Juneau resident Ernesto Guillen packed his bags last week for voluntary deportation to Mexico and a painful separation from his wife and four children.
But late last week, Guillen's future became both hopeful and very confusing.
Guillen, an illegal alien and El Sombrero restaurant worker, learned that a bureaucratic mistake may have blocked him from U.S. residency.
"I was very happy but could not believe it," Guillen said through a translator on Friday night.
But the clock is ticking. It appears that Guillen's only chance to stay in the United States is to get a hasty court hearing on Monday in either Los Angeles or Seattle. Otherwise, he must leave for Mexico on Tuesday.
"This is so incredibly frustrating. We are running out of time," said Donna Perrin, a Juneau peace activist who is assisting the family.
Following on a party and rally in December that drew 80 supporters, Guillen has been making some powerful friends. His plight caught the attention of staff for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and the wife of the governor's chief of staff is working with the family.
But unless a near miracle occurs, Guillen will leave his wife, Gloria Orozco, a church custodian, who is working on her U.S. residency, and his children, U.S. citizens ranging from 9 to 16 years of age. He likely will live in the Mexican village of Ahuisculco for a number of years.
But on Thursday night, Guillen and his family discovered to their astonishment that a petition for his residency in the United States, filed by his sister in California, had been partially approved in 2002.
They had never received notification though they had tried for years to check the status of the petition using a toll-free number provided by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.
For hours, they were jubilant. They stayed up all night. And they cried and prayed.
But ever since Thursday night, the Guillen family has been whipsawed by newly emerging information - both good and bad.
On Friday morning, they learned that the document wasn't a straight ticket to residency. He would have to fill out more forms.
The petition document, which was properly filed, could have allowed Guillen's naturalization process to begin years ago.
Because it was submitted before April 2001, when new laws went into effect, Guillen would have been allowed to remain legally in the United States while his paperwork was being processed.
Instead, he has been living in the United States as a fugitive. In that period, he has been deported numerous times, only to sneak back into the country to his family.
The Guillens learned the petition document should have been presented at his immigration trial last year.
When asked Friday morning if the family had a lawyer, Orozco cried, "More horror. No one is representing Ernesto."
Despite a lack of legal representation, Guillen's family is gathering around itself an extraordinary group of supporters.
The helpers over the last few days have included peace activists and Susan Clark, who is married to Gov. Frank Murkowski's chief of staff Jim Clark.
Guillen's plight also attracted Margaret Stock, an immigration law expert who lives part time in Anchorage, teaches law at West Point and is working with legislators on immigration reform legislation in Congress.
Stock said Guillen will have to leave the United States early this week - for at least several years and possibly much longer - unless the federal attorney in Anchorage who prosecuted him agrees to reopen his case.
Stock, who used to represent illegal aliens in Alaska, said Guillen's struggle is unfortunate because it could have been prevented. But at the same time it shows the extraordinary complexity of U.S. immigration law, she said.
"You have to have an expert helping him. He wasn't able to get that expert advice," Stock said.
Guillen's family also was harmed by a lack of information.
In 2002, Guillen's sister in California received a receipt from the federal government telling her she could call a toll-free number to learn about the status of her petition for residency in his behalf.
The toll-free number was a problem.
Guillen's sister Maria could not get through to an operator despite repeated attempts.
His wife, Orozco, also attempted to call the number repeatedly. She reached an operator who told her there was no record of his case. Orozco called again after Guillen was arrested last March at El Sombrero.
"I tried to call again and I can't get any information again," Orozco said.
On Thursday night, Clark, a former Juneau lobbyist, tried the toll-free number.
Clark got through. She listened to an automated message stating that Guillen's petition for residency had been approved.
That led to the jubilation by family members. The following morning, the family and Perrin tried without success to reach an operator by calling the toll-free number.
Immigration attorneys said Friday that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's toll-free phone system is fraught with trouble.
"People can never get through to a real person. It's the most user-unfriendly number," said David Leopold, an immigration attorney based in Cleveland.
Clark believes it's a systemic problem.
"Ever since 9/11, things have been very difficult for immigrants all over the United States," she said.
Things might become even more difficult in Alaska if a bill introduced Thursday by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., passes Congress. The proposed legislation would bar illegal aliens from boarding an airplane in the United States.
"That would trap all the illegal aliens in Juneau" or other Alaska cities, Stack said. "They couldn't get to their immigration hearings in Anchorage," she said.
For now, the Guillen family is in limbo. Guillen may board a plane today to Los Angeles where he may be able to get a hearing before a federal judge on Monday.
If that doesn't work, he'll be on his way to Mexico on Tuesday.
Orozco said Guillen's first stop will be at the U.S. Embassy, to report reentry to his native country.
She is planning to visit him if he must live in Mexico.
"That's my present for passing my immigration tests," she said.
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