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They live in the suburbs, own businesses and homes. Their children speak English and dream of college. But for illegal immigrants, at any moment



Before exurbs and McMansions took over, neighborhoods such as this one defined southern Chesterfield County. It's a small industrial suburb off Jefferson Davis Highway, near the DuPont plant. Pickup trucks with ladder racks and boat trailers line the narrow streets, and the glare of 40-inch TVs flickers through living-room windows. Most nights, men work on their cars in boxy driveways while elderly couples sit on their front porches.

Small children cackle as they romp through the freshly cut grass and red mulch surrounding a small ranch-style house. A half-eaten Popsicle escapes the hands of a 1-year-old toddler wearing sandals and shorts, his thick brown hair bouncing as he scampers after his two older brothers. The fun nearly comes to a halt when the boy grabs the garden hose and attempts to douse his brothers.

On warm spring nights like this, the rollicking boys are the surest sign that the suburban dream still has a pulse in this aging neighborhood, even if the boys are oblivious to the crisis that has befallen their family.

Their mother, Sara, and older sister Sendy, 14, are doing all they can to maintain normalcy. Sendy stands guard over her three brothers, Bryan, 5, Jason, 4, and Randy, the rambunctious 1-year-old who gets into everything. An elderly neighbor next door opens the gate to her back yard and lets the boys continue their rampage.

Sendy is expressionless, her eyes dull, her body tired. She gets up every morning at 6, after her mother leaves for work at 5:30, and gets her brothers dressed, fed and off to school and the baby sitter. After school, she takes care of them until her mother gets home, which is usually after 6.

Mom is taking it the worst. Her eyelids are swollen from crying, her cheeks flushed pink. As the setting April sun casts a warm, orange glow over the yard, Sara, her feet tired from a 12-hour shift, leans against the silver sedan in the driveway and fights back tears.

Sara can't speak English. But her 5-year-old can.

"I want my dad to come home," Bryan says.

His father won't be coming back. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers came to the family's home on Jan. 31, they took the family's father, Jose. After 14 years of living and working in the United States as an illegal immigrant — a native of Guatemala, he applied for political asylum but was denied — he was finally taken in the middle of the night. Sara begged and pleaded with the officers to let him stay. He was the sole breadwinner (she stayed home to care for the four children). Jose was a good man, she says, producing IRS documents that show they paid their taxes every year. He worked as an insulation mechanic for a company in Ashland.

The begging was futile. The immigration officers took him to Pamunkey Regional Jail in Hanover County. On April 13, Jose was taken to Washington, D.C., and put on a plane destined for Guatemala. His lawyer has filed an appeal with the Department of Justice, claiming Jose was deported without a proper hearing. But there's next to no chance he will be brought back to the United States on appeal, says Chester Smith, an immigration lawyer from Virginia Beach who is representing Jose. "I think the process concluded with him being removed from the United States," says Smith.

It appears he's gone, probably for good. Sara, who has never possessed a work permit, doesn't know what to do. They have nothing to go home to in Guatemala, they say. Jose is currently staying with his mother.

Shortly after Sendy was born in 1992, Sara and Jose left Guatemala, fearing for their lives, they say. They had lived on a tiny farm in Salama, where they had a couple of cows, grew beans and corn, and lived off the land. But guerrillas were ransacking homes and killing those who had nothing to steal. Their neighbors were murdered. Sara and Jose paid a man 70,000 quetzales, or $15,000 in U.S. dollars, to sneak them into the United States illegally. (The men are known as coyotes.) They somehow scraped together enough money from family members. They initially left their daughter, Sendy, with Jose's mother — and left.

As the national debate over illegal immigration mounts, families such as Jose's and Sara's are quietly watching the dismantling of their dreams. Many come into the United States legally — often with six-month tourist visas — with the hope of finding work and then petitioning to become permanent residents and, ultimately, citizens. But along the way, they run into a broken, cumbersome system. The four illegal families who spoke with Style have been living and working in Richmond for more than five years. With the exception of the children who are born here — and who are thus automatically U.S. citizens — all of the family members saw their visas expire or, in the case of Jose, were denied asylum.

They say they've tried any number of avenues to become permanent residents. Employers attempted to sponsor them, a process that takes a minimum of five to seven years. Others tried to get their green cards through family or individual petitions, also at least a five- to seven-year wait. But as they waited in line, they found themselves in an intractable Catch-22.

Continuing to file the proper paperwork and go through the legal channels carries a great risk: The families worry that doing so only alerts immigration officials to their illegal status. So many stop trying. The families who spoke with Style did so on the condition that only their first names be used.

In the past week, their fears were heightened by the governmental crackdown on illegal aliens, particularly on the companies that employ them. In a national raid of pallet-maker IFCO Systems North America on April 19, Immigration and Customs agents and state police officers arrested 21 employees working at the company's plant in Henrico County. The local plant was one of 40 in 26 states targeted in the raid, intended to send a sharp message to those companies that employ and, as federal officials are fond of saying, exploit illegal aliens.

Meanwhile, fear among illegal, or undocumented, immigrants in the region is growing exponentially. Extracting the political debate, the fact remains that those who are here now have few options, says Peter Von der Lippe, who is manager of multicultural services at the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross. Crime has long been a problem in their communities, for instance, because illegal immigrants are afraid to call police for fear of being deported. They're reluctant or unable to open bank accounts, too, so they keep their earnings in their homes or in their pockets. Thus they have become easy targets, particularly for robbery and burglary. Just last month, Guatemalan immigrant Celso Delcid Garcia was shot in the head in front of his family by a robber as he loaded groceries into his car on Jeff Davis Highway.

Now, Congress is considering legislation that would make an estimated 12 million illegal aliens felons, further fueling those fears.

It's nearly impossible to know how many illegal immigrants live and work in the Richmond area, officials say. Demographers often simply double the U.S. Census numbers to come up with an estimate of Hispanic immigrants in a particular region, both legal and illegal residents. In the 2000 Census, the Richmond region reported it had more than 23,000 legal Hispanic residents (while there are other immigrant populations, the Hispanic population makes up the vast majority of those who have come here in the past two decades).

Therefore, there were probably at least 23,000 undocumented immigrants in the Richmond area in 2000 — bringing the total Hispanic population to about 46,000. Continuing the same pace of growth over the next six years — and many say it's growing even faster — means there are probably close to 100,000 Hispanics living in the region, says Tanya Gonzalez, manager of Richmond's Hispanic Liaison Office. Split that figure in half, and one can estimate there are about 50,000 illegal immigrants in metro Richmond.

Their presence here — and how they came into the country — has been at the heart of a vigorous national debate. But the problem is much more complicated than many realize, says Debra J.C. Dowd, an immigration attorney with Kaufman & Canoles who also serves as immigration counsel for the state's Office of the Attorney General.

"People don't understand the immigration system. It's a strange system," Dowd explains. For example, Dowd says, many of her clients come to her after they've overstayed their visas and are seeking renewal. But here's the catch: "If you've violated the rules of your stay, I can't fix you," she says.

The long, excruciating wait involved with petitioning the government for permanent residency means most will ultimately wind up living in the United States illegally for some period of time — if not permanently.

If they do get through the system and the enormous wait, Dowd says, and finally get the opportunity to become permanent residents, most don't realize that according to law they must then go home to their native countries and re-enter the United States. Following this law, however, activates a severe penalty. Illegal immigrants who have been in the country more than 180 days must wait three years before re-entering the United States legally. If they've been illegal for more than a year, the waiting period is 10 years. Because of this automatic barter, Dowd regularly advises clients to wait. One of the proposed changes to the guest-worker program circulating in Congress would eliminate the need to return home and re-enter, she says.

To get through the system legally and legitimately, however, if they began petitioning the government today it would take the families who spoke with Style a minimum of 15 years each to become legal residents.

For Stalin and his wife, Xime, they simply can't wait that long. Originally from Ecuador, they've been living in the United States for 10 years. They spent their first five years in Florida and the last five in Richmond, in a townhouse off West Broad Street in Henrico, a quarter-mile from Parham Road. Stalin and his family came to the United States first on a tourist visa. He has a biology degree from Central University of Ecuador and quickly found a job paying $21 an hour doing engineering and construction work.

His plan was to petition for permanent residency. But shortly after his visa expired, terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, changing the political environment dramatically. The process of becoming legal became more difficult, with more obstacles and tighter controls. He was advised that becoming a legal resident in the United States would be next to impossible then — and was told to wait.

So he kept working, obtained a fake Social Security number to get by, as did Xime. Now Stalin and Xime, who works at a nearby restaurant, find themselves trapped in a never-ending cycle. Every so often employers discover they've falsified their paperwork, sometimes during tax season or when a health insurance claim comes in. "They know I have bad papers, and we have to start again," Stalin explains. They've lost more jobs than they can count.

Now he's worried about educating his children. His 16-year-old daughter, Priscilla, is a junior in high school and wants to attend college. Her 13-year-old brother, Moses, is in the gifted program at Moody Middle School and hopes to attend college as well. Well-mannered and low key, both look and dress American. They speak fluent English. Moses wears a black Nike shirt with high-tops; Priscilla is strikingly pretty with shoulder-length brown hair and blue jeans. She's already thinking about marriage. She turns 17 next year, she says, and can legally marry an American boy. Marriage, of course, is the easiest way out of the dilemma. If she marries, Pricilla can become a legal resident after one year. Five years later, her immediate family members can petition to become permanent residents.

Their youngest, 4-year-old Emily, is the only legal citizen in the family. She has long brown hair that often falls over her eyes, particularly when she's dancing, or twirling the Hula-Hoop. They have a white dog named Rocqo, a Labrador-pit bull mix.

As for college, it's simply too expensive. Because they are not permanent residents, attending school in Virginia means they'd have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is decidedly more than what they would pay as in-state students.

Stalin already pays $1,050 a month to rent the townhouse, with its chipped parquet floors, spacious living room and full kitchen. He works two jobs, and often logs 16 hours a day to put food on the table and pay utilities. He could save money and move his family near their friends along Jeff Davis, but he worries about the crime and likes the schools where they live.

The family's options are limited, he says. Even if they wanted to go home, Xime says there is nothing for them to go home to. "We have no nothing left in my country," she says, her voice rising. "It's impossible just thinking about going back to my country."

Stalin, who is better educated than most who are here illegally, says it angers him when politicians say they are a drain on the school system or on the economy. He and his wife pay taxes. (The IRS allows illegal immigrants to pay taxes by issuing them an Individual Tax Identification Number, or ITIN.) They are active with the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and are becoming increasingly vocal politically.

Next year, however, another crisis is looming for Stalin. He has a Virginia driver's license, but the laws have changed and next year it comes up for renewal. It used to be that you didn't need a Social Security number to get a license in the United States. Not anymore.

"I'm working as hard as I can," he says.

Other families have many of the same problems. When Vladimir came to Richmond in the summer of 2000, he had a construction job waiting for him. He had worked as an airport security officer in Ecuador and had just lost his job when the company he worked for went bankrupt.

Working at the airport had its perks. He was able to get a tourist visa and fly into the United States. His family — his wife, Ana, and their three daughters — made the trek six months after Vladimir came to Richmond. Initially, they didn't intend to stay in the United States. The plan was to earn enough money and get enough education and go back to Ecuador. But the lure of opportunity in the States was too much. Vladimir landed a good job. Ana quickly found work housekeeping. Their two oldest girls, Gabby and Kathy, got along well at school and started dreaming of college.

For the most part, things have worked out well. Gabby, 18, just started her first semester at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and is studying criminal justice. She hopes to become a criminal defense attorney, she says.

Kathy, 16, plans to get a nursing degree. She's an honor roll student, a whiz at math and currently is a junior at James River High School, where she is a member of the step-dance team and serves on the Key Club.

The family lives in a spacious apartment near the Boulders office park. It's well- furnished, down to the metallic bar stools, an entertainment center and the wine rack in the living room. At night, there's some ruckus in the neighborhood, they say, noting that they recently had a car stereo stolen. But it's better than their last place at St. John's Wood Apartments near Chippenham, in the city just across the county line. Two summers ago, the girls were at the pool when a fight broke out and ended with gunshots. They moved.

The whole family works. Gabby has a job as a hostess at a nearby restaurant, and the entire family does commercial janitorial work at night, usually between 9:30 and midnight. (Ana and Vladimir give the girls Fridays and Saturdays off, however, so they can go out with their friends.)

Things were going so well that Vladimir recently started his own contracting business, specializing in commercial framing and Sheetrock. A few weeks ago, Gabby and Kathy had the opportunity to go to Chesterfield Towne Center while their father worked a job at the mall.

"We hope the legal situation gets better so we can stay here," says Kathy, whose biggest problem seems to be fitting in with the rich kids at James River High. "They're like, 'Yo, let's go to my parents' summer house.' And you're like, 'Yo, I live in an apartment,'" she says.

Still, they well know the difference. Compared to their lives in Ecuador, where they were poorer and jobs were scarce, their lives here have drastically improved.

The trend is as old as immigration itself: The men come first looking for steady jobs, often with the intention of working for a few years to earn enough money to buy land back home, says R. McKenna Brown, director of the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"He wants to get married and thinks, 'How could I possibly get enough to buy enough land and there are no employment opportunities?' So you leave for somewhere where that is possible," Brown says. "Most immigrants come as single men, come with the intent to buy enough land and get set up."

Now, with the intense labor demand in the United States and the rise of dual-income families even in more traditional countries in South America, many are coming over as couples, says Brown. "The changing patterns of gender roles make it increasingly acceptable for a woman to migrate as well," he says. "So, what I think we're seeing now is an increase in couples immigrating at different moments, the wife coming to the States to join her husband to double the earning power."

They come to Richmond and Central Virginia because of the strong housing market. Construction jobs are plentiful, and, in turn, so are landscaping, restaurant and janitorial jobs. In his three-year study of Richmond's Hispanic and Latino populations, Keo Calvacanti, a professor of sociology at James Madison University, says many are now coming from their native homelands directly to the Richmond area.

From 2000 to 2003, Calvacanti, while working at University of Richmond, found that 20 percent of those he and his research team interviewed (a total of 303 recently immigrated Hispanics) came directly to Richmond. Forty-three percent immigrated to Richmond for specific jobs or work-related opportunities, Calvacanti says. Some 34 percent came here to be reunited with family members.

As long as there are opportunities, they will find a way to come to places where labor demand exists, Calvacanti says, regardless of immigration laws. "People don't leave their nations on a lark. As long as there are jobs on this side of the border, you are going to find a lot of people coming over," he says.

Do the immigrants help or hurt the economy? The national debate could rage on forever. Calvacanti thinks simple economics will eventually win out. It's the same reason that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and President Bush are pushing to make it easier for illegal immigrants, especially those who have been here and been paying taxes for five years or more, to find permanent residency and work permits.

Meanwhile, the Hispanic population is gaining political clout. On April 9, more than 4,000 immigrants, many of them here illegally, showed up in downtown Richmond to take part in a nationwide protest.

Laura Castro, an 18-year-old senior at L.C. Bird High School in Chesterfield County, was among the protesters. It was a bold move for Castro, who came over six years ago from Bogota, Columbia. She first moved in with her grandmother, who lived in North Carolina, and then joined her mother in Richmond a year later.

She grew up in the economically depressed Bogota, where she and her family regularly feared for their lives. When she was 9, she watched a man get shot to death while strolling down the sidewalk. Her grandfather was kidnapped when she was 10. Just before she left, there were regular reports of murderers dismembering their victims and putting their body parts in garbage bags. "It was not safe to live there," she says.

Her life improved in the United States. Her mother, Blanca, works at a clothing store and recently saved enough to buy a condo off Cogbill Road in Chesterfield County. A senior with a 4.13 GPA, Castro has been accepted to four colleges, none of which she will be able to attend because of the expense, she says. Because of her illegal status, she doesn't qualify for most scholarships, and student loans are out of the question.

She volunteers at the rescue squad and is a well-known student at school. She already has her prom dress picked out. The week before spring break, she was even the school's mock principal during a role-playing exercise. As Principal Castro, she welcomed students to school over the intercom system.

"She didn't crack any jokes and kept school in order," says the actual principal, Joe Tylus. "She walked the halls with a walkie-talkie. We were happy to have her."

Neither her teachers — including Tylus — nor her friends had any idea she was an illegal immigrant. Then her picture appeared on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch April 10 holding up a protest placard announcing her illegal status. Last week she went to school for the first time since the photo appeared. She was a bit nervous, she says. Students can be cruel. Once, a teacher made her cry when she made an offhand remark about illegal immigrants.

"To put that sign up, that was a huge step for me," she says. "It was time that I stand up for what I believe."

Principal Tylus says Castro came to him during spring break to talk about the picture. He told her how proud he was.

He told the entire school how proud he was over the PA system on April 18, the day students returned from spring break. (He also mentioned that Castro had been invited to meet with Gov. Tim Kaine and U.S. Sen. George Allen.)

"Whenever it's one of our kids at Bird High School, we see the world a little differently," says Tylus. "We're their advocates, regardless of the situation."

Sara and Sendy, the Guatemalans in southern Chesterfield, say they could certainly could use some advocates. They have one in Carmen Williams, who attends their church at St. Augustine's Catholic Church on Beulah Road. Williams helped the family find an attorney and has led the drive at church to get additional help.

Williams, a native of Peru, has a master's degree in international legal studies from American University in Washington, D.C., and plans to take the bar exam in July. She is also an active Republican who headed the Hispanics for Bush coalition during his re-election campaign in 2004. But lately, she's become wary of both political parties because of the immigration issue. Recently, Republicans on the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors expressed outrage over the expense illegals impose on county coffers.

"They are forgetting that we are talking about people," Williams says. Seeing families such as Sara's struggle, she says, is case in point.

Sara, 34, seems to be in a state of emotional shock. She doesn't know what to do. Her husband, Jose, has been deported, and there's little chance he'll return anytime soon — unless he does so illegally, which is getting more difficult.

When her young boys ask about their father, she tells them the truth. And she leans heavily on her faith. As a devout Catholic, it's about all she has left.

"God knows that is immigration is bad," she tells the children. "And God is taking care of your father." S

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