Monday, June 13, 2011

Chester woman, illegally brought to U.S. as child, faces foreign homeland (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Chester woman, illegally brought to U.S. as child, faces foreign homeland

By Michael Matza
Inquirer Staff Writer

As she dressed for her daughter's Head Start graduation last week, Zulma Villatoro teetered between bursts of happiness and flashes of fear.

"I am here," she said, "but I am not here."

In less than three weeks, Villatoro, 28 and pregnant with her second child, will be deported to Guatemala - the land of her birth, but frightfully foreign to someone who has spent half of her life in the United States.

Villatoro was 14 when she arrived here as an illegal immigrant in 1998 and joined her likewise undocumented mother in Chester. Only in 2006 did she ask for asylum, arguing that Guatemala's gang violence put her in jeopardy as a woman. But an immigration judge rejected her argument.

Now, barring a last-minute deferral, she must voluntarily return to Guatemala by July 2 or be arrested and expelled. Because the Central American nation is notorious for its ransom kidnappings, Villatoro plans to leave her daughter, Reina - born in 2007 and a U.S. citizen - with family in Chester. Separating will be agony.

"She is my heart," Villatoro said in a recent interview, her voice drowned in tears. "When I look at her sleeping, I think, 'What will happen to her?' She doesn't know anything. When she sees me crying, I just tell her I have a headache."

Does the collateral damage that deportation inflicts on families promote compliance with immigration law?

Proponents of immigration restrictions say it sends a powerful message about the consequences of disrespecting America's borders.

"Is this a difficult and unpleasant situation? Yeah, of course it is," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that urges limited immigration. "But this . . . happens when you contemptuously ignore the enforcement of immigration law for so long.

"If you take out a mortgage and default and get thrown out, it's bad for the children, but you don't get to stay."

Villatoro's supporters, who rallied recently outside the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, point to similar cases in other states, where illegal immigrants rallied public support and were granted deferrals. Her advocates want authorities to look beyond the rhetoric of the immigration debate, and the letter of the law, and apply basic human values to cases where immigrants were minors when brought to the United States.

Villatoro was 5 in 1988 when her mother left her with family in Huehuetenango, a highland city near the southern Mexican border, and went to the United States seeking a better life.

Almost a decade later, she sent for Villatoro, who came to America in the crowded truck of a paid smuggler. Villatoro settled with her mother and stepfather in Chester. In 2003 she graduated from Chester-Upland High School, where she took a junior reserve officer training course in the hope of one day getting a green card and joining the military.

Villatoro's mother had also been threatened with deportation. But because of a complex, timing-related quirk in immigration law, her deportation was canceled in 2008.

Villatoro, who had not been in the United States as long, was not so lucky.

Despite Villatoro's pending expulsion, immigration law allows her to work. So she slings burgers at a McDonald's in Boothwyn, and lives with the boyfriend who is the father of Reina and of the child she expects in October.

Tim O'Connell, a lay leader of the Hispanic Ministry of Delaware County, an Archdiocese of Philadelphia program, met Villatoro in 2008 at a Mass at St. Katharine Drexel Church in Chester. Eighteen months later, he got involved in her case as a nonlawyer advocate.

"She came here as a minor, what I would still consider a child," he said. "When I was 14, I didn't have a heck of a lot of say about where I was going if my parents were dragging me. Zulma was just doing what her parents said."

The hapless-child-in-tow scenario is most often presented in the context of the Dream Act, legislation that would allow permanent residency for illegal immigrants who complete two years of postsecondary education or join the military. Voted on in the lame-duck session of Congress in December, it got majority support in both houses, but not enough to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Though the "dreamers" who would benefit from passage of the law have traditionally been upwardly mobile and college-bound, the movement is increasingly embracing cases like that of Villatoro, a working-class mother whose goals are less certain.

Campaigns to rally public support for such individuals have been mounted in a dozen states, including Arizona, where a Mexican woman working at a Panda Express restaurant was granted a deferral of deportation.

"There are a lot of people who may not have been their high school valedictorians, people like Zulma," said lawyer Dave Bennion of the Nationalities Service Center, a Philadelphia pro-immigrant group, who recently began representing Villatoro in a last-ditch effort to prevent her deportation.

The competency of her earlier legal representation is an issue for Villatoro's supporters, who have criticized her first lawyer, for instance, for failing to file a timely appeal. They have not, however, pressed that point because the Board of Immigration Appeals generally does not accept "ineffective assistance of counsel" claims.

With few legal avenues left, Bennion hopes Villatoro's life story is compelling enough to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in Philadelphia to defer her removal.

"There is a lot more discretion vested in the immigration agencies than in the criminal justice system," he said.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) sent a letter to ICE field director Thomas Decker, outlining what he characterized as earlier legal shortcomings in Villatoro's case and asking for "deferred action" or other prosecutorial discretion.

Harold Ort, an ICE spokesman, declined to discuss Villatoro's case, citing privacy considerations.

O'Connell, the Hispanic ministry lay leader, said one of his concerns was that Villatoro would be a prime target for kidnapping and ransom in Guatemala because of her deep connections in the United States. Thugs would assume someone in so rich a country would be willing to pay a price for her life, he said.

"She did what she was told to do by her parents, and ended up being here illegally," O'Connell said.

"There are so many ways to contribute to a community, a state, a country. To suggest that a minimum-wage worker involved in her church and local community is not making a contribution and has to go troubles me.

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