Utah family hoping for a miracle as deportation seems inevitable
By Lee Davidson
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Apr 26 2014 01:01AM
Garland • Ana Cañenquez hopes, prays, cries, and loses sleep thinking about who else she could ask for help to create a miracle, any miracle, to halt the ordered deportation of half of her family on June 25.
The northern Utah resident believes the action may send four of her sons to their deaths at the hands of gangs in El Salvador, which they tried to escape by illegally immigrating to the United States. Even if they survive, "they still won’t have any life at all, there are no opportunities" in extreme poverty, she blurts in Spanish between sobs.
"I refuse to accept this," Cañenquez says, although she has exhausted all possible appeals and deportation seems inevitable. "This cannot be. I need help. I need help."
Barring a miracle, she and four teenage sons are about to join 793 "removals" so far this year, and 3,869 last year, by the Salt Lake City office of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The office covers Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Montana. ICE says 89 percent of deportations last year by that office involved "criminals."
But The New York Times recently reported that while President Barack Obama says his administration targets criminals for deportation and not people who are here just "trying to figure out how to feed their family," two-thirds of the 2 million people deported had only minor traffic violations or no criminal record at all.
Cañenquez says she and her family are self-sustaining, had only one minor brush with the law and work hard on education — and have awards from the state and even the president to prove it. But some of them were caught entering the country illegally. Although allowed to remain while pursuing appeals, they go to the top of deportation lists.
Cañenquez puts a human face on the immigration debate and statistics. She shows why some are driven to take extreme risks that come with illegal immigration, and how current laws can divide those families and create a sort of "Sophie’s Choice" for them.
If Cañenquez is deported, two younger children will remain here because they are U.S. citizens born in Utah. Their father, a Mexican national, is under no deportation order. Neither is her oldest son, who has his own family. They say international laws prevent them from going together to El Salvador, Mexico or to remain here.
Reasons • Cañenquez tells why she chose to immigrate illegally, and fears deportation so much.
At one point in El Salvador, she lived in a two-room shanty with six sons and an alcoholic spouse. She sold treats in a marketplace booth. "I earned about $6 a day, and worked seven days a week. It barely paid for food."
Her second-oldest son, Oscar, had cerebral palsy. "He died, but not from that. He died from malnutrition. Do you know how hard that is? My 19-year-old had severe malnutrition. I had malnutrition."
She said taking Oscar to a doctor cost 50 colons per visit. "For 50 colons, I could feed my family for a week."
Once she was sick with parasites. "The doctor told me he didn’t know how I was still alive with so many parasites." Treatment cost 300 colons. "For a long time, I could not buy the medicine. It cost the same as feeding my family for a month."
Amid malnutrition, the death of her son, and little hope for a good education to lift her children out of poverty, Cañenquez in 2003 accepted a suggestion from a brother to go to New York where he lived — leaving her family behind temporarily.
She planned to work a couple years to raise money to pay off debts, buy a house in El Salvador and pay for her children’s schooling. But she did not earn much in New York, and eventually moved to Utah at the urging of an acquaintance. Cañenquez worked in a restaurant and sent most of the money home.
She eventually moved in with Eusebio Granda, a farm worker from Mexico. They eventually would have two children of their own — Luis, now 8, and Katy, 6, who are U.S. citizens. Cañenquez’s oldest son also came to America to help them.
Threats • In 2010, two of her children still in El Salvador were threatened to join violent gangs, or be killed.
"That’s when we left," says son Geovanny Ramirez, now 17. "You could choose to join the gang and get killed, or you can choose not to join the gang and get killed."
Cañenquez paid to smuggle Geovanny and Job, now 19, into the United States — but they were caught by the Border Patrol. However, they were sent to stay with their mother in Garland while their case was appealed.
Meanwhile, someone called her ex-spouse in El Salvador to threaten the lives of her two remaining children — Mario, now 15, and Erick, 13 — unless a ransom was paid, figuring she had money because she was in America. She tried to smuggle them out, but they were apprehended in Mexico and placed in an orphanage.
She went to retrieve them, and then they tried to sneak into the United States but became lost in the desert and ended up surrendering to the Border Patrol.
The agency let her return to Garland while her case was appealed.
The past four years are the only time she has had all her surviving children together. "The thing that hurts is, I haven’t been able to be happy and enjoy it" because of constant worry about deportation, she says, again crying.
But they have tried to make the most of their time together, and to work on the education she hoped the children would obtain. Cañenquez proudly shows a certificate from President Barack Obama to Job for academic excellence. She herself was named Utah Head Start’s Parent of the Year for helping migrants to embrace that program.
Job is now studying at Weber State University. Geovanny dreams of being an engineer. Mario wants to be a lawyer. Erick wants to be an Army officer. Cañenquez worries that instead of realizing their dreams, gangs will kill them within days or weeks of their return.
"I have a nephew who is just 17. Two weeks ago, they [gangs] were waiting for him when he left school. They beat him. He didn’t die, and was able to escape," Cañenquez says. "That is why I refuse to believe that we are going to have to return."
Legal woes • As Geovanny says, threats from gangs or criminals seeking ransom are not among reasons the United States recognizes in granting sanctuary.
Cañenquez says her family hoped that ICE would leave them alone as a family that works hard to support itself and has had no run-ins with the law — other than one infraction Cañenquez has on her record. They applied for "prosecutorial discretion," which ICE sometimes uses to focus its limited resources to go after more dangerous criminals.
ICE spokesman Andrew Muñoz says the agency ruled Cañenquez did not qualify. "Regardless of her criminal history, Ms. Cañenquez was apprehended at the border, which makes her a recent border crosser and an enforcement priority."
ICE already used prosecutorial discretion by not removing her immediately upon arrest, he said, noting that immigration court ruled in 2012 that she had no legal basis to remain. She appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which ruled against her in 2013 and gave her a deadline for voluntary departure.
That time has passed, and ICE refused more deferrals, Muñoz said. ICE told her she must leave by June 25 or be removed, and may not return lawfully for at least 10 years.
"ICE is attempting to work with Ms. Cañenquez’s attorney to enforce the removal order while keeping the family together," Muñoz said, but attempts to discuss the matter "have either gone unanswered or have not been productive."
Cañenquez said family members do not have the option to go to Mexico, where her youngest children’s father is a native, "because Mexico’s immigration laws are even worse." Her Mexican-national husband would have a tough time going to El Salvador, she says, and she wants at least her youngest children to live the American dream as U.S. citizens.
Temptation • If Cañenquez alone were facing deportation, she might be tempted to go into hiding. "The undocumented live in the shadows, but I would crawl into a rat hole," she said. "But I can’t do that to my children. That would be no life."
Several Latino groups have held protests, petition drives and press conferences trying to help the family. Cañenquez even went to Washington, D.C., asking members of Congress to help.
She stays up nights trying to think of anyone else who could help pull off a miracle. "Last night, my husband suggested maybe calling the head of the Mormon church."
Cañenquez keeps working at her job cleaning a motel. "But it’s hard to focus. All I can do is think about my family being divided."
She cries, "I have faith someone will help us. I just can’t accept this. Tell the people I need help. I need help."