Divided Families

Divided Families: Deported,1060


Cronkite News Service

TUCSON, Ariz. _ Juan Villa, a lifelong Tucson resident, is on the brink of being deported.

If he loses his legal fight to remain in this country, his wife and U.S.-born children face what amounts to an impossible choice: stay in the U.S., where their friends and life are, or go to Mexico and start over in a new country.

Villa says he wants his family to remain behind in Tucson if he loses. Life in Mexico is not the life he wants for his family.

It’s not the life that Fatima Ruiz, Juan’s wife, wants either. In Mexico, “everything is different,” she said.

“The air, the view, my radio stations. We’re from here. We say we’re from Tucson, not … Mexico.”

But neither does she want a life without her husband.

Out of Sight

Ruiz and her husband both were born in Hermosillo, Sonora, but came to Tucson with their families when they were the age of kindergarteners. Ruiz obtained legal status along with her mother, but Villa never did.

The couple has been together for seven years and married for three. A month into the relationship, Villa, 23, told Ruiz he wasn’t a legal citizen.

“I said, ‘Who cares?’” Ruiz said. “But as you start to live together (and) have kids, you start seeing the problem.”

For years, the couple rarely left their home in Tucson, fearing that they would be asked for identification. They avoided going on vacation or even to the movies.

Mostly, they stayed at home with their four U.S.-born children – Ruiz getting work as a notary and Villa making money selling the cars he fixed up in his backyard.

However, the two worried constantly that Villa would be discovered.

“It’s hard to explain to the children why we pray that INS won’t catch us right before we cross the street,” Ruiz said.

Ultimately, it was a cracked windshield that exposed them.

Villa was driving with a friend one day in August 2005 when he was pulled over for having a crack in his windshield. He showed his Mexican driver’s license, and the officer called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which detained Villa and his friend at the Central Arizona Detention Center in Florence.

Villa was given the option of agreeing to voluntary departure rather than face trial. He signed the form and was deported to Nogales, Sonora. That caused him to miss his court date for the cracked windshield, triggering a warrant for his arrest.

He said he made the decision to cross back through the desert with a friend because he couldn’t stand to be away from his family. It took him a week walking across the desert from Nogales to Tucson.

“I remember getting a call from Juan to come pick him up from the next town over, not knowing the risk of picking up my husband,” Ruiz said. “He was gone for a whole week. I was going crazy.”

The risk soon became clear.

Problems Mount

Ruiz said she went to pick up her husband and a friend of his, only to find that INS was now after her.

“They were going to charge me with smuggling and give me 10 years, five years for each person,” she said.

Ruiz was handcuffed, fingerprinted and locked up, but the only thing she remembers running through her head at the time was, “My kids are at my house with my brother!”

Ruiz was released the same day, but Villa and his friend had to go back to the detention center, where they signed the voluntary departure forms and were deported again.

They simply turned around and crossed the desert once more.

Fighting to Stay

For two years, things were quiet. Then one day in August of 2007, Villa was stopped for speeding while driving his son to school.

When the officer ran his name, he discovered the 2005 warrant.

“The officer said normally he wouldn’t care if I didn’t have any paperwork,” Villa said. “But since the warrant popped up, he had to bring me in.”

This time Villa hired a lawyer, Maurice Goldman, to help him try to get a much-coveted green card so he can stay in the United States.

Goldman is seeking something known as a “Cancellation of Removal,” a form of amnesty that grants legal status to those who have lived in the U.S. for 10 years, who can demonstrate good character and who can show that they have some U.S.-born family members who would endure unusual hardships if they are deported.

Goldman said Villa’s four U.S.-born children may help Villa win his case.

However, the decision is up to the judge who hears the case, Goldman said, and there’s no guarantee the judge will be sympathetic to the family argument. His firm had a similar case in which an undocumented mother had 14 U.S. children and was denied Cancellation of Removal.

“We don’t want to think what would happen,” Ruiz said. “This is our last option.”

Breaking the Law

Jack Martin, director of special projects for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, has little sympathy for Villa’s and Ruiz’ plight. The U.S. is built upon laws, Martin said, and those laws must be upheld.

“Disregard of those laws is an affront to our national identification as a nation of laws,” he said. “… A tough policy and practice of law enforcement is necessary against those who disrespect our laws and others who aid and abet illegal immigration.”

Ruiz said she understands the argument that the law is the law, but she resents the way she was treated.

“Even if you are a U.S. citizen,” she said. “If you have anything to do with anyone without papers, you’ll be treated like them.”

She also wishes the law would take into account the wrenching human toll it can take on families.

She is trying to prepare her children, Jaqueline, 8, Anthony, 7, Juan, 4, and Paola, 3, for a possible move to Mexico.

They don’t know how to read or write in Spanish, so she’s enrolled them in Spanish classes.

She keeps thinking about the lives her children will have here, where she says they can pursue their dreams, compared to the life they are likely to have in Mexico.

But always, she comes back to the same question: “You can have lots of dreams, but what is it without (your) family?”


PHOTOS: Click thumbnails to see full-resolution images and download

From left, Fatima Ruiz, her sons Anthony and Juan Jr., husband Juan Villa and daughter Paola visit at the children’s grandmother’s home in Tucson. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)

Fatima Ruiz (far left) and her children, (front from left) Juan, Anthony and Paola, at their grandmother’s home in Tucson. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)

Jaqueline Villa rests on her father’s lap while her brother Anthony plays games at their grandmother’s home in Tucson. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)