Return to sender

Last June, for the sixth time in two years, Rufino and Cynthia Cruz loaded their two young daughters into their 1985 Chevy Suburban and drove from Fort Worth to Dallas, where they spent a warm and sticky night in front of the Immigration and Naturaliza-tion Service office on Stemmons Freeway. Rufino and 2-year-old Melissa slept in the car while Cynthia and 3-year-old Carisma waited in the line, which had started to form around midnight and was already 40 to 50 people deep.

By 11 a.m., they finally entered the INS building. As they had done on past visits, they told the clerk they were there to check the status of Rufino's application to become a legal permanent resident. Although Rufino had entered the country illegally from Mexico five years before, he and Cynthia, an American citizen, had been married for several years, which made him eligible to become a legal resident provided he passed the interview process.

But the Cruzes were concerned. On their previous trips the INS clerks told them that Rufino's file had been lost. In the meantime, a friend of Rufino's, who had applied after him, had already been granted legal permanent resident status and received his green card.

The clerk informed the Cruzes that Rufino's file was still lost. But this time, instead of telling him to check back again in a few months, the clerk told them that they should take their children home and that Rufino should return at 2 p.m. The clerk assured Cynthia that someone would be able to translate for her husband, whose English was spotty.

Cynthia felt uncomfortable sending Rufino back alone, so she accompanied him. They arrived promptly at 2 p.m., took a seat directly in front of the clerk's window, and waited. At five, the Cruzes approached the clerk. She excused herself and told them she was going to get someone to assist them.

"Great, finally someone is going to help us," Cynthia thought to herself.

A uniformed INS official toting a gun and handcuffs then appeared. He told Rufino he was under arrest. The reason, the official explained, was that Rufino had missed his scheduled interview and a subsequent court hearing, during which the immigration judge made a decision to deport him. The immigration officer showed them a certified letter informing him of the interview that had been returned unopened.

Cynthia looked at the notice and saw that it had been sent to their old address. Cynthia told the officer that they had filed a change-of-address card with the INS and had been at the INS office a half-dozen times since trying to find out why they hadn't heard from them. The officer told her unless she had proof right then and there that she had filed a change of address card and had visited the office, Rufino would have to stay in jail. She had 24 hours to come up with $110 to file legal papers asking for the case to be reopened and for a stay of deportation. If she didn't do it, a bus to Mexico was leaving the next day, the officer told her, and Rufino would be on it.

Cynthia found an attorney, but it took him almost four weeks to get Rufino out of jail. In the meantime, he almost lost his job as a waiter at a Fort Worth country club, where he had been employed for the past five years, working six days a week and averaging 10 to 20 hours a week in overtime.

Their attorney, Fernando Dubove, is convinced that INS bungled Rufino's case by failing to process a simple change-of-address card -- an error that could have been caught by the Cruzes when they showed up at the INS office, if the INS had not also misplaced the file. Cynthia cannot prove she filed a change of address with the INS, but she does have the receipt of the certified letter with the change of address she sent the INS before they moved. And each time they went to the INS office, she says, a clerk requested she write down the change of address again. Cynthia even has a copy of a letter she sent to the INS district director asking him to find out what happened to her husband's file and again recording her change of address.

A spokesman with the INS says that the Cruzes sent the change-of-address card to the INS regional service center in Mesquite, which serves a 13-state area, instead of the Dallas office on Stemmons. "It's like you sending a Dallas change of address card to a St. Paul, Minnesota, postmaster," says INS spokesman Lynn Ligon, who wouldn't discuss why the mistake could not have been rectified by a clerk during one of the Cruzes' several visits.

"This is par for the course for the INS," Dubove says. "The scary part is that this happens all over the country, and this is not the stupidest or worst mistake I've seen. But it comes pretty close. It's amazing that such an inept agency has such power over people's lives. And Congress just continues to give them more power."

The ordeal was a "nightmare," Cynthia says. "My husband and I are not used to being apart. He goes to work and comes home. All our time is family time. We're each other's best friend. It was hard for us and the kids. They didn't understand what was going on. He and I had only left Carisma once -- the night Melissa was born. The children blamed [his arrest] on me. They saw us leave together and come back alone. They thought I didn't want him to come home."

Shortly after Rufino got out of jail, Dubove filed suit on the family's behalf against the INS under the Federal Tort Claims Act. He is asking for approximately $300,000 in damages -- about 10 times the amount of money Rufino lost in wages and attorneys' fees -- plus compensation for the emotional distress to Rufino and his family.

"There is no question in my mind they were damaged by his false imprisonment," Dubove says. "When she came to this office, she was crying and distraught. She was trying to keep the family together emotionally and financially and trying to explain to the children what happened to their father."

Cynthia Cruz says she pursued the suit "so what happened to us doesn't happen to anyone else. We were lucky. We had support and a good attorney. There are people in jail for months with no one to help them. Everything we went through could have been avoided. It's real disappointing to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, it goes wrong."

Rufino, who was released from jail on his own recognizance, will appear on December 17 before an immigration judge, who will decide whether he can become a legal permanent resident. Until then, as he has since his arrest, he reports once a month on his day off to the Dallas INS office. "They're keeping tabs on him to make sure he doesn't run," says Cynthia. "It doesn't make sense."

The Cruzes try to make a family outing of it. "My children talk about going to the immigration the way other kids talk about going to Chuck E. Cheese's," Cynthia says.

Although she and Rufino have tried to keep their sense of humor, the ordeal was frightening and frustrating. In the two years since they moved to their apartment, the neighborhood has gotten dangerous. Some of their neighbors are dealing drugs and engaging in prostitution. They want to move, but they would have to get permission from the INS first, and their lawyer has advised them to stay where they are -- at least until the whole ordeal is behind them.

"Our life is in limbo," says Cynthia. "I don't feel safe, but we have no alternative."

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Ann Zimmerman