Deporting a Model Noncitizen

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Marina Alvarez came by herself to the United States from El Salvador at age 16. Fleeing sexual abuse, she was smuggled across the Mexican border to San Diego by bus. She knew no one. She learned English by working in hotels and restaurants in the Washington suburbs. She worked days, nights, weekends.

Last spring, she thought she finally had made it: She bought a house in Howard County for herself and her two U.S-born children. The closing was to be on a Monday. On the previous Saturday, she was heading home from work at the Chesapeake Bay Seafood House in Arundel Mills when police pulled her over for following another car too closely. When the officer checked her out, up popped a decade-old arrest warrant from federal immigration authorities.

Alvarez -- pregnant, with 8-year-old Keyla and 11-year-old Brian waiting for her at home -- was sent to a detention center in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore, where she remains today, nearly six months later.

The U.S. government expects to deport Alvarez, who is 29, sometime soon. If she is sent back to her native land, she says, she will not take her children with her. Keyla and Brian know no one in El Salvador, speak little Spanish and have a legal right to stay in the United States. "Here, they have a future, an education," Alvarez tells me. "There, nothing."

One possible solution is to send them back where Alvarez came from. Another is to put the children's interests first and let the family stay because the kids are U.S. citizens. Both approaches sound easy, but both are deeply flawed.

Marina Alvarez did everything Americans want immigrants to do -- except arrive legally. She never got into trouble, she worked, paid taxes, got involved in her children's schooling.

"She worked her way from homelessness to self-sufficiency," says Veronica Peterson, Alvarez's former child-care provider, who has taken in Keyla and Brian without compensation. Their father is out of the picture, gone. "No way I could help her if she was living an illegal's life, off the books. But she did everything she was supposed to. After all these years, I'd like to think my government would make an exception about her being here against the law."

Sorry, says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which pushes for tougher sanctions against illegal immigrants: "Any parent convicted of any offense could employ that same argument, 'Don't hurt me because you're going to hurt my kids.' It's the parent's responsibility to deal with the consequences of her own illegal act."

The record is clear. After she applied for political asylum in the United States, Alvarez failed to show up at a hearing in 1996. In her absence, a judge ordered her deported. Alvarez says she never received notice of that hearing; the envelope containing the notice, marked "Attempted -- Not Known," sits in her file a decade later. But she did know the authorities were looking into her case: She'd attended an earlier hearing.

An immigration judge has ruled that the government fulfilled its obligation by sending the proper notice. Alvarez must go, the court said -- a decision she has appealed.

I asked Alvarez to consider her case as U.S. citizens might view it. What is the right thing to do?

"I don't know," she said. "I understand how people feel, and I cannot change their minds. People have lives and children, and they don't have any choice but to do what they have to for their children."

Alvarez says she was repeatedly raped by relatives starting when she was 10. She says she had no choice but to leave her home. Now, she says, she simply will not put her own children back in that environment.

Teachers at Running Brook Elementary School in Columbia have rallied around Alvarez. Administrators took in Keyla and Brian for a while. Of all the struggling parents Marta Goodman, the Howard County school's bilingual community liaison, has met, "Marina is my most admired," she says. "She has earned and deserves the right to be in this country."

The children, who get to visit their mother one day each month, are "angry," Peterson says. "Keyla wants to get serious about her education because she wants to become an immigration lawyer so she can protect other children from this. Brian is angry because he's not in a position to help his mom."

In custody, Alvarez spends a lot of time crying. "It's like your heart -- " she stops and hold up her fist -- "your heart is a sponge, and they have it, and they're squeezing." It hurts, but there's no question she broke the law.

Alvarez's lawyer, Peter Asaad, says the only way to prevent deportation is to convince judges that she never got notice of that 1996 hearing. He believes her case is a taste of what's to come if the government adopts a more aggressive deportation policy. "Those kids are citizens like anyone else," he says. "If they stay behind, they could become wards of the state."

That's possible, says U.S. immigration spokesman Dean Boyd. "We're obligated to carry out the judge's orders. That makes some people very unhappy, but that's the law. The children are paying for their parent's transgressions."

These kids, living with no parent, are already paying. Don't Americans have an obligation to care for Keyla and Brian as for any other citizens? "We do have obligations," says Mehlman of FAIR, "but I'm not sure they're greater than the parent's obligation to take care of their own kids." Mehlman suggests scrapping the law that grants citizenship to anyone born on our soil. But that promise is a big part of what makes this country a land of hope and opportunity.

There's no point in waiting for politicians to get serious about immigration reform; they will always choose the path of least resistance. Alvarez, meanwhile, will surely do what she has to do. If deported, she will find a way back to her children. She'll get back on that bus to San Diego. In a way, that's the glory of America: The real strivers will find their way here.

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Eugene Sampson will be allowed to stay in his apartment at L'Arche, the group home for the mentally disabled in Adams Morgan, thanks to D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, who read my Tuesday column and pressed two city departments to stop harassing one of Washington's most caring charities. Result: The District increased the home's legal capacity and rescinded threats of fines and jail time for L'Arche Director John Cook.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

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