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Critics say families, legal rights abused by immigration laws

Special to National Catholic Reporter
San Diego

Louis Alvarado lies in a hospital bed at home, a ventilator hose inserted through an incision in his throat to provide oxygen to his inert body.

A shooting 11 years ago left him a quadriplegic. Now 31, he depends on care provided by his parents and six brothers and sisters, which enables him to stay in the family home in Encanto, a low-income San Diego neighborhood inhabited by the working poor.

“There’s my dad’s bed,” he says, his conversation punctuated by the steady pulse of the ventilator and frequent gasps for air. “There” is the corner of the family’s converted garage, now Louis’ bedroom. The bed has been empty for almost five months now, ever since INS agents came to the house Dec. 1 and took Benjamin Alvarado to the detention center in Descanso, Calif.

Five years ago, his wife, Maria, explained, Benjamin was convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail for drug possession. “It was his first and only arrest. He hasn’t even had a traffic ticket since then,” the San Diego hotel worker explained. “Now when I go to see him, they pat me down.”

Benjamin is among the thousands of legal permanent residents nationwide facing the prospect of deportation as a result of changes in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act enacted by Congress in 1996.

In February, Bishop Nicholas DeMarzio, Newark auxiliary and U.S. Catholic Conference chair on migration, testified against the new regulations before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims (NCR, March 12).

According to DeMarzio, the new rules “undermine basic human dignity and human rights, unnecessarily separate and divide families, violate fundamental notions of fairness and equal protection under the law ... and create an artificial ‘crisis’ in [the ability of the INS to detain] truly violent or dangerous individuals.”

Under terms of this legislation, any crime committed by a legal permanent resident that earns a sentence of one year or more has been classified as an aggravated felony, making the permanent resident eligible for deportation. Previously, the term aggravated felony referred to crimes that earned a sentence of five years or more.

The legislation is also retroactive, affecting any legal permanent resident convicted of a crime that fits the new definition of aggravated felony, even if the resident has completed time in detention and probation. Thus, even though Benjamin Alvarado already served his time in jail, completed probation and stayed out of trouble, he and thousands of others with similar records are being picked up by the INS and sent to detention centers. They leave their jobs and their families behind.

Unlike previous offenders, they are not permitted to post bond and file a relief waiver, regardless of whether or not they are considered dangerous or pose a flight risk.

Maria and her seven children are U.S. citizens. Benjamin is the only family member who is not. He wanted to be able to own land in Mexico, his 17-year-old daughter Brenda explained.

Benjamin was employed full-time as a truck driver at a local linen supply company prior to his arrest.

“Louis requires 24-hour care,” his mother, Maria, explained. “We had two [licensed vocational nurses] working eight hour shifts from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., then 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. Benjamin would take the night shift, sleeping on the bed in the corner of the garage and then getting up to go to work in the morning.”

Now, Maria struggles on her hotel worker’s salary to pay the mortgage. Benjamin’s namesake, Ben Jr., 23, has completed training as a licensed vocational nurse, and now fills in for his dad at his brother’s bedside.

Benjamin’s attorney, Jan Bejar, is handling half a dozen similar cases in his San Diego office. “It’s unconstitutional. These people are being denied due process and are being placed in double jeopardy for offenses that they have already done restitution for. The INS doesn’t see the anguish these families are going through,” Bejar said.

In another San Diego case, an Iranian refugee, Fatima (she asked that her last name not be used) advocates for the release of her son, Ray, 22. He was taken into custody in October, two days before his sister’s wedding in New York. Ray’s family came to the United States as political refugees in 1978 after Islamic fundamentalists overthrew the government of the late Shah of Iran.

Ray’s father was a high officer in the Shah’s government. He and his family fled Iran when Ray was 6 months old and came to the United States. In 1997, Ray was convicted of possessing drugs for sale and fraudulent use of a telephone. He was put on three years’ probation after serving six months in a work-release program.

At the time of his October arrest, he was working at a car rental agency and going to night school. During a routine visit to his house, county probation officers found a pager and a cellular phone in his room, possession of which constituted violation of his probation. Fatima claims he had bought her a car phone after her car broke down on the freeway and she was stranded for several hours, and that the pager belonged to an uncle. But to no avail. Ray was returned to jail one day, long enough for the INS to pick him up.

“He doesn’t even speak Farsi,” his mother lamented. “Yes, he made a mistake, but does he have to pay for it with his life -- that’s what will happen if he goes back to Iran. His family is here, his life is here.”

Ellie Fanugao, a nurse at Mercy Hospital, knows firsthand the anguish and uncertainty shared by Fatima and the Alvarado family. She carries around a portfolio filled with papers relating to a case involving her brother-in-law Raymond.

In December of 1995, he was convicted of a lewd act with a child. “He was drunk at the time,” Fanugao said. “The family of the girl has already forgiven him. Now we are worried that his wife, my sister, and my 10-year-old nephew may have to get along without him.”

Raymond’s wife, Norma, has been diagnosed with a premature form of Parkinson’s Disease and is eligible for SSI -- Supplemental Security Income. She shares an apartment in Imperial Beach, Calif., with the couple’s son, Rommel, and her mother, Cecelia Abraham. “He’s already paid his dues,” Fanugao said. “He’s a good Dad, he’s gone to counseling, completed a sobriety program, complied with probation guidelines. Our family came here from the Philippines more than 20 years ago. Now we’re being torn apart.”

Last month, these families shared their heartache and anguish with San Diego congressman Bob Filner, a Democrat, at a meeting organized by Citizens and Immigrants for Equal Justice, a support group for families with relatives now in detention centers as a result of the 1996 legislation.

Luz Marie Gonzalez is the San Diego coordinator of the group. There are chapters in Texas, Louisiana and New York. Earlier this month, a group of them, accompanied by attorneys, lobbied legislators on Capitol Hill, asking that the law be revised, eliminating its retroactive clause and allowing for bonds and appeals on a case-by-case basis.

At a Saturday afternoon meeting with the families at the Sherman Heights Community Center, Filner listened attentively as family members explained the situations their loved ones face. Some of them could only stand in front of him and sob, their children clinging to them.

Several local immigration attorneys who are representing the family members spoke, pointing out the inequities of the law and offering the small consolation that it could be years before all appeals are exhausted.

“Very few people in power know your stories,” Filner told the crowd. “Many of us opposed this law from the beginning. We need to change that law. The problem is that the majority of Congress doesn’t want to change it.” Maria, Ellie and Fatima listened intently as Filner urged the group to move beyond their individual stories to collective political action.

Back home in Encanto, Maria’s eldest son, Louis, lay resting, the pulse of the ventilator punctuating the silence, an empty bed in the corner of the room a reminder of the power of the law and the power of stories.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999