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Kidnapped by 'La Migra.' (U.S. Immigration and Naturalization forced deportations of undocumented children of legally-residing parents)

When Ambrosio Lopez, seventeen, and Augustin Antunez, fifteen, left home for Omaha's South High School last November 6, neither expected to end the day on an extended field trip engineered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Both teenagers lived with parents who had gained legal residence in the United States under the Federal Government's amnesty program, but their own petitions for residency had been denied. On that November day, agents of La Migra, as the INS is known in the Latino community, showed the principal of South High an arrest warrant and told him to order the two boys into his office.

Lopez was summoned from English class, where he had been practicing vocabulary, and Antunez was taken out of an art class. The agents then arrested both without telling their parents; three days later, they were deported--dumped across the Mexican border at Nogales without food, extra clothes, or money. The INS says it is just doing its job, but Latinos had other words for these deportations--such words as "kidnapping" and "child abuse."

In an editorial in his December issue, Ben Salazar, editor and publisher of the city's Nuestro Mundo, wrote, "Old King Cole, he has no soul." He was referring to Jim Cole, director of the INS regional office in Omaha, which oversees both Nebraska and Iowa. Cole has gained a reputation in the area for his uncompromising enforcement of immigration laws. On one occasion in the 1980s, agents raided Ak-sar-ben, Omaha's horse-racing track, and deported all fourteen of the track's horse groomers to Mexico or Guatemala. About a month before the two Omaha teenagers were seized, several hundred undocumented workers were taken from a meat-packing plant near Grand Island, about 150 miles west of Omaha.

Maria Lopez, a working mother and sole support of three sons, learned that her second oldest was being held for deportation through the community grapevine a day or two after he was arrested at school. Lopez, who was four months behind in her rent, was now faced with a large phone bill and the need to wire money to her son for food and lodging.

"I was told I should hire a lawyer," she says, "but with what money?"

Later, Omaha attorney Joseph Lopez-Wilson took up the cases of both boys in an attempt to reunite them with their families. Representatives of the INS said its bureaucracy would take from six months to a year to do that. In the meantime, Latinos in Omaha organized a letter-writing and media campaign to get the boys home sooner.

Genaro Antunez, Augustin's father, learned of his son's whereabouts through a phone call from Nogales, after the deportation.

"He was sick with gastritis, with no money, no relatives, and in a strange town," says the elder Antunez, who called a relative in the Mexican state of Guerrero to pick up Augustin and take him in. "My own father has a large family to support," he said, "and my son does not know them very well, but I have little choice." This was no small inconvenience: Guerrero is several hundred miles from the border, on the Pacific coast southwest of Mexico City.

U.S. Representative Peter Hoagland of Omaha pledged to seek an amendment to the immigration laws so they cannot be used to rip families apart. Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson and Senators Bob Kerrey and J.J. Exon joined Hoagland in a letter asking the INS to return the boys to their families. And public-school officials also pressed for an agreement with the INS prohibiting agents from taking students out of schools.

Two weeks after the boys were deported, a Latino community news conference at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church turned into an impromptu anti-INS rally, as people heard what had happened and expressed their outrage. Cole defended the INS action as "both legal and ethical," but Latinos were not buying it.

Attorney Lopez-Wilson said that Craig Zerbe, a Federal immigration judge in Chicago, had denied Ambrosio Lopez's residency petition in October 1989. A year later, Zerbe denied residency to Augustin Antunez. Under current law, children are not necessarily granted residency with their parents; each person must qualify on his or her own merits, regardless of age.

Hoagland asked INS Commissioner Gene McNary to allow the two teenagers back into the United States to rejoin their families. His request was denied on December 16.

Governor Nelson then pulled a Christmas Eve surprise. He announced that he had persuaded the Justice Department to overturn McNary's decision and return the teenagers on humanitarian grounds.

Ambrosio Lopez arrived in Omaha by air a few hours after Nelson's press conference. Augustin Antunez arrived the day after Christmas; he was held up by paperwork at the border. On arrival in Omaha, Lopez hugged his mother, then picked up his six-year-old brother, Michael, and cried.

Governor Nelson said he had learned during his negotiations with the Justice Department that at least 10,000 "illegal" children have been taken from their legal parents and deported by the INS. But Lopez and Antunez may have been the first to be deported without notification of their parents.

Now that the initial euphoria following reunification is over, the two teenagers and their families have grown wary. They are still "illegal," and the law is still designed to split families. Many people in South Omaha wonder what Jim Cole and La Migra will do next.

Was this, asked editor Salazar, the same Government whose leaders kept lecturing us about "family values"?
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Author:Johansen, Bruce E.
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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