Blog Archive

Sunday, December 26, 2010

One woman spared deportation, but millions live on the edge

By Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
December 26, 2010

Detroit — More than two decades ago, Celina Hernandez gave birth to a daughter in her native Mexico. But the newborn died hours later because she was three months' premature and her family couldn't afford the incubator she needed to survive.

About five years later, Hernandez gave birth to twin boys, including one with cerebral palsy. This time, her children were born in the United States, and her one son received the care he needed for his disability.

She came to the United States with her husband in 1991 to seek better health care. Last year, the Southgate woman's husband was deported. This month, she was due to be forced out as well before U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, introduced a rare bill on her behalf that has suspended deportation proceedings.

The bill comes amid national debate about immigration reform for the nation's 10.5 million undocumented residents. Supporters say her case demonstrates that the system is broken. But foes counter the law is clear, Hernandez broke it, and Conyers' bill is inappropriate.

"Here we have a family that's working really hard, paying taxes, contributing the community," said Ryan Bates, director of the Alliance for Michigan Immigrants and Reform.

"The immigration laws we have don't make allowance for their children, and the contributions that they've made. A congressman shouldn't have to intervene to make sure that children with cerebral palsy are able to stay with their parents. What we need is Congress to address this issue in a serious way and begin the process for comprehensive immigration reform."

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, said bills written for individuals are "political propaganda" designed to influence the debate about immigration.

"It's anti-American. In America, the rule of law says we are all treated equally," said Gheen, whose Raleigh, N.C.-based group is fighting amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"For Congress to selectively make a case for someone gives the appearance that some people have special friends in Congress and can have laws changed for them specifically."

Extension granted

Conyers' bill delayed Hernandez's deportation that was to be this month and would make Hernandez eligible for an immigrant visa. The private bill was referred to a subcommittee and died when Congress ended its session. When Congress reconvenes Jan. 5, Conyers plans to reintroduce it. But attention caused by the bill, along with pressure from the community, led to Hernandez last week getting a one-year extension from immigration officials.

Private bills are not routinely introduced for undocumented individuals, according to Wendy Sefsaf, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center. During the 111th session of Congress, 104 bills were introduced for those who may suffer hardships if they were returned to native countries or became undocumented due to administrative delays.

That's low, Sefsaf said, compared to deportations: A record-breaking 392,000 illegal aliens were removed in 2010, a 70 percent increase from the previous administration, officials from the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced in October.

Exactly how many private bills pass is unclear. Last week, for the first time in five years, Congress approved private bills for two Japanese citizens fighting to live in the United States — Shigeru Yamada, son of a woman who was killed in a car crash when he was a teenager and was never adopted, andHotaru "Hota" Ferschke, who found out she was pregnant and got married over the phone with a Marine who was killed in Iraq.

But Sefsaf said those cases are exceptions.

"Congress just needs to focus on a broader plan that would provide relief for the millions in this country that deserve to stay and figure out a way to weed out the ones that might not."

The private bill that Conyers introduced for Hernandez is his first since 1987.

Hardship cases

"A private bill is a unique legislative action reserved for only the cases where extreme hardship will be endured if no action is taken," Conyers said. "Throughout our country's history, private immigration bills have been used when an exception to existing law is absolutely necessary to avoid grave injustice or suffering."

His bill was introduced just before the U.S. House this month passed the DREAM Act, a federal bill that would offer citizenship to children of undocumented parents if the children complete higher education or military service. The bill didn't have enough votes to pass in the Senate on Dec. 18, dashing hopes of supporters who saw it as a first step toward federal immigration reform.

Either way, Conyers' bill is offering hope that Hernandez's 18-year-old son, Adrian, will continue to get treatment for cerebral palsy, a disorder affecting the brain and nervous system with very difficult to find and expensive treatments in Mexico.

"Without the treatments, I don't think I could do anything," said Adrian Hernandez, a Southgate High School student who gets physical therapy two days a week and takes pain medication for his back and ankle. "Without treatments, I can't go to school."

Offering hope

The bill also gives Celina Hernandez hope that she won't be separated from her three other sons — Hector, 21, Fabian, 18, and Saul, 10 — who grew up in the United States. Hector may also face deportation because he was a baby when the family moved to the United States.

"I'm very happy because it's Christmas time," Hernandez, 40, said in Spanish through an interpreter, the Rev. Kevin Casillas, pastor of the First Latin American Baptist Church in Detroit. "I was very worried I was going to have to leave for Christmas and my children were not going to be with me."

During the 20 years that she has lived here, she and her husband have always worked and paid taxes, and only recently began relying on Social Security to help with her son's care. Her husband had worked for an auto manufacturer while she worked for Mexican Industries, sewing car mats and tire covers.

Today, Hernandez struggles to support her children by working at a restaurant.

Hernandez is trying to stay strong, realizing that one child's fate led her to the United States while another's may allow her to stay. "It's very hard. I am trying to be strong for the kids."

Detroit News Staff Writer Nathan Hurst contributed.