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Awaiting a miracle

Facing deportation, close-knit family pins fading hopes on special legislation
by: Jonathan House, The Diaz family, from left, is Monica, Jennifer, Luis Jr., Irma and Luis Sr.

Time is working against the Diaz family.

After 15 years of building a life and home together in the United States, the close-knit Beaverton family is on the verge of being torn apart.

Irma Diaz and her two oldest children, Luis Jr. and Monica, have until Friday to prove to immigration authorities that they have made plans to return to their native Guatemala by July 17.

The thought of returning to the country her family fled in fear and leaving behind her husband Luis Sr. and 11-year-old daughter Jennifer, prompts tears to flood Irma's eyes and slip from English to Spanish.

'We still have hope that something will happen,' Irma said. 'We still have faith.'

The Diaz family is waiting for what it calls a miracle.

Not just any miracle, but a private congressional bill championed by U.S. Rep. David Wu that will allow Irma, Luis Jr. and Monica to remain in the United States while Luis Sr. appeals a decision denying him political asylum.

While the three face imminent deportation within the next few weeks, Luis Sr. and the couple's youngest daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, are permitted to remain in the United States pending the outcome of his asylum appeal and application for lawful permanent residency.

Both Luis Sr. and Irma fear what will become of 21-year-old Luis Jr. and 19-year-old Monica if they return to Guatemala.

'How is it possible that our kids have to go back to Guatemala?' Irma asked. 'The ones getting deported don't know how to read Spanish. It wouldn't matter if it was just me that had to go back. My kids did nothing wrong.'

As July 17 nears, Luis Jr. said he couldn't imagine leaving the home he has known since he was 9.

'I don't like to think about it or talk about it,' Luis Jr. said. 'I just can't see myself over there.

'It feels like I've had the perfect life. A year ago everything was great, and now all this is happening.'

Monica, who dreams of one day becoming a teacher and elementary school principal, agreed.

'We don't want to go,' said Monica. 'All my friends are here.

'All my life is here. My devotion is to here.'

Both siblings attended Elmonica Elementary School and Five Oaks Middle School before graduating from Westview High School and continuing their education at Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus.

'We know we're from Guatemala, but we were raised here in the United States,' Luis Jr. added. 'There is nothing for us there. This is where we belong.

'This is our home. Our life here is what we're used to. All of our memories are here.'

Other than little things like going to his grandfather's bicycle shop, Luis Jr. said he remembers very little about his life in Guatemala.

'Live in peace'

In February 1991, Luis Sr. fled Guatemala after he was threatened for organizing a union at the paper mill where he worked.

He was hired by the Central American Paper Industry in 1982 as an equipment operator and over time was promoted to the position of equipment foreman, with 10 employees under his charge.

'People started to get injured on the job and the paper mill did not want to support the workers,' Luis Sr. recalled. 'They tried to take out all our benefits.

'I didn't want that to happen. My co-workers started getting into accidents and there were many safety concerns.'

Luis Sr. along with three of his co-workers met in secret with a labor lawyer to come up with a plan to reinstate company benefits that were lost during a violent labor dispute in the early 1980s.

The action prompted Luis Sr. and 24 others, who signed a petition, to be fired.

Even though the company was later forced to reinstate the terminated employees, the damage was done, said Tilman Hasche, an immigration attorney representing the family.

'In light of his role in organizing the union, he had placed himself and his family at risk of violent retribution,' Hasche said.

Fearing for his life and the safety of his family, Luis Sr. illegally entered the United States and traveled to Hillsboro, where he had friends.

He applied for political asylum in March 1991 and gained permission to work while his case was reviewed.

With encouragement from a friend and the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, he enrolled in a landscaping program at Portland Community College, where he took the same classes in both English and Spanish.

In May 1991, he received a certificate of completion from PCC's Landscaping Training Program and within months was hired as a maintenance supervisor with the Heritage Village Manufactured Home Community in Beaverton, a post he held for 14 years and where his family has called home for 15 years.

Desperate to reunite the family after two years of separation, Irma sought a visa to join her husband and was denied.

In December 1993, when Luis Sr.'s asylum application had still not been decided, Irma packed up her two children, traveled to Mexico and with the help of 'coyotes' illegally crossed into the United States.

'At the first place to cross the border I was very afraid,' Irma recalled. 'I didn't know the language. I didn't know if I would be able to find work or anything.'

'She was scared about what could happen to us in Guatemala if we stayed there and she wanted us to be with our dad,' Luis Jr. translated for his mother.

After listening to her son share her message, Irma added, 'We came here so our family could be together.

'We didn't come to this country to make money, we came to have a family and live in peace.'

Land of opportunity

The Diaz family is proud of the fact that they have worked hard to become contributing members of this community, learning English, working, paying taxes and being active participants in their children's education.

'When we came here, we had nothing, now we have a lot,' Luis Jr. said. 'We've always had to work for what we wanted.

'This is the land of opportunity. Everybody has opportunities here whether they are rich or poor. They just have to want to grab it.'

Within two months of being reunited, Irma became pregnant with Jennifer. And other than receiving medical assistance when Jennifer was born, the family has supported itself while also extending helping hands to their neighbors.

'The only illegal thing we've done is crossed the border,' Irma said. 'I've had a license for 10 years and never had a ticket, we've paid taxes and never asked for child support. We always supported ourselves.'

Irma and the two eldest children applied separately for asylum, but were denied and ordered to leave the country voluntarily in 1997. With her husband's case pending and reports that her mother in Guatemala had been shot as the result of gunfire exchange between rival gangs, Irma ignored the order.

'We were deathly afraid that if we returned, our kids would become victims,' Irma said. 'We have no where to live and nothing there. We have family over there, but they are very poor and have a hard enough time supporting themselves.

'There are gangs that kill people and rob people. My kids would see violence there.'

Following negotiations with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Irma and the kids later received permission to remain in the country until Luis Sr.'s asylum case was decided.

Largely due to the fact that the asylum claim weakened in the 15 years since Luis Sr. arrived, an immigration court judge in May denied his request.

Now, only an act of congress can save Irma, Luis Jr. and Monica from deportation.

'I never thought this would happen,' Irma said. 'I pray that the laws will change, not only for us, but so that other people would benefit.'

Uncertain future

All of the family is worried about how the separation will affect Jennifer.

'It's kind of sad,' said a tearful Jennifer. 'I like my family together.

'I don't want to see half of my family in Guatemala and the other half over here.'

As the Five Oaks sixth-grader swiped away tears, her family offered her words of comfort.

'She's the baby of the family, and it's hard for us to see her cry,' Monica said.

The reality is that her father will be forced to care for Jennifer alone, while working and providing for the family.

'When Jennifer starts Five Oaks I will not have the opportunity to take her to school on the first day or meet her teachers,' Irma said. 'I don't want that to happen. I want the same opportunities for all of my kids. Jennifer needs for us to be together.'

'It's going to be very hard for them over there and very hard for me over here,' Luis Sr. added.

The uncertainty of the family's future weighs heavily on both parents as July 17 nears.

'It's hurting us,' Luis Sr. said. 'The day is just getting closer and closer and closer.'

'We're just waiting for a miracle right now,' Irma said. 'Hope is all we have.

'I hope (Congress) is able to help us. They are our last hope to be able to stay, to not separate our family and cut a body in half - all five of us are one whole.'