Borderline case

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

Five-year-old Diana Garcia can't sit up, eat, or do much of anything by herself. Confined to a wheelchair, she eats formula through a little tube in her stomach. Neurologically, she's at the level of a newborn and will likely stay that way the rest of her life, her doctor says.

Born three months premature weighing less than two pounds, Diana has fought for survival since birth. The fluids that protect her brain could not circulate, and she became partially paralyzed on her right side. The resulting cerebral palsy caused severe damage to her nerves and muscles. She suffers from convulsions and sometimes hits herself.

Five years and two major surgeries later, Diana has valves on both sides of her head that keep the fluids flowing so she can survive. She lies on her back in the Garcias' sparsely furnished living room in southeast Fort Worth, mumbling and gurgling while a visiting nurse coos and tends to her. As the woman helps the little girl move her shriveled arms, parents Jorge and Maricela look on.

Jorge, a 30-year-old permanent U.S. resident, works for a local dry cleaning company. He lets his wife do most of the talking. Maricela, a 24-year-old illegal immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, flashes a wise but tired grin as she talks about her daughter's life.

Every day for the past five years, Maricela's and Diana's lives have been bound tightly together. Maricela gets up every morning, pulls her 33-pound daughter out of bed, and prepares her for special education classes at a nearby public elementary school. She bathes and feeds her, dresses her, and secures her in the wheelchair. She's the single most important person in Diana's life.

But recent changes to U.S. immigration laws mean that Maricela Garcia will soon be forced to return to Mexico and leave behind her daughter, a U.S. citizen. Congress voted earlier this year that applicants seeking permanent residency in the United States must return to their home countries while their immigration paperwork inches along. Maricela applied several years ago--in May 1993--but the INS is still working on applications from 1992.

Right now, Maricela is in a sort of bureaucratic no man's land, halfway to U.S. citizenship. She's not legal, but it's almost certain that her residency application will be approved once the INS gets around to it.

Come September, however, she won't have any right to remain in this country while the INS plods along. Up until this year, an applicant such as Maricela would have been able to avoid leaving through a process called "suspension of deportation." If she could prove that she'd lived here seven years, that she possessed good moral character, and that her departure would cause extreme hardship to her or her family, she could remain in the United States while waiting for her paperwork to go through.

But Congress has upped the ante now, requiring 10 years of residence--as well as "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to either Jorge or Diana if Maricela were forced to leave. There's only one problem: Nobody seems to know what "extremely unusual hardship" consists of. The phrase hasn't been defined, according to George Rodriguez, a local immigration attorney whom Maricela has contacted. "It's a discretionary decision," he says.

Maricela hopes she can somehow stay under the hardship provision. She's only lived here for seven years, but her departure would definitely throw the Garcia family into chaos. "I don't know what we're going to do," she says, staring wistfully at her daughter.

But Rodriguez and his law partner and wife, Michelle Saenz-Rodriguez, are not optimistic about her chances. "Technically, under the law, there are no avenues" for Maricela to delay deportation, Saenz-Rodriguez says. "They're advising us not to advise our clients," she adds, "because we just don't know [how the law will affect people]. It's created havoc."

Maricela's dilemma comes at a time when precedents are being established, and judges' decisions are paving the way for future interpretations of immigration law. But the Rodriguezes are concerned about people caught in the system right now. "What about everybody that gets caught in between--who had to be separated from their wives and their kids because we don't know and immigration doesn't know and the judges don't know?" Rodriguez asks.

Maricela's time is up in September. That's when anyone who's been here illegally since April 1, 1997 must return to his home country--or be deported and banned from the United States for three years. The longer you remain illegally after April 1, the stiffer the penalty gets.

The penalties only apply, of course, if you get caught.
But that won't be hard. All U.S., state, and local agencies are required by law to report any suspected illegal aliens to the INS. That means that Maricela will have to think twice about going to a public hospital if she's injured, because the hospital is supposed to report her.

(An INS spokesman says, however, that no local hospital has turned in any aliens yet. "Even if they did send us information, it's not real likely that we'll go sit in the waiting room" to nab an illegal, he adds.)

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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