Legislator's wife faces deportation order

Paperwork mix-up blamed

December 03, 2006|By New York Times News Service

ATLANTA --The wife of a Georgia legislator known for his strong support of immigrants' rights is in hiding after federal agents came to their home on Tuesday with an order to deport her to her native Colombia, her lawyer said.

In a written statement issued Wednesday, state Sen. Curt Thompson, 37, a Democrat, said his wife, Sascha Herrera, 28, missed an immigration-related court hearing in February 2005. Thompson said notices about an asylum application that had been mistakenly filed on her behalf had been sent to the wrong address, causing her to miss the hearing.

Because Herrera did not appear in court, a federal judge issued a deportation order in February 2005, said Charles H. Kuck, Herrera's immigration lawyer.

Kuck said Thompson told him that his wife was not at the couple's home when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived Tuesday to take her into custody. Kuck would say only that Herrera was in a safe place.

"We're making an arrangement, we hope, for her to come in Monday morning," Kuck said, adding that he would try to persuade an immigration judge to reopen Herrera's case.

It is usually difficult to get an immigration case reopened, several experts said.

Advocates of immigrants' rights say Herrera's situation is another indication of the byzantine system for applying for legal residency in this country.

"It's a very, very onerous system," said state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, a Democrat who was the first Hispanic elected to the Georgia Senate. "If the wife of a state senator can't handle it, how can we expect people who are working in our labor force to handle the bureaucracy?"

"This is going to take a U.S. congressman or a senator to step in," Zamarripa said. "To say, `Let's wait a minute. Let's think about this. This is a good person who deserves to be in this country.'"

Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, said he could not comment on the specifics of Herrera's case. Generally, Raimondi said, "people who are here legally are very, very careful about their immigration status." Of the couple's claims of ignorance about the notices, he said, "It sounds like a lot of song and dance."

In his statement, Thompson also said that his wife was the victim of an unscrupulous notario. In some Spanish-speaking countries, a notario publico is a highly regarded lawyer with special power to negotiate with the government. In the United States, however, a notario is often a notary public with no special expertise in immigration law. Some notaries, however, advertise themselves within Hispanic communities and take advantage of the similarity between the two titles to charge high fees to file immigration paperwork with the government.

Kuck said Herrera originally paid $1,300 to the notary, whom he identified as Tomas Vilela, to help her file paperwork to extend her visitor's visa so she could take classes at Kennesaw State University, just north of Atlanta.

Vilela recommended that she apply for asylum, Kuck said, and had her sign the last page of an application. But after she received an F-1 student visa, for which university officials had helped her apply, Herrera instructed Vilela not to file the application, Kuck said.

Kuck said that Vilela filed the forms anyway and that because the paperwork listed the address of his business, all subsequent letters from immigration officials were sent there, not to Herrera's home. Thompson's statement said the notary did not forward the letters to Herrera.

She did not know about the filing and never received notices about the hearing, Kuck said, adding that the deportation order "hit the couple completely out of the blue."

Vilela did not return several messages left at his office.

Though Herrera was in the country legally on the student visa, once she missed the date for the asylum hearing and the deportation order was issued, "it trumped all other legal status," Kuck said.

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