One family's fight to overturn immigration law

Susie Church has lived in America since she was an infant, but she may be deported. Her story has focused attention on a controversial 1996 law.

Susie Church remembers the exact moment her troubled life became frantic. She had gone to dinner with the other inmates, and when she got back to her cell there was a blue paper on her bed. It read: detainer.

Asking around, she discovered she was going to be deported under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

"What's that?" asks her 12-year-old son, Gilbert, who is curled up next to her, listening to the story. Ms. Church is now out on bond and living with her parents north of Phoenix. Gil is never far from her side.

"It's a law that we're fighting right now, honey," she explains. "It says that any person not from America who commits a crime has to leave."

"But we're from America," says Gil, confused.

Gil is too young to understand all the varied facets of immigration status and law - most adults can't grasp them without a specialized lawyer. The fact is, Church is a legal United States resident born in Mexico, and is in danger of being deported to a country she knew briefly as an infant.

She, and hundreds of others like her, are caught by a controversial immigration law that has deported hundreds of thousands of convicted criminals, but also has tied judges' hands when trying to decide what is best for individual families and the nation. Now, some legislators - many of whom backed the 1996 bill - agree it is too strict and are trying to persuade Congress to amend it.

"The provisions are too harsh, they go too far," says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, who cosponsored the original legislation and this session has introduced several changes to it. "There are a lot of sympathetic stories out there."

His proposal would allow immigrants with compelling or unusual circumstances to argue their cases for consideration - a provision disallowed under the 1996 law.

The original intent of the legislation was simple, says Representative McCollum: Deport immigrants convicted of serious violent crimes, such as murder and rape, after they serve their sentences.

But by the time Congress finished working on it, the law said immigrants convicted of any felony that could result in a prison sentence of one year or more would be deported (even if they didn't receive that sentence). That included some nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting and fraud. The law was also made retroactive, so those who served sentences decades ago could be deported.

Church, for example, was two years into her sentence for aggravated assault when President Clinton signed the bill into law in 1996.

"I was frantic, and I have lived frantic from the minute they put that blue piece of paper on my bed," she says. "Every day as I'm driving I think: What happens if I have to go to Mexico?" She looks at her son. "What happens to you? What happens to your sister?"

Born across the border

Church is a Mexican citizen. Her father, a US soldier stationed in El Paso, Texas, fell in love with a Mexican woman, but he was sent to Germany before the two married. She was pregnant and felt more comfortable having her first child near relatives, so Susie was born in Mexico. When her father returned less than a year later, they were married and the family was reunited in El Paso.

"Had I not been serving my country, she would have been born in El Paso, where my son was born," says Susie's father, Bob Church.

"I served this country for over 20 years and now they are going to deport my daughter to a country she doesn't even know?" he asks. "It doesn't make sense to me."

Mr. Church is not opposed to the tough immigration law - in theory. But when people's lives aren't taken into account, he gets irate.

On his side is the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which acknowledges the law "overreaches." The INS continues to call for a return to pre-1996 law in areas such as detention and discretion for immigration judges.

The 1996 law "took away much of the discretionary authority for the immigration judges to look at the sum total of a case - the person's history, the hardship that they and their family would face - and to be able to grant relief," says Bill Strassberger, an INS spokesman.

The INS has deported hundreds of thousands of immigrants with criminal records since the law was enacted, and those numbers continue to rise each year, Mr. Strassberger says. Criminal removals in fiscal 1999 numbered 62,359, up 12 percent from the previous year.

'I made a huge mistake'

Susie Church grew up in Phoenix and married her high school sweetheart. The two soon had a daughter and son together.

But the seven-year marriage ran into problems, and it eventually became troubling enough that Church tried to take her own life.After several failed suicide attempts, she took her father's gun and waited for her husband at work. The plan, she says, was to commit suicide in front of him and his new girlfriend.

But by the time he emerged, she was hysterical and crying and waving the gun around. In the scuffle, he was shot in the arm.

Church pleaded no contest to two counts of aggravated assault and began serving her 8-3/4-year sentence on Jan. 28, 1994.

"I made a huge mistake, and I deserved to be punished for it," she says. "But this is my home. I love this country, and I want to be a part of it."

Because of the status of her father, her former husband, and her two children, Church had many opportunities to obtain her US citizenship. As a legal resident, she is just one step away. But it never occurred to anyone that she would need it so desperately.

Church has worked for a telemarketing firm ever since she was first incarcerated, providing for her children when her ex-husband did not. She was released from prison on good behavior four years into her sentence and immediately taken into custody by the INS. Two weeks later, her father posted bond and brought her home.

"Prison was hard, but it was a healing experience," she says. "I spent every minute of my time there trying to get clear mentally and physically."

At a court hearing last week, a judge said he may take all the facts of her case into account when deciding whether she should be deported - something few immigration judges have been willing to do since the 1996 law was passed.

Spanish lessons

After receiving that "blue piece of paper" in prison, Church began learning Spanish, and she teaches her children what little she knows.

"What's a peso?" asks Gil.

"It's money there," his mother explains.

"I don't want to live down there," says Gil, a rabid Dallas Cowboys fan. "It's different. They don't speak English. They don't play football. They have graffiti and dirt roads."

Sitting cross-legged on the floor is her 13-year-old daughter, Alexis. She has been listening intently to the conversation and suddenly begins crying.

"Why do we have to talk about this? You know I don't like to talk about it," she finally blurts out.

Church is patient and caring, but does not keep her children in the dark about the family's future.

"I tell them everything. I don't want them to ever wonder what's happening," she says.

And beyond that, she hopes that her fight will echo past the boundaries of her own family, adding, "Maybe I can help someone along the way."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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