Originally published by The New York Times
Liany and Maria Villacis grew up in a family that did everything together. Each summer, even when money was tight, their parents made sure to take a week’s vacation, no matter how modest. Last summer, when Liany, 22, was in a finance training program in Chicago, her parents and twin sister took their family vacation in the Windy City.
Their closeness was a result of circumstance as much as blood: The twins were born in Pasto, Colombia, where their mother, Liany Guerrero, hailed from a politically active family. But when they started receiving death threats from rebel groups — along with unsettling snapshots of the girls at play — they sought political asylum in 2001 in New York with their father, Juan Villacis, whose mother lived in the Woodhaven section of Queens.
They paid their taxes and stayed out of trouble. The twins prospered and did well in school and college. And every year, when the parents went to see the authorities at Immigration and Customs Enforcement to renew their stay of removal, they went as a family.
After this year’s meeting, they came home one short.
On Nov. 15, Juan was detained and sent to the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey to await deportation to his native Ecuador in the coming weeks. His wife was allowed to go home, but under supervision and with orders to return this week to prove she has purchased a one-way ticket back to Colombia for mid-January. Their lawyer, Jillian Hopman, was stunned by what she saw as a heartless bureaucracy going after low-hanging fruit rather than the “bad hombres” of legend.
“For a family that does everything together, this is heartbreaking,” Ms. Hopman said. “Juan’s mother’s health has seriously deteriorated, and he is the one who cares for her. His wife has all kinds of medical problems, including complex cysts in her breasts. ICE did not care about any of this. Juan could have won the Nobel Prize and taken a bullet for Mike Pence. All he has become is a statistic.”
Adding to the sting, immigration officers refused to let the twins or his wife give him a final hug goodbye, Ms. Hopman said.
“They told us they no longer provide that courtesy,” she said, “because they don’t like emotional scenes.”
Rachael Yong Yow, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency, did not respond to questions submitted last week by email.
Liany Guerrero and Juan Villacis met in Quito, Ecuador, Juan’s hometown, where both were studying physical therapy. They have been married 29 years. In Pasto, Liany had served as a first lady of sorts when her older brother was mayor. The family had been politically active and had been targets of rebel groups. One relative had been kidnapped. It was an obvious — if difficult — decision to seek asylum in New York when the threats against the family stepped up in the late 1990s.
Maria said her family arrived with valid visas in 2001 and immediately sought political asylum. However, she said, their lawyer at the time stressed the family’s social class — rather than political affiliation — as the reason they were targeted by rebels. Although their application was denied, they obtained stays of removal every year. Ms. Hopman took their case in 2010.
The twins did not expect things to go awry this year: Their father’s mother, a United States citizen who is confined to bed and in poor health, has applied for him to become a legal resident, but there is nearly a five-year backlog of cases. Their mother’s health makes the situation critical, too, they thought.
Instead, their lawyer emerged with bad news.
“My mom went completely pale and held onto her knees,” said Liany, who with her sister has protection for now under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. “She was just staring at the floor, saying there had to be a mistake.”
Friends of the family agree. Alberto Roig, a retired Manhattan prosecutor who also was assistant counsel to former Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly of the New York Police Department, was dumbstruck by the prospect that the family he has known for years would be broken up.
“They’re not some schmoes,” he said. “The girls are incredible because the parents are incredible. They are contributing to our society. They follow the law. They’re legit. And what do we do, kick them out and slam the door? This is a tremendous injustice.”
Now is the time of year when Juan would have hauled out the Christmas decorations and strung up the lights around the porch of the family’s Dutch Colonial-style home just off the elevated train on Jamaica Avenue in Queens. Instead, it is dark. Inside, his electric drum kit and saxophone rest against a wall, silent. Just the sight of them moved his wife to tears the day she returned home without him.
“Our family life was broken abruptly,” she said. “It’s like half of my heart was cut out. We always made the effort to keep our family united. We did everything to educate our daughters. Juan is his mother’s only hope. We worked hard and paid taxes. What did we do wrong to deserve this?”
She has prided herself on never missing appointments and doing whatever the authorities asked. One request she has yet to fulfill is buying her ticket to Colombia.
“I know I have to get it,” she said. “But I have the hope that someone will notice our case and say no, this can’t happen. Hope is the last thing you lose.”
Read more: www.nytimes.com/2017/11/26/nyregion/being-deported-from-home-for-the-holidays.html?mtrref=query.nytimes.com