Borderline case

An illegal immigrant mother battles against bureaucracy to stay near her ailing daughter

Even so, the risk of being deported eats away at Maricela every day. She could take Diana with her to Mexico, but she won't do that, she says. Even if she could find the right medical treatment, she wouldn't be able to pay for it. In the last two years alone, Diana's medical bills have soared to more than $20,000; at least here, Jorge's insurance picks up the tab.

"Diana would be in a devastating situation if she were taken," says Dr. John Menchaca, Diana's pediatrician. The treatment that Diana needs probably wouldn't be available in Zacatecas, Maricela's home state, he adds.

Desperate for answers, the Garcias twice turned to the Mexican Consulate for help, but the consulate couldn't do anything for them. "They told us, 'The law is the law,'" Maricela says.

Arturo Sanchez, spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Dallas, says, "We really have no role at all. We are here to assist and help Mexican nationals that are living in this area. We do try to stay updated to answer questions, but we don't help them to get the process done."

In the meantime, while their future together is uncertain, the Garcias carry on a normal family life--mowing the lawn, buying groceries, paying the bills. But they sit smack in the middle of an enormous vortex of debate surrounding immigration and what it means for the United States.

Nearly a million legal residents were admitted to the United States in 1996, and that doesn't even count people living here in limbo. Many people question whether these immigrants have the same right to social services as U.S. citizens.

Immigration has become a political as well as legal battleground, leading to some "really hateful attitudes" toward immigrants, says Margaret Donnelly, a Dallas immigration attorney. Yet she sees the migration of people across borders as something that's been in existence for centuries. "There are blood ties and business ties that have always been there," she says. "North America is a region, and how on earth can we think that a line--a border--is going to break that?"

NAFTA reasserts this relationship, says Donnelly, who is considering running for mayor in 1998 on an immigration platform.

Despite the existence of trade agreements, some see a drastic shift in views on immigration. "The spirit of the law has changed from dealing with both legal and illegal immigration to just illegal," George Rodriguez says. "They're basically saying, 'Let's get rid of them all.'"

Some politicians believe immigrants simply gobble up too many tax dollars. True, the Garcias were on welfare for two months right after Diana was born. But they got off. And yes, Diana did get Medicaid, but as a U.S. citizen, she had a right to it. Now her father's private insurance picks up the bills. Jorge also pays taxes on his $15,000 salary. The Garcias clearly aren't sucking the system dry.

As the political waters roil, the INS moves on at slug speed, carrying out new policies that will eventually impact thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, Maricela Garcia cancels appointments when the mercury's too high. The valves in Diana's head swell in the heat, so mother and daughter stay indoors whenever possible. Near Diana's feeding tube is a leaking wound that Maricela fears will get infected. She can never drop her guard; Diana's life is always in jeopardy.

The INS can only hunt down people it knows about--those who've gone through legal channels to obtain residency such as Maricela. Those who never bother to apply are safe as long as they don't get caught.

"It used to be you could always go to INS and ask a question without the fear that you were going to be detained," Saenz-Rodriguez says. "Now they detain you. They put you in jail and you sit there and you wait, and by the afternoon, you're pretty much gone."

Lynn Ligon, an INS spokesman in the Dallas District Office, says, "We're never going to get everybody. Somebody could very well elude capture."

Depending on one's position, those are either comforting words or fighting words. Maricela, for her part, doesn't care what people think of her or what NAFTA means for trade. She just wants to take care of her little girl.

If she does have to go, it won't be for long. "If I have to leave and she gets sick, I'm going to come back," she says. "I won't stay silent."

(Jorge and Maricela requested that their real last name not be used in this story.)

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