The heartbreak of a defective immigration system

October 17, 2007|By Priscilla Labovitz

On Halloween, one of my two girls will be deported to Venezuela. The other will return from a three-week trek in the wilderness to her satisfying career as a social worker.

Amy, born in Boston in 1980, grew up with two parents, graduated from a Montgomery County high school and a liberal arts college in New England, earned a master's in social work and climbs rocks with at-risk kids. Emily, also born in 1980, was kidnapped from her mother in Trinidad at age 8 and taken by her Nigerian father to the U.S., where he started a new family and then left the country; his whereabouts are unknown. Her mother is out of the picture as well.

Emily, too, graduated from a Montgomery County high school, where she was a cartoonist for its award-winning newspaper. She couldn't go to college because she was undocumented, ineligible for financial aid and not authorized to work. Instead, she volunteered in public kindergarten to learn the trade and managed to take a few courses at Montgomery College in early childhood education. Today, she is a highly regarded preschool teacher with two weeks left in the only life she knows.

I am Amy's mother and, for the last six years, Emily's lawyer. We've tried everything I could find in the law to prevent Emily's deportation: labor certification (on appeal); special immigrant juvenile status (denied); continuances in immigration court (no more); deferred action, a discretionary status that the Department of Homeland Security has refused; and an order of supervision, which runs out Oct. 31.

It hasn't always been this way. Immigration judges and immigration officials have for decades had the authority to show mercy in appropriate cases. But in 1996, Congress took away that power. Now only the office of Detention and Removal Operations can exercise discretion to extend Emily's stay indefinitely. This month, however, the office denied her an extension, stating that "compelling circumstances ... do not exist in this case."

The only place where Emily can be deported is Venezuela - the country of her birth - where she doesn't know a soul and has no prospects. What's more, the State Department has classified Venezuela as a "Tier 3" country that makes little effort to stop trafficking in women. It is not to Emily's advantage that she is tall, willowy and beautiful.

I read that many Americans say those who haven't immigrated legally don't belong here - that for them to remain here isn't fair. Is it fair that Emily was born to a kidnapper and has tried every legal means to remain here - while Amy had the luck to be born in this country? Is it fair that a federal agency in downtown Baltimore has the choice to allow Emily to stay here and deport criminals instead, and just says no?

I am not saying that everyone who manages to get into our country should be allowed to stay. But something is terribly wrong with a system that ejects people who have done nothing wrong and whom tragic circumstances have prevented from making meaningful contributions to our society. There is something wrong with officials so callous that they refuse to use the flexibility they have to save a guiltless young woman.

We need better leadership at the Department of Homeland Security. We need people who can see in Emily's story "compelling circumstances."

Priscilla Labovitz practices immigration law in Washington. Her e-mail is labovitz@earthlink.net.

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