Suburban family's saga ends back where it started -- in Mexico
Second of two parts.
When crime and violence in their village became too much, Reynold Garcia and his wife, Karen Margarito-Pineda, did what many parents do -- they moved to a safer place.
But unlike relocations to another neighborhood or town, the couple and their two children left home in Mexico, crossed into the United States and asked for asylum in 2014.
They settled in Palatine, finding a welcoming church, a good school and jobs.
Then, early this year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers stepped in, sending Garcia, 31, Margarito-Pineda, 34, and their children back to where they started.
The personal saga is a microcosm of a debate that is boiling over into the presidential election. Democrat Hillary Clinton is pushing for a path to citizenship while Republican nominee Donald Trump is promising to build a wall to keep migrants out.
Caught up in the immigration leviathan, Garcia and Margarito-Pineda encountered constant obstacles: few legal gateways into the country, separation after they entered, roadblocks to their asylum request and bad timing as the government shifted its deportation priorities.
Federal officials say it's simple -- the family was in the country unlawfully. "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes threats to national security, public safety and border security," ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said.
The family's supporters in the U.S. criticize ICE for targeting families, not criminals, and deporting the four while Margarito-Pineda was seeking asylum. They question the agents' tactics of using a ruse to apprehend Garcia.
The family's failed quest embroiled myriad federal agencies and employees that detained the family members, conducted interviews, processed paperwork, ruled on the asylum request and ultimately deported them over the course of 14 months.
And that's just one case. Thousands are caught in the crucible of U.S. immigration where ICE's budget costs about $6 billion annually and Republicans and Democrats alike call the system "broken."
Here's a closer look at the paradoxes and contradictions of immigration as experienced by one former suburban family.
The couple came to the U.S. to escape organized crime figures who extorted money weekly from a small business owned by Margarito-Pineda's mother, they said in a Skype interview from Mexico.
"We were getting threatening phone calls," Margarito-Pineda said. Her father was kidnapped but released after a ransom was paid, they said.
"The house was robbed, and I found my wife crying many times," Garcia said.
The family might have applied for an employment visa, but the demand far exceeds the supply. Federal law allows about 140,000 employment-based visas for immigrants annually worldwide and 6,376 were obtained by Mexicans in 2015. Most are available to people of extraordinary abilities or professionals with advanced degrees.
About 40,000 visas are available for skilled and unskilled laborers, but employers must vouch for applicants. Of those visas, Mexicans received 183, or about 3 percent of the worldwide total, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Many take a different route.
Garcia, Margarito-Pineda and their children arrived at the border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Ysidro, California, late in 2014 and petitioned for asylum there, saying they feared for their safety. Shortly after, Garcia was separated from his wife and children by federal authorities.
Margarito-Pineda, her daughter, 4, and son, 11, were allowed to stay in the U.S. while the asylum request was considered. But not Garcia.
Alone in detention, he was told, "'Don't worry about your family,'" he said. "But of course I worried. They said I didn't qualify (for asylum). I told them, 'I'm in the same situation as my wife. Why her and not me?'"
Department of Homeland Security officials said they could not explain why the family was separated.
One likely reason is inadequate resources, said attorney Lindsay Harris of the American Immigration Council, an immigration education and policy nonprofit. The government doesn't have enough facilities to accommodate families, so mothers and children typically are placed in different detention centers than fathers, Harris said.
Garcia was deported Dec. 9, 2014, but re-entered illegally in February 2015 and returned to Palatine. "I knew it was wrong, but in the end, it's my family," Garcia said.
Who gets asylum?
The family's hopes rested on the asylum petition, but it was a tenuous chance.
Federal judges decided 1,967 asylum cases involving Mexicans in 2015. They granted 203 -- 10 percent -- allowing legal access to jobs and a route to permanent resident status.
By contrast, 82 percent of 4,384 asylum requests from Chinese nationals were approved. Of 118 Syrian asylum requests, 86 percent were granted.
"Everyone should be treated the same, but they're not," Harris said, adding Mexicans might be at a disadvantage because they're seen as migrating solely for economic reasons.
Immigration judges make decisions on a case-by-case basis, following U.S. laws, precedents and "country conditions," Department of Justice spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said. Country conditions, compiled by the department, include human rights abuses, government corruption, government use of lethal force and wars.
For example, a 2015 report on China cites the "authoritarian" government's coercive "birth-limitation policy" and one on Syria states its government "arbitrarily and unlawfully killed, tortured, and detained" people.
A report on Mexico found police involved in unlawful killings and that organized crime "killed, kidnapped, and intimidated citizens." But it said elections were fair and civilian authorities "generally" had control of security forces.
Crime doesn't count
Claiming fears of crime and violence in their home state of Guerrero bought time for Margarito-Pineda and her children. The government started deportation proceedings, but she also was allowed a chance to defend her request for asylum.
The process isn't easy. One reason is a complex application that's difficult for people with limited English to complete.
Another stumbling block is proving the crimes happened if a victim lacks documentation or if witnesses in Mexico fear retaliation.
The U.S. government acknowledges drug-trafficking and organized crime are rampant in parts of Mexico, including Guerrero. In April, the U.S. State Department called the region the most violent in Mexico, with a murder rate of 57 per 100,000 residents.
But crime doesn't technically belong in the criteria for asylum. The law limits asylum to people fearful of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Immigration attorney Mony Ruiz-Velasco, who is working on the case now, said business owners in Guerrero "commonly face these kinds of threats and extortion -- they're targeted for that reason." Because the family was being persecuted for membership in a particular social group, it could be justification for asylum, she said.
David Iglesias, former U.S. attorney and director of Wheaton College's Center for Faith, Politics and Economics, said "if the U.S. grants asylum to anyone fleeing a criminal organization, it would allow people from any part of the world to flee here. It sets the bar too low. Granting asylum should be for something special, not commonplace."
Settling down in Palatine, Margarito-Pineda worked as a grocery store cashier and Garcia built floors. Their son, Santiago, 11, loved Legos and going to Lake Louise Elementary School in Palatine, while daughter Valentina, 4, created imaginary worlds with her doll house, friends recalled.
Life revolved around the Christian Pentecostal Center in Schaumburg and the deep friendships made there. Garcia became a leader in the congregation and Santiago played soccer with church members behind Palatine High School on weekends.
Margarito-Pineda thought her asylum case was going smoothly. But things began to unravel when their previous lawyer erred in not scheduling a background check, Ruiz-Velasco said.
Such mistakes are common and "rules are very strict in immigration court," Ruiz-Velasco said. "If you miss a deadline or a document is not submitted in time, you are not permitted to move forward with your case."
On Nov. 16, a federal immigration judge issued a final order of removal, Ruiz-Velasco said.
Two days into the new year, ICE agents showed up at the family's apartment.
"They said, 'You have to go with your kids.' It was very ugly," Margarito-Pineda said. "We left everything behind. Supposedly, there is a legal process and I had followed the rules. My case was supposed to be proceeding forward."
Away at the time, Garcia was praying at the church Jan. 3 when agents impersonating local police told him a friend was in a car accident and he needed to sort out insurance because his name was on the title. He walked out of the church and was arrested a short distance away.
The family was reunited in Texas before being flown back to Mexico, where the Garcias keep a low profile. Margarito-Pineda helps with her mother's business, Garcia waits tables and they make regular payments to organized crime.
"We still live in fear," he said.
The family's deportation appears to have been part of a national sweep conducted by ICE early in 2016.
"This should come as no surprise. I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said.
The Department of Homeland Security ramped up deportations of mothers and children in 2014 after a surge of Central Americans fleeing violence. The raids drew criticisms from lawmakers including Chicago Democratic U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez.
"There is a mismatch between our values, our out-of-date immigration system, and our bureaucratic deportation system. Let's concentrate our resources on security, on criminals, and on making sure our immigration system serves the American people," Gutiérrez said.
U.S. Rep. Bob Dold said the system is "broken. We cannot ignore the imperative of securing our border to prevent dangerous criminals from entering the country, but we also need to show compassion to families who have put down roots in the United States and made our community a better place," the Kenilworth Republican said.
In November 2014, the government issued new priorities for deportation. Priority 1 includes terrorists, spies, gang members, felons and people crossing the border illegally, such as Margarito-Pineda. Priority 2 includes people convicted of multiple misdemeanors or significant misdemeanors and those who unlawfully re-entered the United States after deportation. Priority 3 involves people issued orders of removal after Jan. 1, 2014.
The changes reflect the Obama administration's push to give legal status to immigrants with roots in the U.S. -- children brought into the country as minors, through the DREAM Act, and to parents of citizens or legal permanent residents
"Targeting recent arrivals who haven't committed any crimes does seem like an anomaly in this policy," said Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman for Sen. Dick Durbin.
The goal is to move the focus away from "people who have lived here for a long time, have put down roots in our communities and could be eligible for a path to citizenship if Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform legislation," she said.
Caught in the policy crosshairs were Garcia, Margarito-Pineda and their children.
The ICE Chicago Office, which includes Illinois and five other states, deported 3,266 people in 2015, 6,222 in 2014 and 7,825 in 2013. Of those, 75 to 80 percent were convicted criminals.
Members of the Christian Pentecostal Center are lobbying for the family's return to the U.S. But in January, parishioners packed up the Garcias' belongings and sent them to Mexico. The package never arrived and likely was stolen en route, Pastor Gerson Moreno said.
Back in Mexico, "Santiago misses the U.S. a lot," Margarito-Pineda said. "My daughter tells me she misses people from church, her girlfriends, but she's younger. My son knows what happened."
"Our intention was never to do anything bad. We always wanted our kids to get better," Garcia said.
"I thought, 'They deported me and who's going to remember us?'" Margarito-Pineda said. "But there are a lot of people interested. I am not losing hope of coming back."