Kids risk health to fight mom’s deportation

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Myriam Marquez
February 25, 2009

Cecia and Ronald Soza tugged at the heart strings when the South Florida youngsters went on a “hunger strike,” hoping to keep their Nicaraguan mother from being deported.

The media—particularly Spanish-language media nationwide—loved the drama. Captured by the cameras were tears in between sips of Pedialyte, and 9-year-old Ronald’s pleas to President Barack Obama to spare his mom because “she’s not a criminal.”

That may seem like a debatable fine point for Congress and the new administration. But Obama owes much of his victory to strong support from Latino voters—often in extended families that include U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants.

Maricela Vallejo Soza, 32, didn’t steal, hurt or kill anyone, but she did break U.S. immigration law. She’s now back in Managua, unable to care for Cecia, a bright young lady who’s in an international baccalaureate program at her middle school, and the rambunctious Ronald, whose playful nature has turned more melancholy.

More than a decade ago, Maricela slipped into the United States through the Texas border. In 2000, her husband, Ronald Sr., 41, applied to stay under the so-called NACARA Act that helps Central Americans legalize their status if they arrived before 1995.

An immigration court turned down the couple’s request, which is odd, Ronald’s brother Fausto says, because the two men arrived in the United States together. Fausto is now a U.S. citizen, and his brother is on the run, fearing he’ll be deported next.

“Now we’re struggling to help the kids until this is straightened out,” Fausto Soza said at the offices of American Fraternity, an immigration rights group that brought the case of the Pompano Beach, Fla., family to the media last month.

When the couple were turned down through NACARA, they applied for temporary protected status, or TPS, extended to many Nicaraguans and other groups.

“They were still waiting for TPS,” Soza said. “Sometimes it’s best to just stay quiet.”

The two kids are sympathetic poster children for what’s wrong with U.S. immigration law. At ages 9 and 12, they’re also dangerously malleable, which is why I gasped when I saw American Fraternity’s press release about the kids’ “hunger strike.”

“I actually came up with the idea,” 12-year-old Cecia Soza told me. “I told my brother, ‘We have to do more. …’ It just popped up in my mind.”

The group’s executive director, Nora Sandigo, maintains the distraught kids showed up with their dad and uncle at her office and pleaded for help while Maricela was still in U.S. immigration detention.

Only a few days earlier, the fraternity sought in federal court to have the Obama administration suspend deportations until Congress passes comprehensive reform. The group argues that the civil rights of the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants are violated when parents are deported without the law taking into account the devastating effect of such deportations on minors’ welfare.

Sandigo’s group does a lot of good work, providing legal help and hundreds of food baskets each month to needy immigrants. But enabling hunger-striking kids to hold court at the fraternity’s office is a gimmick at best—unethical at worst.

“I’ve been working 20 years with immigrants,” Sandigo told me. “I was in shock. I have daughters close to these children’s ages, and I saw this as a big responsibility. … The worst thing that an adult can do is not listen.”

After day one of intense media coverage, a state child-welfare worker checked on the kids at the fraternity offices. Sandigo says she already had persuaded the children to eat in the evening, and they were under a doctor’s care. Good thing, because this mother’s gut tells me that enabling kids to play politics with their health is akin to child abuse.

Myriam Marquez is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to her via e-mail at mmarquez@miamiherald.com.

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