Despite grassroots attempts to stop it, the Gonzalez family is still set to be deported. With one week left, residents are making a final push to save their neighbors.
By Carrie Kilman
Staff Writer, Tolerance.org
Next week, 19-year-old Marie Gonzalez and her parents, Marvin and Marina, will ride the lead float in the Jefferson City, Mo., Fourth of July parade. They will pass out ribbons, wave to the crowds and smile.
The next day, they’re scheduled to be deported.
For the past six months, the Gonzalez family and a crew of local supporters have been fighting the deportation notice, pleading with senators to pass a private bill that would allow the family to stay in the country — a request, so far, that’s been refused.
Now, with a week left before their departure date, Marie says they’re "shooting for the stars" — trying to convince the Department of Homeland Security to grant them a temporary stay, long enough for Congress to consider a comprehensive immigration reform bill (PDF) that would save the family from deportation.
But with the clock ticking in Marie’s head — "Twelve days left," she told Tolerance.org last week, "that number is always there" — a miracle is feeling less and less likely to happen.
‘Never lived in the shadows’
As previously reported on Tolerance.org, the Gonzalez family moved to the United States from Costa Rica 14 years ago on legal visitors’ visas.
They owned a local restaurant, purchased a home with a federal loan and received Social Security cards. Marvin and Marina became community leaders; Marie became an honor student and a member of the track and tennis teams.
Twice, Marvin and Marina spoke with lawyers about becoming permanent residents. Both times they were told to wait.
"We never lived in the shadows," Marie said. "We never knew we were undocumented."
Now, in what might be their final full week in the country, Marie and her parents are immersed in "a last-minute plea to save our family."
This week they’re in Washington, D.C., asking Missouri senators Jim Talent and Kit Bond, both Republicans, to call the Department of Homeland Security on their behalf.
On Thursday, back in Jefferson City, they will lead an "immigration awareness rally" in the capitol rotunda. Then comes the Fourth of July parade, and then, likely, the plane ride to Costa Rica.
"The only thing I know for certain right now is that our plane leaves at 2:30 p.m.," Marie said. "I hope in my heart that that doesn’t happen, but I still have to plan to make sure my family is OK."
Buying the plane tickets was more difficult than she anticipated.
"That was so final," she said. "I thought I’d get used to this, that I’d get numb to the change. But it increasingly gets harder."
For the past month, Marie has been sharing these struggles in an online diary and daily audio broadcast.
She writes about the sadness of packing up her room, the exhaustion of deciding what to sell and what to give away, the grief over final goodbyes with good friends.
Readers can post comments to her diary entries. Most have been overwhelmingly supportive — from neighbors who’ve known her since she was a child and from strangers she’ll never meet. Only one or two have been critical, criticizing Marie and her parents for breaking U.S. laws.
"It’s so personal, to share what’s in my head," she told Tolerance.org. "But all along, I’ve said I wanted people to have more of an awareness of how all this works and what’s going on. I hope that if I do have to leave, that someone else keeps working to change the hearts of America."
‘A very compelling case’
Each year, more than 5,000 minors are deported from the United States.
Many of their families, like Marie and her parents, would be helped by comprehensive immigration reform, said Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy for the National Immigration Law Center.
"Their situation illustrates that our immigration system is so terribly broken," Bernstein said. "(U.S. immigration laws) make no sense in practice. They penalize people trying to do the right thing. … So many people fall afoul of the immigration laws without intending to do so."
For the Gonzalez family, a temporary stay — called "deferred action" — from the Department of Homeland Security would represent "an extraordinary action on their part," Bernstein said.
"It basically requires a very compelling case, and it often takes support from the community. But the fact that Marie will be deported just months before legislation is passed that would allow her to stay is compelling."
Representatives from Talent’s and Bond’s offices did not return phone messages last week. So far, Bernstein said, they have been "sympathetic but not willing to take action to help."
For now, all Marie can do is cross her fingers and pray. With a packed press schedule, preparing for this week’s rally, and finalizing their move, she has time for little else.
"People are running on high emotions now," she said. "The fact is, you grow close to people, you learn to love each other, and then you get ripped away from them. It is so hard for me to watch them hurt."
This essay orginally appreared on Tolerance.org, the news and activism website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.
Publishers Note: The first article entitled “Student, Community Fight Deporation” was printed in the May 29, 2005 – June 11, 2005 edition. Marie Gonzalez was one of Latina Magazine’s top 10 women of the year.
Update: Marie allowed to stay one more year. On July 1, 2005 the Department of Homeland Security granted Marie "deferred action" for one year, while still forcing Marie’s parents to leave on July 5. This latest example of how our broken immigration system tears families apart adds to the urgency for comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act. Congress only has one year left to help Marie accomplish her dreams and reunite with her parents.