Divided by Deportation

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007

It was 5 a.m. when immigration agents knocked on the door of the Díaz family's neatly kept house in Baltimore County, with the twin plaid couches and the Lord's Supper woodcut over the kitchen table. Edwin, 13, and Cynthia, 8, woke up just in time to see their mother put into a van and driven away. The moment several months ago changed almost everything about their quiet, close-knit life.

"Since that day, nothing has been the same," said Miguel Díaz, 42, a construction worker and labor union representative from El Salvador. "I know my wife made a mistake all those years ago, but we have worked hard, lived decently and never caused any trouble. Shouldn't the punishment fit the crime? Her place is here with us, with her children. What kind of society is this that would suddenly take her away?"

Edwin, listening somberly on the sofa, said it was especially hard having his mother gone at Christmastime. She was not here last week to hear him sing "Jingle Bells" in the school chorus or to arrange her ceramic manger tableau of animals and wise men. "She always did it a certain way," he said. "In the end, we decided not to put it up."

Fidelia Díaz is one of thousands of illegal immigrants and longtime residents who have been deported this year -- cornered by complicated pasts that caught up with them long after they thought the overburdened immigration system had conveniently forgotten or magically forgiven them.

Many, like the 38-year-old Salvadoran woman, crossed the border illegally when they were young, single and eager to find a better life. Others came as tourists and overstayed their visas, keeping a low profile or moving frequently to avoid detection. Some were snagged in raids on factories or farms; others were tracked down by "fugitive operations teams" armed with decades-old deportation orders.

Still others committed immigration offenses, such as marriage fraud or traveling abroad without permission, that were suddenly rediscovered and disqualified them when they attempted to apply for legal status years later with help from lawyers who were not fully aware of their pasts.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 273,289 foreign-born residents have been sent back to their native countries for immigration violations in the past year.

Many had been in the United States only a few weeks, but countless others had put down roots, taken out mortgages and raised families by the time the law-- and the recently beefed-up immigration enforcement system-- came back to haunt them.

"I know this is a politically sensitive issue, an emotional issue. But we have to enforce the law, and the law is very clear," said Michael Keegan, an ICE spokesman. "It states simply that if an individual is out of status, having a U.S.-born child does not qualify the parent to gain legal status. Even if they have relatives who are U.S. citizens, the law doesn't bleed over to give them the same rights."

Immigration judges have limited discretion to consider family circumstances and homeland conditions, but if a deportation order has been issued-- no matter how long ago-- and the illegal immigrant has failed to appear for the hearing, that person is considered to have already had a "day in court" and is not eligible for special consideration.

In some cases, an immigrant's past catches up with him at an especially difficult moment. Samir Saleh, an Israeli hairdresser, came to the United States in the 1990s as a tourist and married a young American woman in what was later ruled a case of immigration fraud. He appealed the ruling but eventually divorced, remarried and settled in Cleveland.

Last April, Saleh was deported to Israel for immigration fraud, just as his second wife learned she had terminal cancer. His attorney, Philip Eichorn, said he filed for a temporary visa on humanitarian grounds so they could be together for the holidays, but it was denied last week. His wife, now bald from chemotherapy, made a decision.

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