Monday, January 25, 2010

Parents’ deportations divide long-time parish family (Catholic San Francisco)

January 20th, 2010
By José Luis Aguirre

Gilbert Mejia and his sister Helen thought the end of the world had arrived when they said goodbye to their parents and Dulce, their four-year-old sister, at San Francisco International Airport in November.

The two teenagers, 18 and 13 years old respectively, were witnessing the deportation of their parents to Guatemala. The couple had come to the United States without documentation 17 years earlier and had established a home of their own and a family. Both parents had good jobs: Salvador Mejia worked as a carpenter and Elida Mejia-Perez was a caregiver for children and older adults.

But despite what the couple accomplished in a starting a new life, they were sent back to Guatemala because they were living in the United States illegally, according to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) complaint that was upheld in court after a long fight.

“Mom and dad were very productive citizens,” said Precious Blood Father Dave Matz, a parochial vicar at St. Raphael Parish in San Rafael, where the Mejias are long-time members.

Advocates for immigration reform point to the breakup of families as one reason that current law is unjust and should be changed. Cases such as that of the Mejias are not uncommon, although most undocumented people who are prosecuted by ICE do not fight the charges as hard as the Mejias did.

“There are so many like them in the same situation,” said St. Raphael parishioner and Marin Organizing Committee activist Susan Brown, who is leading a community effort to assist the Mejia children. “It’s just that they fought it.”

According to current U.S. law, when Helen, a U.S. citizen, turns 21, she can petition to bring her parents back to the United States. However, because they were deported, they are barred from returning for 10 years.

The nightmare for the Mejias began in March 2007 when ICE officers knocked on the door of the sleeping family’s home in Novato. They had a warrant for someone the family did not know.

“Because we opened the door and they were already inside the house, they decided to ask for our documents,” Gilbert remembered.

“They entered in a very violent way,” Helen added. “There were eight agents in the house and some more in the backyard. They spoke loudly, had guns, and took me off the bed, pointing at me with their guns. Then I saw how they handcuffed my parents.”

ICE agents let Elida Mejia-Perez remain in the house to take care of her children. Salvador Mejia and an uncle were arrested and taken to a detention center in San Francisco. He was released on bail pending a hearing on his case.

While they awaited their court date, the couple had to wear electronic ankle bracelets and report frequently to immigration officers.

That was a blow especially to Salvador Mejia, who lost work as a carpenter because he had to report to immigration officers three times weekly in San Francisco.

“With his hands and skills he was doing the American dream,” Brown said. “Unfortunately he didn’t come over on the Mayflower, so his papers are required.”

In October 2007, an immigration judge in San Francisco ruled in favor of the Mejias after family members testified that both Helen and Dulce were born in the United States and that the entire family would suffer if they had to return to Guatemala.

ICE appealed. The family continued to fight to remain in the United States, spending more than $30,000 on legal fees to contest the appeal. They also asked U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to sponsor a private bill for them. She reviewed the case twice, but declined to intervene.

In the end, the couple lost their case and had to return to Guatemala, taking Dulce with them.

“It was the saddest day in my life,” said Gilbert, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College who wants to become an architect. “Now, I feel the solitude in the house.”

Helen, a ninth grader at Novato High School, said that watching her parents’ struggle was very difficult. “I felt very bad and was very angry that not even in the airport did ICE take the bracelets off,” she said. “They did that only when my parents were in the airplane. They treated them like criminals.”

Nobody told Dulce about the situation. Instead, her siblings told her she was going to meet her grandma in Guatemala where she was going to have a pet.

Since arriving back in their native Quetzaltenango in Guatemala’s western highlands, the couple has not been able to find a job. They continue to worry about their two children in the Bay Area.

The couple are now living in Xela, the second most important commercial city in Guatemala, but are still unable to find work, Gilbert said.

“Things are really, really hard there,” he said. “There are zero jobs.”

The teenagers live with another uncle in the same house their parents had bought, but the mortgage and other bills have to be paid. A December property tax bill is due.

Their relatives help, as do other concerned adults including Father Matz and Father Paul Rossi, pastor at St. Raphael Parish.

“The same week their parents were deported, we decided to start a fund with the help of some parishioners” Father Matz said. “For me it is such an honor to put my effort into helping these kids.”

Efforts to help the children are focusing on finding more employment for the uncle and an aunt, who have stepped in as caregivers. People helping the family are struggling to keep the household intact and to make sure that the aunt and uncle earn enough to cover the mortgage payments on the house.

“They go month to month trying to make the payment,” Father Matz said.

Father Matz has taken Gilbert to meetings and events where he can connect with people who might be able to help, especially with legal matters.

“We are talking about a family with a strong connection with the community, who have worked very hard for a better life,” Father Matz said. “Immigration officials should be conscious that they are separating families and leaving them with an open wound for the rest of their lives.”

Helen said the immigration authorities should consider the impact of their actions on families.

“Everybody in this country is an immigrant in a different way,” she said. “Immigration officials are not taking into consideration the feelings of the families when they are deported, when people don’t even know when they are going to see each other again. They should walk in our shoes because they have families, too. What would they think if they got separated against their will?”

Gilbert, who coordinates the youth group at St. Raphael Parish, added: “Family separation is very harmful. If I could send a message to the immigration officials, I would tell them that instead of spending millions of dollars on deportations, they should spend that money on comprehensive immigration reform.”

Asked to comment on the case, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said: “This family had access to due process and their case was reviewed, and ultimately it was determined that they didn’t have a legal basis to remain in the country. ICE doesn’t make the determination about a foreign national’s deportability. Those decisions are made by immigration judges.”

The law allows immigration courts very little discretion to suspend deportation for family reasons, said Francisco Ugarte, an attorney for the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network.

“While ICE may say they take families into consideration in their law-enforcement decisions, that is simply not true,” Ugarte said. “I have seen countless families torn apart.”

Family unity would be a cornerstone of immigration policy under one measure in the current Congress, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, HR. 4321, introduced by Illinois Democrat Luis V. Gutierrez.

The Mejias’ legal troubles are not over. On the day of the raid at the family’s home, the officers did not detain Gilbert because assumed that he was an American citizen. But three days later, they found out that he was born in Guatemala.

Gilbert is due in court in July, when a judge will decide if he can stay in the United States or if he must return to Guatemala, a country he doesn’t know. He said his lawyer weighs his chances at 50-50.

The Mejia-Perez Family Fund has been established at Marin Bank, l4460 Redwood Highway, San Rafael, CA 94903. The account number is 03-131026.

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