Are Contradictory Immigration Laws Leaving Families in Legal Limbo?


 PHOENIX, Az. – The contents of Maria Teresa Fuentes’ immigration file take up an entire table. Legal appeals, government letters carrying bad news, attorney advertisements clipped from newspapers, technical explanations of cryptic immigration laws, a Spanish prayer printed on blue paper... Collectively, they tell the story of a fight that’s been going on for years; one that Fuentes doesn’t want to see come to an end. At least, not like this.

Fuentes, 40, is not likely what most people envision when they imagine an undocumented immigrant. She is an entrepreneur, the owner of two hair salons, the wife of a U.S. citizen and the mother of two children, ages 3 and 6 – the eldest of whom has been receiving treatment for behavioral issues.

It’s late at night for our interview, and Fuentes’ hair seems unusually messy for a hairstylist, as if she just rushed out of the house. She pulls out a letter that says it all. An immigration judge has ordered her to leave the country by December 17 of this year.

“This is ironic,” she said, as she pulled out her wallet to show me her work permit. Despite the deportation order for December, her permit is valid until August 2012.

Her situation illustrates the complexities of a set of immigration laws that some attorneys claim are out of date and have led to unfair outcomes for people like Fuentes, whose legal fate remains undetermined despite an announcement by President Obama earlier this year that he will ask immigration prosecutors to focus on deporting only serious criminals from the country.  And even if Fuentes were allowed to stay in the country under these new guidelines, she would have no assurance that the government wouldn't deport her in the future.

Following Love Across the Border

Fuentes came to Arizona 12 years ago to start a new life with her husband Martin, a U.S. citizen. It’s been a life of uncertainty and stress for the couple ever since, as they’ve worked through the legal system to remain united in the U.S. as a family with their two children.

She met her husband in their hometown of Zamora, Michoacán when they were both in their late 20s. He lived in the U.S. and was just there to visit a relative.

“People don’t believe in love at first sight, but it happens,” said Fuentes.

The two carried on a long distance relationship, going through endless calling cards to talk to each other every night. They finally married in September 1999. She didn’t want to move to the U.S., but he convinced her.

What happened next would affect the course of her life. 

Fuentes paid a Mexican attorney – recommended by a friend -- to complete her visa application at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. She had grown tired of never getting an appointment at the embassy, waiting for hours in the long lines. An attorney, she hoped, could aid in the process.

“I trusted him blindly,” she lamented. 

Eventually, Fuentes got her passport back from the attorney with what she thought was a valid visa. But when she arrived at the U.S. port of entry in San Ysidro, California, immigration agents detained her for questioning. Fuentes was soon sent back to Mexico and accused of presenting a fraudulent document in an attempt to enter the U.S. illegally.

Over the next few days, Fuentes waited in Tijuana and considered her options – to remain in Mexico or to cross illegally and reunite with her husband in the U.S. She took a chance, and chose the latter.

Legal Limbo

Back in the U.S., Fuentes filed paperwork in 2001 to become a legal resident under a federal immigration law that was being phased out but still in effect at that time, known as section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The law afforded people who entered the country illegally but were married to a U.S. citizen the opportunity to legalize their immigration status. 

Fuentes’ 245(i) case dragged on for years. She was issued temporary work permits as she waited for a chance at a green card – the document that would make her a legal immigrant and open up a path to citizenship.

In 2009, eight years after applying for residency under 245(i), Fuentes discovered that her legal avenues were blocked by another law. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), passed in 1996, stated that a person who enters the country illegally and is deported needs to wait a period of 10 years in their home country before they can try to re-enter legally.

Because Fuentes had been previously deported, immigration authorities interpreted she was no longer protected under the 245(i) law.

So Fuentes was placed in deportation proceedings a second time. Monica Sud-Devaraj, then her attorney, fought the government’s interpretation of the immigration laws, to no avail.

“I have a lot of clients in her situation,” said Sud-Devaraj. “There are hundreds of cases like [this].”

The outcomes of certain immigration laws, said Sud-Devaraj, sometimes defy logic. 

“You’re basically telling the couple, that… she’ll have to spend the next 10 years of her married life in Mexico. Can you imagine living without your spouse for 10 years?” 

A Successful Entrepreneur 

Despite living with the anxiety of not knowing whether or not an immigration judge would allow her to stay, Fuentes became an entrepreneur. She ditched her job at a hair salon and told her working husband she wanted to do more for herself.

About five years ago, she knocked on the door of a hair salon and told the owner that she heard it was for sale. She wasn’t really sure, but her instinct turned out to be right. Fuentes bought the salon and soon the investment allowed her to open up another business. She now employs 10 other people.

“[Immigrants] are not the public drain that they say we are,” said her husband, Martin.

“I just want to go to Washington D.C. (to) meet with someone there and see what we can do to help my wife,” he said. “This gives me so much grief. Someone has to listen.”

Over the years, Martin has become an immigration sponsor for at least two workers at the hair salon. He was able to help one of them obtain a work permit and legal documentation to stay in the U.S., although ironically he hasn’t been able to help his own wife.

“I feel bad that everything is crumbling down for us,” he said. “I own two houses, I have four apartments for rent. I have all of that, and now to see everything crumbling down…”

But it’s not material things what worry Fuentes.

“Those things come and go,” she said. “I’m not afraid of starting from the bottom. It’s my children that worry me. No one is safe from danger in Mexico.” 

Most of Maria Teresa’s Mexican clients don’t know about her situation. She doesn’t like to complain. Sometimes she swallows her fears and keeps quiet when she hears others talk about how violence has changed the life of many in Mexico. 

One client told Fuentes that a family returned to Mexico - fearful of SB 1070, Arizona’s anti-immigrant law – only to have their 6 year-old son kidnapped. The family didn’t have the $10,000 requested for ransom. The family, the client was told, received a box from the kidnappers with their child’s hands in it.

Fuentes doesn’t know if the story is true, but it scares her to death.

“They target you because you come from the U.S.,” she said. “They think you have lots of money.”

Adding to the worry is Fuentes' uncertaintly over what type of medical care she'll be able to secure for her son if they are forced to move to Mexico.

Last October, The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) turned down Fuentes’ latest plea to stay in the country.

Sud-Devaraj did not think Fuentes could win an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court – the next step - given a 2010 legal opinion reached by that court on a case similar to hers.

So Fuentes and her husband hired another attorney, Eric Bjotvedt, to file the appeal. They missed the deadline by a day. Now, they are trying to see if another court will grant them an exception to allow the appeal to proceed. Bdjotvedt did not return calls for an interview.

“She’s a fighter,” Martin said. 

Tears stream down Fuentes’ eyes as she listens to her husband. She knows she needs to touch hearts and minds if she’s to have any hope of staying. 

“I leave it in God’s hands,” she said.

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