Nebraska Observer Weblog

Nebraska’s Illegal Immigration News

121707 A family broken at the border

All the talk about illegal immigrants made Joe Wood want to “do the right thing.”

Hispanics weigh in

• According to a recent survey of U.S. Hispanics:

53 percent of respondents worry that they or someone dear to them could be deported.

Nearly two-thirds said the political battle over illegal immigration and Congress’ failure to pass new legislation on immigration has made life difficult for all Latinos living in this country.

41 percent reported that they or someone close to them had personally experienced discrimination within the past five years. That’s up from 31 percent in 2002.

About seven in 10 described their quality of life as excellent or good. And 78 percent were confident that Latino children growing up in the United States will have better jobs and salaries than they had.

Source: Pew Hispanic Center survey conducted Oct. 3 to Nov. 9. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

Vanessa Wood holds her parents’ wedding photo. Behind her are mom Laura, little sister Melissa and dad Joe, in Mexico.

Three years after the freight loader had married Laura Roldan – who was in the country unlawfully – the Woods were happily raising two U.S.-born daughters in Omaha. But in this era of heightened immigration enforcement, Joe Wood grew fearful that his wife could be snatched away.

He hired a lawyer and began the process to adjust her immigration status.

What in May was supposed to be a family fix-it trip to a U.S. Consulate in Mexico ended up a “nightmare” in which Laura Wood, 33, was accused of past fraud and barred forever from re-entering the United States.

Joe Wood, 41, rushed back alone to seek help from his U.S. senators and congressman, lawyer and others. Seven months later, nothing has changed.

The current climate on illegal immigration, including a congressional stalemate on revising the system, has made it hard for families to tell what the “right thing” to do is.

So, six months after the nightmare in Mexico, over the Thanksgiving holiday, Joe Wood returned south of the border to visit his wife and girls and plan their next move. Tears welled in the eyes of the gruff, tattooed Wood before his flight departed from Omaha.

The Wood family waits at the airport in Mexico before a tearful separation.

“It’s my fault we’re apart,” he said. “I thought I was doing the right thing. Man, was I an idiot.”

* * *

Though basic immigration laws haven’t changed in recent years, applications from foreigners have come under heavier scrutiny since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Marilu Cabrera of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Now, federal officials pay extra attention to the tiniest of details, said longtime Omaha immigration attorney Amy Peck. “It’s what I call the culture of ‘no.'”

Add to that the emotional debate over illegal immigration, and it has become harder, experts say, to predict the outcome of cases.

“It’s very much muddy waters,” said Alison Brown of Justice for Our Neighbors in Nebraska and Iowa. She now asks clients in situations such as the Woods’ to sign extra paperwork acknowledging risks.

Ana Barrios, director of south Omaha’s Juan Diego Center and its immigration clinic, said anxiety that future laws could be more restrictive has led some families to hurry paperwork they think will anchor loved ones here.

Many others delay any move.

“There is a lot of fear in taking the next step to legalization,” Barrios said. “The feeling is that it can backfire.”

In the Wood case, Joe and Laura packed up a car and their two girls in May and traveled to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. They were complying with federal regulations that require undocumented spouses to return to their countries of origin to process relevant immigration paperwork.

Their attorney had advised them of a 1996 law that prevents an immigrant from re-entering for up to 10 years as a penalty for previous unlawful presence in the United States.

But the couple also knew that the penalty can be waived. Waivers are available to applicants with clean records who can prove that denial of readmission would cause “extreme hardship” on the U.S. citizen spouse or child.

Laura Wood has no criminal past. In a briefcase she had letters of support, wedding photos and legal documents that laid out the ill effects of a separation.

The worst-case scenario, the Woods thought, would be an eight-month wait for Laura in Mexico while the waiver was processed.

Their hope was dashed by a consulate officer’s assertion that Laura, during the May visit, admitted to using a U.S. identity when she crossed the border in 2001.

In an e-mail to the Woods’ attorney, Consular Officer Tiffney Johnson stated: “Although Ms. Wood stated that another person presented the document on her behalf, the department attorneys have previously ruled that when a person acts in a manner that shows complicity by memorizing and giving immigration the name on the false birth certificate, they are ineligible.”

Laura Wood, however, has a different account: She denies using a U.S. birth certificate at the 2001 border crossing, saying she made up a name and was allowed to enter.

Her husband, who overheard the exchange at the Consulate, criticized the interviewer’s technique. He said she had “badgered” his wife and “fed” her words.

If Laura Wood had simply slipped past border patrols undetected in 2001, she would not be in the same tough spot. She would have been eligible for the waiver. Instead, the accusation of fraud has barred her for life.

* * *

Given a second chance, Joe Wood said recently, he would not seek a legal remedy.

He recalled that when he was driving with his wife and daughters through Texas, toward the U.S. Consulate in Mexico, Laura grew apprehensive and began crying.

Joe Wood’s mood, he said, was different: relief and excitement for the future.

“My co-workers told me: You’re a U.S. citizen. She’s your wife. You have kids who were born in this country. How hard can it be?”

Today, Joe Wood is consumed with anger. He feels betrayed by his country. He has demanded – but hasn’t received – a taped interview, the alleged birth certificate or anything that backs up the consulate officer’s version of the 2001 border crossing.

“It’s a giant nightmare,” he said. “It’s a freakin’ bureaucratic joke.”

The Woods’ attorney, Bart Chavez of Omaha, told U.S. Consulate officials in an e-mail that he was upset by the handling of the case, which Chavez described as “perfectly clean.”

He, too, requested but did not receive the U.S. birth certificate that the Consulate said was fraudulently used.

After Laura Wood was denied re-entry into the United States, she and the girls went to her Mexican hometown of Ameca and stayed in a house with her parents and extended family.

Laura made sure Melissa, now 21 months, always had a photo of Joe Wood with her so she wouldn’t forget her dad’s face.

Joe Wood missed Vanessa’s sixth birthday party. Biologically, she is not his child, but he was raising her as his own.

In Mexico, Vanessa was having school enrollment complications. “The girls are illegal there,” Joe Wood said.

In northwest Omaha, he lives in a trailer and earns about $12 an hour at his job unloading trucks at a builder’s supply company.

The family faces mounting legal and travel fees – roughly $11,000, Joe Wood said.

The Woods decided that their daughters should leave the unpaved streets of Laura’s village and return to the United States without their mom.

“My heart is very, very sad,” Laura Wood said in a phone interview.

How could a mother let her daughters go?

Too few opportunities exist for people without an education, she said. There’s no hot water, and the water source is cut off at 5 p.m. A typical retail position Laura Wood might be suited for requires long hours and pays only $70 a week.

Positions at the local Coke and sugar factories are mostly filled by men.

“No jobs, no clothes, no good schools,” Laura Wood said. “It’s too hard for them here.”

* * *

Melissa cried for her mom for nearly two hours after Joe Wood peeled the two apart at Guadalajara International Airport.

“You’d have thought I was kidnapping the kids and cutting their lifeline,” Wood said.

He and the two girls flew to the Mexico-U.S. border, but because he didn’t have U.S. passports for them, they had to drive the rest of the way to Nebraska, arriving early on Nov. 28.

Wood thought he had a baby sitter, but that fell through; so, the next day, he packed the girls in the car for a trip to a government office to seek child care assistance.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Joe Wood said. “I love having my children home. But I found out that I’m not prepared as I thought.”

Wood, who was raised by a grandmother in Boston, wants his daughters to have the family life he never had. His own past, he said, was rough.

He served 18 months in prison in 1994 and 1995 for attempted sexual assault, an offense he attributes to a drug addiction he has since kicked.

Laura knows of his past, Joe said, and trusts him.

He vowed to “exhaust every possible resource” to bring back his wife. Asked whether that could mean illegal passage, Wood said his wife is too afraid to cross unlawfully.

The office of U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said the staff is checking into the case.

A last resort, Wood said, is moving to Mexico. His sons, 17 and 18, would understand, but he doesn’t want to be that far from his 10-year-old daughter from another relationship.

“I can’t believe I’m in that position,” Wood said. “Does my country really want me to have to choose between families?”

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