.

More people are being deported than ever – 50,000 in Northern California in the last three years, compared to 17,317 from 2001-2003, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Half the deportees have been convicted of crimes.

But the Lodi couple, each charged with felony domestic violence, were never tried or convicted. Perez-Rivera, whose family claims she was beaten repeatedly, was not given the chance to apply for a U visa, which protects crime victims from being deported if they cooperate with law enforcement.

"This deportation scenario is all too common. It illustrates the potential pitfalls of local police cooperating with immigration authorities," said Johnson. "Immigrant women in particular are going to underreport domestic violence, and generally, immigrant communities are going to be less likely to cooperate with police for fear of being deported."

One third of Lodi's 65,394 people are Latinos.

"We do not deport people; we encourage victims and witnesses of crimes to feel free to speak with us," said police spokesman Eric Bradley. "Our interest is in protecting the community."

When the couple were booked into the Lodi jail on felony charges, their fingerprints were sent to ICE under the federal government's partnership with local law enforcement, Operation Secure Communities, designed to identify criminal aliens for possible removal.

"Instead of giving them a chance to talk to a judge and present their case for some type of legal relief to resolve the issue, two days later the ICE van picks them up and they are sent to Mexico," said González Gutiérrez. "The tragedy is that there are two little kids who remain with the grandmother."

Perez-Rivera's mom, Ana Maria Rivera, quit her $500 a week job at the cherry packing plant to care for her grandkids. "Maria's sad, she's afraid. She wants to come back, but she doesn't want to go back with Vicente," Rivera said.

If Perez-Rivera, 21, is caught trying to return to the United States, she could face two to 20 years for illegal re-entry.

Tellez, a 21-year-old farmworker, and Perez-Rivera started going out about a year ago and moved into their own apartment, according to family.

At 11 a.m. Sept. 19, Lodi police got a call from Perez-Rivera's 17-year-old sister Ana. "I wanted to go to church with her and I saw her with bruises and scratches on her face and body," she said.

That Sunday afternoon Tellez contacted police "to share his version," Bradley said. "He had scratches, a cut lip and a possible bite mark. It looks like the argument escalated into mutual combat; that's why she was arrested as well."

Neither Perez-Rivera nor Tellez had prior contact with police, Bradley said.

Police referred the case to the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office, which decided not to prosecute. The office did not return numerous calls from The Bee.

If the couple had been booked on lesser misdemeanor domestic violence charges, "ICE might not even have picked up on this because they're focusing on felonies," Johnson said. "But there's an incentive to charge them with the maximum and get them deported so you don't ever have to deal with the criminal charges."

On Sept. 21, Perez-Rivera was taken into custody by ICE agents, who are "routinely notified by jail officials when foreign nationals are booked," said ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley.

Perez-Rivera waived her right to an immigration hearing and signed documents agreeing to voluntarily depart the United States, Haley said. She was repatriated to Mexico later that day.

"She was told no bond was possible and she would have to stay in jail for an indefinite amount of time without her kids – the worst of both worlds," González Gutiérrez said. "Illegal immigrants have to make quick decisions with not enough information and no counsel. We asked ICE to grant her bail, but it was too late."

González Gutiérrez said the focus of the case should have been "on Maria as a victim of domestic violence, instead of deporting her."

The U.S. government has issued 10,000 U visas to immigrants who are crime victims or witnesses, said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan. "It allows them authorization to work, and eventually apply for a green card."

But if an alleged victim of domestic violence is determined to be the aggressor, that could eliminate them as a U visa candidate, said ICE press secretary Kelly Nantel.

González Gutiérrez said Perez-Rivera's priority is to be reunited with her kids.

"She has two options," he said. "To try to come back into the U.S., pay a huge amount of money to a smuggler and run a much greater risk going through the desert, or get her kids to Mexico."

The consulate is trying to get permission from the fathers of both of Perez-Rivera's children to grant them Mexican passports and fly them to Mexico with a consular official, González Gutiérrez said.

Perez-Rivera wants her sister Ana to bring her kids to Mexico.

"She didn't want me to call the cops," her sister said. "But I don't regret making the call even though she's not here. She might have ended up in the hospital, or gotten killed."