Family Faces Deportation After Decade in United States

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For more than a decade, the United States has been home to Marie Gonzalez and her family. But in six weeks, they are being deported. From member station KSMU, Missy Shelton reports that many in their community and the state government are trying to change immigration laws to allow them stay.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In less than six weeks, the Gonzalez family in Jefferson City, Missouri, will be forced to board a plane for Costa Rica. They arrived in the US on a six-month visitors visa in 1991. They represent a large group of people who are in this country illegally who consider it their home. Missy Shelton of member station KSMU reports.

MISSY SHELTON reporting:

Marvin and Marina Gonzalez appear to be an all-American family. Along with their 19-year-old daughter, Marie, they live in a small red-brick house on a tree-lined street in Jefferson City, Missouri. Like any young woman, Marie spends much of her time hanging out with her friends and playing with her dog Precious.

Ms. MARIE GONZALEZ (Illegal Immigrant): Precious we've had since I was in eighth grade. She's pretty much the princess of the family. She gets anything she wants.

SHELTON: Back in 2002, Marie's father, Marvin, had an unusual job: opening mail for Missouri's governor. Her mother, Marina, taught Spanish to kindergartners and Marie was a sophomore at Helias High School eager to eventually earn her law degree. Then with a single phone call, that entire world collapsed.

Ms. GONZALEZ: Someone made an anonymous call and that's what tipped everything off. At first, everything came back fine, that our Social, you know, was ours, that we were who we said we were, we had paid all those years of taxes but, indeed, we had overstayed.

SHELTON: Marie Gonzalez says her parents thought they were doing everything right, but as it turns out, they got some bad legal advice when they first came to the United States. A lawyer had told them they could apply for permanent residency by simply living in the US for seven years even with expired visas. Attorney Ben Mook now represents the Gonzalez family.

Attorney BEN MOOK (Gonzalez Family): The laws are such that it doesn't really matter whether or not you had bad advice and good intentions or just straight-up bad intentions. Once you've stayed longer than your permissible stay, you can't make a change in your status without leaving the country. The thing about immigration law is that so much of it is absolutely black and white.

SHELTON: And it's the unbending nature of those laws that has thousands of Jefferson City residents willing to sign petitions that urge Congress to intervene in the Gonzalez case. In the Gonzalez home, the dining room table is covered with notebooks that Marina Gonzalez uses to keep track of the petitions and letters of support.

Mrs. MARINA GONZALEZ (Illegal Immigrant): All these letters in here, this is just one example of how people feel about us and, you know--and it's a big deal for their community. And we were so blessed to have many people supporting us.

SHELTON: Among their biggest supporters is Republican State Representative Bill Deeken. Standing in the chamber of the Missouri House of Representatives, Deeken says he's hoping Missouri's congressional delegation will take the rare step of introducing special legislation to grant the Gonzalez family citizenship.

State Representative BILL DEEKEN (Republican, Missouri): These are the kind of people that you would want as a neighbor. I mean, I--it just makes me sick to think that somebody like this is going to be sent back, and to see this happen is just heartbreaking.

SHELTON: Federal immigration officials estimate there are as many as eight million people who have overstayed their visas and are now living undocumented in the US much like the Gonzalez family. Bill Strausberger with the US Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services says what the Gonzalez family is asking to do is to jump to the front of the line ahead of those who are waiting to enter the US legally.

Mr. BILL STRAUSBERGER (US Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services): Look at it in primary school terms of a line at a water fountain. Everybody is standing in line waiting their turn and suddenly somebody wants to jump ahead of everyone else. Is that fair? There are very specific laws, rules enforced to make it fair to everyone.

SHELTON: Despite a last-minute plea to members of Congress, it's unlikely the Gonzalez family will be allowed to stay in this country. Marie Gonzalez is finding that hard to reconcile.

Ms. GONZALEZ: In my heart, I am a US citizen. Just because I don't have that piece of paper doesn't mean that, you know, I don't feel like I am, 'cause, to me, they're taking me away from my country is how I'm feeling. They're not taking me away to my country.

SHELTON: As it now stands, Marie and her parents must leave Jefferson City, Missouri, and their adopted country the day after the Fourth of July.

For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton in Springfield, Missouri.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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