October 10, 2008

Family Tangled Up in Immigration System Divided Between Two Countries

By Anne Blythe / McClatchy Newspapers
Thursday, October 9, 2008

DURHAM, N.C. - Angela Guerrero knew she might be overwhelmed for a few weeks, possibly a month, juggling work, child care and the daily grind of family life when her husband set out for the U.S. consulate offices in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

She never expected to be in the predicament she is in - her husband of five years banned from this country for at least a decade, her family torn between two countries and a tangle of immigration issues to unsnarl.

Ricardo Guerrero, an illegal immigrant, had tired of looking over his shoulder, constantly wondering whether deportation was just a misstep away.

So one February day, Guerrero kissed his family goodbye in Durham. Eager to stop living on the fringes of the law, as many illegal immigrants do, he flew to his native Mexico with papers a Wake County notary public had helped him prepare and a two-page letter from his American-born wife.

His optimistic plan was to return with a green card, the official document that would give him better access to the jobs and education he dreamed of when he came to this country nine years ago in search of a better life.

But those hopes were dashed by what immigration lawyers say is a sweeping problem - notaries who are unauthorized and unlicensed to practice law overstepping their bounds and giving bad advice about immigration laws and procedures.

Now the Guerreros are a family divided by a border and thousands of miles.

He’s in Mexico City with their sons Cauhtli, 2, and Yoali, 5. She’s raising the school-age girls Kristine, 12, and Samantha, 8, in Durham, the city where she has lived all but a few years of her life.

"It gets really hard, really depressing," said Angela Guerrero, 30. "I feel like it’s just like imprisoning somebody. All of us as a family, all of us are in prison. And for what? What have we done to have our family separated like this?"

The family’s experience is the backbone of a civil lawsuit filed in the Durham County courthouse by the North Carolina Justice Center against Eiblys and Edna Ochoa, who run Global Enterprises of North Carolina, an immigration-service business that once had offices in Durham, Wake County and Wilson.

Jose Antonio Guillen Mendoza, a Mexican citizen and North Carolina resident, is also party to the suit, which the Justice Center hopes to pursue as a class-action case.

The Ochoas, through their lawyer, John M. Kirby of Raleigh, have declined to comment about the allegations. But in court documents they have disputed the claims and asked for the case to be dismissed.

Ricardo Guerrero, 27, sought the assistance of the Ochoas in 2004 after tuning in to a weekly Spanish-language radio program on WETC 540 AM. Eiblys Ochoa, according to the suit, dispensed advice on immigration law to callers, often telling them to visit Global Enterprises storefront offices for further assistance.

Many callers to the radio show referred to Eiblys Ochoa as "abogado," the Spanish word for lawyer. Although he is not a lawyer, the suit said, the radio personality failed to correct those who called in for advice.

In the Guerreros’ Durham home, the radio was often tuned to Spanish-language stations. Angela Guerrero, a North Carolina native whose Spanish is limited, remembers the day her husband decided to seek the assistance of the Ochoas.

"He heard this guy and said, ’Well, we can go to him, he can help us get our paperwork together,’ " Angela Guerrero recalls. "I was thinking because we were married - we were told our situation looked good - that we wouldn’t have a problem."

Angela Guerrero joined her husband the first few times he visited with the Ochoas in their Durham office. Eiblys Ochoa was a licensed notary, and the Guerreros thought that by plunking down more than $1,400 they were getting the advice they needed to navigate the complexities of U.S. immigration law.

"That was our assumption," Angela Guerrero said.

But Tom Fulghum, the Durham immigration lawyer who is helping Ricardo Guerrero appeal the U.S. State Department decision, says otherwise.

"We’re trying to undo the damage," Fulghum said.

Ricardo Guerrero went to his 15-minute interview at the consulate inadequately prepared. Even though his wife is American and their children were born in this country, the couple had to show that their not being together would be an extreme hardship. A green card was not a sure thing.

He had been in North Carolina illegally for years. Once, after an immigration raid, he chose to leave the United States voluntarily rather than risk deportation; and he divulged that information to State Department officials.

"He was up front about it," Fulghum said. "But he doesn’t understand the difference between a voluntary return and a deportation."

Deportation results in a lifetime ban from this country. Had Guerrero truly been deported, Fulghum said, his return to North Carolina would have been a violation that immediately made him ineligible for the family-based waiver he sought.

"He kind of went in there blind and was trying to be extremely honest," Fulghum said. "Because he’s not a lawyer, he didn’t understand the difference between the two procedures."

His request for legal status was quickly rejected.

As lawyers work to untangle the legal issues hamstringing the Guerreros, the couple struggles with the upheaval in their family life.

"We went through this process because we wanted a better life for our children," Angela Guerrero said.

Angela and Ricardo met in 1999 when they both worked as house painters in Durham. They married in June 2003.

Although he was here illegally, Ricardo was able to string together routine work as a painter and contractor.

On weekends and after work, Ricardo liked to play soccer with a league in Oxford. When they had extra money, the couple would spend hours at Northgate Mall in Durham, shopping and sampling from different restaurants in the food court.

They also liked to take their children to the movies.

Their routines are very different now.

It’s her responsibility to be the family bread-winner. If their truck breaks down, as it has been doing lately, she has to get it fixed.

The daily cell phone calls are their family time.

"I miss his company. I miss his being at home," Angela Guerrero said. "It’s just terrible being at home by yourself."

Angela Guerrero works four 12-hour days each week as a nurse’s aide at UNC Hospitals. Then three days a week, she goes to nursing school classes at Alamance Community College, working her way toward a degree that will give her a chance at higher-paying jobs.

Overwhelmed by work, school and raising four children, Angela Guerrero got passports for their two sons and took them in April to live with their father for a while. She visited once in the summer.

Her eyes well with tears and her voice cracks with emotion when she talks about the childhood milestones she is missing while the boys are away.

She worries that her youngest son, who has been soaking up new words and experiences in her absence, no longer responds to her voice.

The girls miss their brothers and Ricardo.

Every phone call ends with "Daddy, when are you coming back?"

Angela Guerrero, a practical and patient woman, hopes her family will be reunited soon. "I know it takes time, especially to overturn a case," she said. "I think we’re finally getting the kind of help we need."

Although she’s not one to hold a grudge, Guerrero says she hopes telling her experience in the lawsuit will serve as a cautionary tale for others.

"That’s more or less what I want to do is make other people aware of what’s going on," Guerrero said.

"If I’m going through this, God only knows what somebody else is going through. These people go and they want to get help and want to be able to become U.S. citizens and even get an education. They get so excited thinking ’I’m getting my paperwork filled out.’ You’re trusting someone to fill your paperwork out right and act for you. It’s hard when they don’t."

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