Rosa Perez de Lopez is a housewife, mother and criminal alien. But these days, her kids are on their own with homework while she sits in Nogales, Sonora, thinking about the mistakes that led to her deportation.
In April, four Immigration and Naturalization Service agents knocked on George and Rosa Lopez's door and told the couple they were sending Rosa back to Mexico. The next day, the couple reported to the INS office as instructed. It was the last time George saw his wife in the U.S.
"This all came as a surprise to me," Rosa says in a tearful telephone conversation from Nogales. "It's like a dream -- like a nightmare."
Until her deportation, life in Mexico was a childhood memory for Rosa, now 31. She came to the U.S. with her parents in 1983, when she was just 13. She has lived most of her life in Phoenix, and knows little of her birthplace. Her immediate family lives here, including her parents and four sisters. In 1991, she married George Lopez, a U.S. citizen, and together they have two daughters, 9-year-old Ashley and 7-year-old Adreanna.
A 10-year-old conviction separated Rosa from her family when she tried to legally change her residency status. She never dreamed that her past mistake would come back to haunt her in this way. Now, George is desperately writing letters to legislators and media organizations, looking for help. But he's finding there is little he can do to get his wife back.
INS records indicate Rosa first came to their attention in 1990 when she was involved in an alien smuggling operation. Rosa pleaded guilty to picking up a group of illegal aliens at the airport and taking them to a home in Phoenix. The conviction, for aiding and abetting illegal entry by an alien, carried a suspended sentence of six months in prison and three years' probation. INS took note again in 1992 when Rosa went to Mexico and came back, falsely presenting herself at the border as a U.S. citizen.
When she filed an application for permanent residency on the basis of her marriage to George, the examining officer pulled her record. Under a federal law passed years after Rosa's conviction, she cannot lawfully immigrate to the U.S. because of the old conviction.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, passed in 1996, made it possible to deport people, like Lopez, for lesser offenses. The deportation of criminal aliens remains top priority for the INS. The agency has deported 23,983 this year, nearly half of whom were criminals. It seems to make sense, but as Elizabeth Dallam, executive director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, says, it's not so simple.
"I think it's very politically expedient to use that term -- 'criminal aliens,'" Dallam says. "A lot of people who are getting deported deserve the chance to present evidence on whether they've been rehabilitated or not. It's easy to say we're deporting criminal aliens, and it sounds good to the public, but it's not black and white. It's extremely gray."
Dallam says the law has created some unexpected problems.
"What the law does is separates breadwinners from their families," she says. "And a lot of them come right back, are imprisoned for years, and we pay for it. In the meantime, the family goes on welfare. I see a lot of lawful permanent residents, whose entire families and lives are here who are not repeat offenders or serious violent criminals, get removed."
George Lopez points out that his wife posed no threat to society, and that taking a mother away from her children ultimately does more harm than good.
"She's not a mass murderer, she doesn't rob banks -- she's a mother," he says. "You've got illegal aliens selling drugs on the street corners, and they don't touch them. We were an easy target. They always knew exactly where we were. We were going by the book. They knew where we lived -- we never hid from them."
But they probably should have. INS spokesperson Russell Ahr can't talk about the Lopez case, but says in general that a person who applies for residency with a conviction on his record is likely to be deported.
"I can tell you that once these people step up to bat, they have opened themselves up big time," Ahr says. "If this person had called me on the telephone and said, 'I have this on my record,' I wouldn't have known who they were and I wouldn't have bothered to find out. I would have told them the possible consequence of doing this."
"The people who have the most at risk are the ones who should think twice about coming forward and identifying themselves," Ahr adds. "Once you're documented . . . we're aware of you; you're not invisible anymore."
Ahr says the 1996 law is not popular among INS officers.
"I don't think you'll find too many people in the agency who were in favor of it because it blocks the discretion we otherwise would have had," he says.
George Lopez admits that he and his wife have both made mistakes in their lives. They met in a halfway house -- George on probation for counterfeiting, Rosa for the aiding and abetting conviction. He spoke no Spanish, she spoke no English, and they used a dictionary to communicate.
"The people at the halfway house told us our relationship would never last. We've been married almost 10 years. The relationship will last," George says.
But George says he doesn't think his marriage will last too long when he can only see his wife one day a week. That's the most he and the girls get to see Rosa, he says. He works six days a week, then loads the family in the car on Saturday nights for the four-hour drive to Nogales. George says the family is suffering financially because he is supporting two households, and had to cut back his hours at work in order to take care of his daughters.
"My girls are young," Rosa says. "I'm worried about them. I don't know if they're brushing their hair, bathing, eating right. I would help them with their homework before, and now I can't. My husband works and can't do it all himself."
Adreanna's first-grade teacher, Nicole Durazo, says she thinks the 7-year-old suffered academically, socially and emotionally after her mother was deported.
"It's very traumatic -- how can you explain that your mom is just gone one day?" Durazo says.
George says his wife's absence has taken a toll on the whole family.
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"I am slowly going down because of this," he says.
"My daughters know their mother is there, but they don't understand why. Basically, they want their mom to come home. They cry just about every night. It's heart-wrenching."
Amy Bjelland, the Lopezes' lawyer, says the chances of reuniting them in the United States are slim. She also says this family is not alone.
"In some ways, it's not unique. We have several clients who have families here, but get deported. This is just kind of one in a long line of tragic stories -- people who have made a mistake in the past that will affect them forever."