Ernesto Rosales freely admits he and his wife, Maria Reyna, are undocumented immigrants. But after living and working in Queens for eight years, it’s hard for them to fathom that the mother of two is facing possible deportation.
Reyna was riding an Amtrak train to Chicago in February when federal immigration agents boarded near Buffalo and pulled her off. She was traveling with her sister-in-law and 8-year-old son Alejandro, who has Downs syndrome and has battled cancer.
Now the Mexican immigrant faces the prospect of being torn away from her husband and children, and the life they’ve built from scratch in Woodside.
“She needs to stay here,” Rosales said, sitting in the front room of the small house his family shares with his two brothers.
“It’s not a life with her in Mexico.”
A Hard Journey
Reyna was four months pregnant when she and her husband crossed in to the United States from Mexico in 2000. Travel was difficult, and she narrowly avoided a miscarriage in the mountains east of Tijuana. They paid a smuggler, known as a “coyote,” $4,000 to get them from Arizona to New York.
Five months after the couple’s arrival, Alejandro was born at Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan. The boy was born with Down syndrome and Reyna had to visit him in the hospital for his first month, while her husband worked every day at a Queens catering hall.
It wouldn’t be the boy’s last hospital stay: When he was 3, Alejandro was diagnosed with leukemia and treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Medical Center.
His cancer is in remission. He now visits the hospital every three months for a checkup.
Once Alejandro could travel, the Make-A-Wish Foundation flew the family to Disney World. Reyna has several photo albums documenting the Florida trip and keeps every one of the many stuffed animals given to Alejandro on top of a cabinet in the family’s cramped bedroom.
She said the pile of colorful toys like Mickey, Barney, Donald Duck and Kermit the Frog, reminds her of the kindness of strangers.
Alejandro finally began school this year. He receives occupational therapy and special education services at Public School 9 on Grand Avenue. Alejandro’s little sister, Evelyn, is 4 and will start school in September.
Reyna, her son and her sister-in-law were riding an Amtrak train to see relatives in Chicago when their lives were turned upside down in February. Immigration agents boarded the train outside of Buffalo, and asked selected passengers for identification, Reyna said in Spanish through her husband.
The women were arrested and put up with Alejandro in a hotel rather than a holding cell. She said she and her sister-in-law were questioned for several days, before being released and given a May 16th hearing date.
Reyna’s lawyer Robert J. Shannon notched a postponement and got her case moved to New York City. He told Rosales he’s hoping Reyna will continue to get postponements until the 10-year anniversary of the couple’s arrival in New York. Being here 10 years without any criminal activity would allow Reyna a stay of deportation.
Still, he warned Reyna her chances of staying in the United States are slim — regardless of her son’s needs.
Reyna’s situation, Shannon said, is “a travesty.”
Other immigration lawyers agreed Reyna has very little legal footing to prevent her deportation.
“Children are never a good enough reason,” said Theodore Rothman, a Manhattan-based attorney. “The child can stay and be a ward of the state.”
Rothman added allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. because their children were born here would create havoc on the legal system.
“It would be a policy nightmare,” he said. “It would overwhelm and create a huge backlash against the system. You can’t just reward illegal immigrants for (having U.S.-born children), because it undercuts the people who are doing it the right way. It goes to the contrary of the rules of the country.”
In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility (IIRIR) Act was passed, toughening regulations regarding undocumented workers in the U.S., expanding the criminal grounds for deportation and giving immigrants far less legal recourse.
It also changed the definition by which an immigrant could claim a “removal waiver.” Before 1996, an illegal immigrant had to show “extreme hardship” to stay in the U.S., but the standard since has been upped to an “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” — making it tougher for Reyna.
“The law doesn’t provide any benefit for her just because of her child,” said Alan Wernick, a professor at Baruch College and director of the CUNY Citizenship and Immigration Project. “Either the child goes to Mexico, or stays with other relatives. It’s a very tragic outcome.”
Congressman Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) has authored a bill called the Child Citizen Protection Act, which would give judges some discretion when deciding deportation cases and allow them to keep families with special needs together.
But the measure is in the early stages, and likely won’t help Reyna.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of Department of Homeland Security, is charged with enforcing U.S. immigration laws — and judging from the numbers, ICE has been very busy.
In 2006, ICE set new records for illegal immigrant removals, with 187,513. The agency focuses on tracking down those who have criminal records, have ignored previous deportation decisions or have been accused of document fraud.
ICE also has boosted its workforce. The agency’s Web site shows that the number of fugitive operation teams tripled in 2005, and that a record was set in 2006 for total number of “worksite enforcements.”
There have been a spate of reported accounts of undocumented immigrant roundups on trains and buses — a development immigration advocates called disturbing.
“Sadly, we think there are families being fed into the deportation system through the trains and buses,” said Maria Muentes, co-founder of the New York-based Families for Freedom, a defense network for immigrants facing deportation.
Families for Freedom recently began an awareness campaign geared toward alerting immigrants they are not required to answer immigration enforcement agents’ questions without an attorney present.
ICE officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Undocumented immigrants in New York City have more protections than in many other places in the country.
In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Executive Order 41, prohibiting civic agencies from inquiring about or disclosing an individual’s immigration status — earning New York the moniker of being a “sanctuary city.”
ICE agents, however, are allowed to ask about immigration status if there is a suspicion of illegal activity.
That power, according to immigration advocates, makes undocumented workers particularly vulnerable to deportation.
“The membership are low-wage workers in precarious industries such as child care, construction and the restaurant industry,” said Valeria Trevis, executive director of the Queens-based New Immigrant Community Empowerment. “We are doing a lot of preventative work.”
Cathy Ellen Rosenholtz, the pastor of St. Jacobus Evangelical Lutheran Church in Woodside, said she helped fund an undocumented woman’s flight back to Peru to take care of her ailing mom after her Queens factory was raided.
“We’re in the midst of a community of diverse immigrants,” said Rosenholtz, whose congregation draws from Elmhurst, Woodside and Jackson Heights.
“I talk to families and walk the streets, and people just want a good job and good schools for their kids and are willing to work hard for it. It’s clear they want to be active contributors to the community. And the Bible says that we’re called upon to welcome strangers. It’s essential to who we are.”
“We see at a local level the human consequences of political decisions,” she added. “I just hope that people at the local level can be heard.”
Frustration and Hope
Rosales, meanwhile, is frustrated the law is working against his family.
“We just work for a better life, that’s why we came,” he said. “We don’t do criminal things. We work hard and don’t make any problems, but the law doesn’t understand.”
As Reyna awaits word on her next hearing, the family is trying to go on as usual.
Alejandro will continue therapy and check-ups. Evelyn will prepare for kindergarten. Reyna will continue English classes and taking care of her children. Rosales will work.
There will be no summer vacation, though: Shannon advised the family to stay in New York.
“The lawyer told us to stay away from the train, the bus. We’re not going anywhere,” said Rosales.
With his wife and family facing an uncertain future, Rosales is doing his best to stay hopeful.
“The life is very long,” he said. “It’s hard, it’s not easy. I’m not concentrating on my job because of this, I’m just thinking, ‘What’s going to happen?'”
“But you don’t have to get depressed.”