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Illegal parents of legal children fight for the dream

The young couple's plan was simple: Rather than spend the rest of their lives as field laborers in Mexico, they would sneak into America, find better-paying jobs, start a family and give their children a brighter future. So in January 1989, Esther and Gerardo Gomez hiked over hills, waded through rivers and evaded immigration agents and desert snakes to get here.

They spent the next two decades working -- first in the fields near Madera, then in other menial jobs: She sorted mail in warehouses and was a janitor at Selland Arena and the Save Mart Center. He drove big rigs and worked for a small construction company. They didn't ask for welfare. Their five children attended Madera schools.

Then early one morning in September as Gerardo was trying to start his car, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pulled into their middle-class neighborhood and seized him and his wife.

"Why? Why are you going to arrest me?" Esther kept asking the agents as they escorted her into a government vehicle, according to one of the couple's daughters.

ICE told the children that their parents would be deported that night. They called an attorney who had been working to get them legal status. Maybe she could help.

Contrary to what some believe, it has become increasingly difficult for illegal immigrants to become legalized. Esther and Gerardo tried for 11 years, but like many illegal immigrants, their plan backfired: Not only were they denied legal status, but they also put themselves on the government radar.

"There's a risk," said Camille Cook, an immigration attorney in Fresno who is not involved in the Gomez case. "You basically have to come out of the shadows in order to try to get legalized."

But those who do may be subject to a deportation order. Increasingly, officials across the country are making "administrative arrests" of illegal immigrants who have ignored such orders or are suspected of a crime other than immigration violations.

For the first few years after moving to Madera, Esther and Gerardo shared a cramped apartment with other immigrants. They desperately wanted better-paying jobs to support their growing family -- but those jobs required legitimate documents. When Gerardo tried to use his fake documents to become a janitor at a hospital, he was not hired.

In 1999, they saw a TV commercial for an immigration law firm in Fresno. Esther said attorneys for the firm, Yarra, Kharazi & Associates, told her they were 99% sure the Gomezes could be legalized by convincing a judge that their family would be harmed if they were deported. But an attorney for the firm, Jeremy Clason, said no such prediction was made.

"I was willing to pay whatever it took so that I could live here legally," Esther said.

Their petition was denied. The firm appealed several times, the last time to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to attorney records that the Gomezes shared with The Bee. In April, their final appeal was denied. After taking more than $15,000 in attorney fees, the firm sent the Gomezes a letter saying "this concludes our representation of you" and warning them that they had 52 days to leave the country.

Clason said the firm did its best to help the Gomezes, but winning such cases is difficult because lawyers must prove that an illegal immigrant would suffer "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" if deported -- an ambiguous standard.

Although the Gomezes felt they had been offered false hope -- and had wasted thousands of dollars -- there was one benefit: During the 11 years of appeals, they had received temporary work permits that are granted to illegal immigrants who appeal their immigration cases. That enabled Gerardo and Esther to find jobs that paid above minimum wage and offered benefits.

Cook, the immigration attorney not connected to their case, said this is a common trade-off: In exchange for paying attorney fees to file appeals, illegal immigrants can work legally in the United States. But most cases end the same -- with a deportation order.

In May, two weeks after the couple received their deportation order, Esther sobbed at her dinner table as she weighed the consequences of her only two options: Split up her family and move with her husband and two youngest children to a country that had become foreign, or cling to a wisp of hope that they would somehow be allowed to stay.

It was a grueling choice. The couple's eldest child, 19-year-old Patsy, was enrolled in beauty school. Their 2-year-old son recently had had his appendix removed and needed another surgery. Esther's mother, who lives with them, has diabetes and depends on their assistance.

Also, the United States had become home. They were used to cable TV and wireless Internet. The family regularly vacationed at Disneyland and in the Sierra.

Nonetheless, Esther and Gerardo felt -- at least at that time -- that their best option was to leave and wait until Patsy turns 21, when immigration law would allow her to petition for her parents to be legalized. In the meantime, they would take their 2-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter with them to Mexico. Patsy and her teenage siblings would stay behind and fend for themselves.

"We have to do it -- it's very tough, but we have to," Esther Gomez said in Spanish as she wiped away tears. "I only hope that God will understand why I am doing this."

But a few weeks later, they changed their minds. They had found a new attorney in Los Angeles and decided to stay despite the deportation order. Then their worst fears were realized when ICE arrested them.

Their new attorney, Jessica Dominguez, intervened and filed a motion to reopen the case. ICE agreed to release them from custody until a judge ruled on the motion. Cook said such motions are rarely successful.

Dominguez declined to comment on the case.

Because their previous appeals were denied, Esther and Gerardo no longer have temporary work permits. They're back to working whatever seasonal jobs they can find. Patsy works at a salon to help support the family. She has put her plans to become a credentialed cosmetologist on hold.

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