How One Teen Almost Got Her Mother Deported

The US deported 50,000 criminals in 1997. But critics say the law's definition of who is a criminal is too harsh.

Monica Villanueva is like many mothers with 18-year-old girls - worried about her daughter's future and prone to disagreements with her about the need for curfews and house rules.

What Ms. Villanueva, a legal resident of the United States from Mexico, didn't know until it was almost too late is that just one instance of overzealous discipline could have gotten her thrown out of the country.

On a recent night, Villanueva's daughter Isabel (not their real names) came home from a date after 2 a.m. In the ensuing argument, a discomfited mother did something "I'd never done before," Villanueva says - she struck her daughter with a stick.

Under the 1996 immigration reform, domestic violence is now a deportable offense.

"They told me at the police station I could be heading back to Mexico," says Villanueva, her voice still expressing bewilderment. "I was pretty scared, I didn't know about this law," adds Isabel, who quickly dropped the charges she filed to get even with her mother.

The Villanuevas are among thousands of legal immigrant families across the US learning - sometimes the hard way - about tough new aspects of the 1996 immigration law.

Supporters say the measures are needed to rid the country of criminals before they become citizens. But critics counter that application of the new law is ripping apart families over minor offenses and giving too much power to immigration officials. Often in deportation cases, a spouse or child is a citizen, so the measures are splitting up American families, they add. "There are many scary aspects of this legislation, but one of the worst things is how it creates a double standard of treatment and a double set of rights for citizens and legal residents," says Laura Valdez, director of the Border Rights Coalition in El Paso, Texas.

Citing the new law's expansion of what is an aggravated felony for purposes of deportation, Ms. Valdez says, "You can be a US citizen and mess up, and that's fine. But if you're a legal resident, you're basically a good person ... and you make one mistake," she adds, "even if it was 20 years ago and you already paid your dues, you can now be deported."

Previously, a deportable offense was any aggravated felony that resulted in a conviction of five or more years. The 1996 law changed that to any conviction of a year or more, effectively broadening the crimes that fall under the law.

"Now, just about every crime is a deportable offense," says Wilson Dumond, a criminal investigations supervisor at the El Paso Immigration and Naturalization Service office. The reform also opened the door to broad retroactive consideration of a resident's record, even in cases where time was already served for what was previously considered a minor, nondeportable offense.

In fiscal 1997, the Immigration and Naturalization Service deported more than 111,000 foreigners, a two-thirds increase over the previous fiscal year. More than 50,000 of those deported were considered criminals. The INS goal is to formally deport at least 127,000 more foreigners this year.

When the 1997 figures were published, Attorney General Janet Reno said the rising numbers meant "we are making the streets and communities of America safer by deporting more foreign criminals."

But the INS isn't just combing local jails and prisons to find deportable foreigners. If you ask many legal residents, the government is also fishing through every aspect of law-abiding, taxpaying families in an effort to boost the deportation numbers. Some immigrant-rights advocates say an "anti-immigrant" tenor in the country is such that deportation cases create little interest.

Still, some families say Americans are outraged when they hear the action the government is taking. "Sure, most Americans would agree with the idea of getting rid of a foreign criminal element," says Laurie Kozuba, a Los Angeles housewife whose Canadian-born husband faces deportation for two marijuana-possession convictions. "But when I sit down and explain the kind of people the government is going after, the reaction is usually astonishment, like 'Wait a minute.' People don't know who's being targeted, as doesn't a lot of the Congress."

Mrs. Kozuba, a US citizen, started Citizens and Immigrants for Equal Justice, which in six months has brought together 50 families from a dozen states with what she calls "horror stories" like her own.

Her husband came to the US 40 years ago when he was 5. He served in Vietnam, where the Army considered him a US citizen. In the late '80s he had "three bad years," she says, when he was convicted twice for drug possession. He was released from prison in July 1993, and since then has passed all drug and psychological tests. "He's a clean, working, contributing member of the community," Kozuba says. But now the INS is pushing to deport him.

INS officials say that with implementation of the 1996 immigration reform they are now routinely going back 30 years or more into a foreign resident's record.

As Kozuba works to bring attention to what she considers an excessively harsh law, she must also face the fact that anyone deported as an aggravated felon cannot return to the US for 20 years.

"We're not seeing any action yet, but some people are starting to listen to us, even in Congress," says Kozuba. "They agree that things went too far and it's just un-American when all the power, all the rights are on the government's side of the court."

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