A Deportation Tragedy

Thursday November 13, 2003--Marvin Gonzalez, left, Marina Gonzalez, middle, and Marie Gonzalez, 17, right, pray together before dinner Thursday in their Jefferson City home.  The family came to the US from Costa Rica in 1991 and overstayed their visa.  They may be deported back to Costa Rica, but hope that the Dream Act, an act that would allow Marie to stay and continue school, will be passed.  Photo by Tracy Boulian/Post-Dispatch
Thursday November 13, 2003--Marvin Gonzalez, left, Marina Gonzalez, middle, and Marie Gonzalez, 17, right, pray together before dinner Thursday in their Jefferson City home. The family came to the US from Costa Rica in 1991 and overstayed their visa. They may be deported back to Costa Rica, but hope that the Dream Act, an act that would allow Marie to stay and continue school, will be passed. Photo by Tracy Boulian/Post-Dispatch (Marvin Gonzalez, Left, Marina Gonzalez, Center, And Marie Gonzalez Pray Before Dinner In Their Missouri Home In 2003./By Tracy Boulian -- St. Louis Post-dispatch)
By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

By every measure but one, the Gonzalez family of Jefferson City, Mo., are model citizens. Marvin was a courier for then-Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, delivering messages and screening the governor's mail. Marina taught Spanish and was the after-school care director at her parish grade school. Their daughter Marie was a star pupil at Helias High, on the track and tennis teams, with dreams of becoming a lawyer.

There was just one thing wrong with this picture: The Gonzalezes aren't citizens at all. They came to Jefferson City in 1991, legally, on a six-month visitor's visa from their native Costa Rica. They received some remarkably poor legal advice: that if they stayed, got steady jobs and sank roots into the community, they could become citizens in seven years. They held up their end of the bargain, however much it may have been misrepresented to them in the first place. And for their troubles, the federal government has formulated its response: Next Tuesday it will deport the Gonzalezes back to Costa Rica.

The walls started tumbling down for the Gonzalezes in 2002, when a local paper, on an anonymous tip, ran a story on the undocumented courier in the governor's office. Since that morning, the Gonzalezes' life has been transformed into a Frank Capra movie, minus the obligatory happy ending.

When she saw the story, says Marie, who was then in the 10th grade, "I called everyone who had anything to do with my life. I was afraid about how they'd react, but they embraced us."

Did they ever. The parish at Immaculate Conception Church, where the Gonzalezes are members, "doesn't have a lot of immigrants," says its pastor, Father Marion Makarewicz. "There are a lot of state workers, small-business owners. It took them a while to understand the situation: They assumed that when someone like the Gonzalez family has been here all these years, they'd be allowed to stay."

When the parishioners were disabused of that notion, they sprang into action. Along with the family's neighbors and Marie's teachers and parents of her schoolmates, they formed the Gonzalez Group, which has helped sustain the family through its three years of legal appeals and lobbied on its behalf. For Marie, her life since 10th grade has been a daily roller coaster. She sailed through high school, but her legal status precluded her admission to college. "Last fall was difficult, with my friends going off to college," she says. "It was hard for my parents to watch me then; they wanted to take the suffering away from me. The whole reason they came to America was to give me a future."

Marie's plight is one of the absurdities of U.S. immigration policy. Marie was 5 when her parents brought her here, and whatever one may think of her parents' culpability on these matters, the case for deporting a young woman who's only known Missouri as her home just underscores the gap between law and justice.

"I haven't been to Costa Rica since I was 5," she says. "I don't even know if my memories are really mine or just things my parents told me that I've made my own."

Marie is hardly alone in her dilemma. Each year, tens of thousands of undocumented teenagers graduate from high school but are unable to proceed to college. For the past couple of years, senators and House members on both sides of the aisle have supported the Dream Act, which would enable the 65,000 high school graduates without legal standing to become citizens if they complete college. Two years ago, the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with the backing of Chairman Orrin Hatch, but in the face of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Republican ranks, it then stalled.

With the Dream Act deferred, or at least in limbo, Marie has become a national spokeswoman on its behalf. Lately, she's been lobbying the two people who could get the government to stop the deportation -- Kit Bond and Jim Talent, Missouri's Republican senators -- but they've declined to intervene. The Department of Homeland Security, which could also stop the proceedings, has similarly declined. Yesterday, Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton failed to persuade DHS officials even to meet with the family. The officials charged with the nation's security couldn't summon the courage to look Marie in the face and tell her no.

So the Capra film proceeds apace. The Gonzalezes are packing up. Tomorrow, there'll be a rally on the capitol steps in Jefferson City, with the mayor and the bishop in attendance. But unless Bond, Talent or the DHS has a change of heart, next Tuesday Marie and her parents will move to a country she doesn't know.

The Supreme Court, I see, is split on the constitutionality of placing religious admonitions in public places. If I had my druthers, I think the one I'd like to see posted is, "You were strangers in the land of Egypt." It speaks specifically to the American condition, and we reject it, and the moral claims of Marie Gonzalez, at our own peril.

meyersonh@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company