Longtime local to be deported

Immigration law not swayed by length of residency, work record

Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2004

It doesn't matter that his four children are all U.S. citizens by birth. It doesn't matter that he has worked hard and paid taxes to the U.S. government for the past 17 years. It doesn't matter that his native Mexico has now become a foreign land for him.

Juneau resident Ernesto Guillen has to leave, an immigration judge said, because he is an illegal alien. Guillen, who has lived in Juneau since 1996, is scheduled to be deported Feb. 6. He was caught by immigration officers in March.

His wife, Gloria Orozco, said immigration officers shouldn't deport her husband. "He is not a criminal," she said.

Immigration officers said immigrants should not break the law in the first place.

"The mere fact that someone has been here for an extended period of time doesn't give them immediate legal status. The mere fact that they have U.S. citizen children doesn't give the parents immediate legal status," said Virginia Kice, Western region spokeswoman of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"If someone decides to come here and violates our law, they have to understand that their decision might have ramifications and put their families in a predicament," Kice said.

More than 186,000 non-citizens were deported nationwide in 2003. Other Southeast families besides Guillen's are facing the same problems.

A Juneau party held Monday to rally support for Guillen's cause attracted about 80 people.

Although an illegal alien, Guillen and his family are not alien to the community.

Guillen worked for the Mexican restaurant El Sombrero between 1997 and 2004. His wife of 12 years, Orozco, works as a custodian at Northern Light United Church. Their four children - Gerardo, 16; Ernesto, 13; Melissa, 11; and Manuel, 9 - are all active at school.

Guillen came to the United States in 1987. At age 15, he paid $800 to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. He was scared but said he had to do it. His mother and four of seven siblings were already in California. Along the way, he said, he saw people collapse in the desert after two days of no water and no food. Helicopters hovered in the sky like vultures, he said. Patrol officers searched the desert.

He made it. But it wasn't the last time he would have to cross the border.

Guillen's family moved to Washington state in 1990. When he was in Washington, Guillen was deported four times.

Every time, he followed the same route back to the United States. He said he once crossed the border by hiding in a truck with plants and 20 other people. He could barely stretch his body, he said, and he breathed through holes at the bottom of the vehicle.

Trying to get away from immigration laws, the family moved to Juneau in 1996. But last March, he and some of his coworkers, who were also illegal immigrants, were busted at the restaurant.

Guillen was arrested. After he was released, he made three trips to Anchorage, appealing his case to an immigration judge. Friends, coworkers and strangers sent about 200 letters to state legislators on behalf of Guillen. Orozco went on the radio to talk about the hardships the family has been through.

Nothing worked. It was only logical to have a party.

It was a festive scene Monday evening at the Northern Light United Church. Children ran around tables, traditional Mexican love songs played and plates of home-made tamales were passed to the guests. Juneau People for Peace and Justice handed out petition letters for people to sign and send to Alaska's congressional delegation. The letter asks the delegation to intervene on Guillen's behalf.

Judith Maier of Juneau People for Peace and Justice is a longtime friend of Guillen's and organized the letter campaign.

"They are really wonderful people," she said of the family. "They are resilient and faithful. I've never seen them despair."

Orozco said she was touched by all the efforts. She said she doesn't worry about supporting her four children financially, but she wants the family intact.

"I have two hands. I can work," Orozco said. "The most important thing is to stay together. My children need a father here, not in Mexico."

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