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Jumping to conclusions

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Esther Cepeda
March 28, 2011
— On March 11, Emily Ruiz, a U.S. citizen, was traveling back to New York from Guatemala with her grandfather when U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents detained them because of a two-decade-old infraction on the grandfather’s temporary work visa. They told him he would be deported.

A spokesperson for CBP told The New York Times that the agency had offered Emily’s father, Leonel Ruiz, who entered the U.S. illegally in 1996, the opportunity to come pick the 4-year-old child up, but he declined and chose to return her to Guatemala with her grandfather.


David Sperling, the lawyer who has taken up the Ruiz cause, says that’s not what happened. “My client was told by CBP, ‘We cannot send your daughter back to you because you and your wife are here illegally, so you can either let us put her in child protection services or send her back to Guatemala,’” Sperling said during a news conference last Friday. “Mr. Ruiz was given no opportunity to reunite with his 4-year-old daughter and because he was scared that his daughter might be put up for adoption, sent her back.”


Sperling charges that CBP spoke to Leonel Ruiz, who is not a fluent English speaker, without the aid of an interpreter, but that Ruiz knew enough “passable” English to understand they were insinuating he could pick his daughter up at the airport and then he would face deportation.


Before you accept the heart-wrenching narratives a few advocacy organizations are weaving, understand this. Emily was not deported. She is not the new Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee who was torn from his Florida closet by federal gunmen and repatriated with his father in Cuba. Emily’s father and Sperling both confirmed that the Ruiz family had sent the child to Guatemala five months ago so she could sit out the winter cold that aggravates her asthma.


Don’t get me wrong—there are some problems here. I can see the outrage. There’s no way U.S. immigration officials should relay complex, legally binding immigration and custody information to someone with limited English skills—and possibly limited education—without a professional translator. This almost guarantees that choices and their consequences are misunderstood, and actions are taken under the compromised circumstances.


We should be furious if CBP disregarded guidelines, resulting in poor treatment of a 4-year-old U.S. citizen. Advocates contend that there are no clear policies in place for situations where immigration laws and parental rights clash. CBP, however, isn’t shedding much light on the story, leaving us all to wonder what really happened.


After my criticism of an illegal immigrant in 2007 who claimed sanctuary with her U.S.-born son in a church before being deported, the executive director of a nationally prominent immigrant advocacy organization schooled me on grass-roots activism tactics.


“Rosa Parks didn’t just decide to not sit at the back of the bus one day,” he told me. “She was hand-chosen for best effect to spark a change.”


Well-meaning immigration reform activists would do well to tread lightly here. Before an innocent 4-year-old is subjected to the media circus of being the next spark in the heated national immigration reform war, let’s wait for all the facts to emerge.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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