By William Fisher
This weekend, one of Latina Magazine's top 10 women of the year will enjoy a place of honor by riding in the lead float in the Jefferson City, Missouri, Fourth of July parade.
The next day – unless something dramatic and unexpected happens –19-year old Marie Gonzales and her parents will be deported from the U.S.
Marie is an honor student, a track star and a spokesperson for a national campaign to help immigrant students. She is known in her community as "brilliant," "a superstar," "magical."
Marie came to the U.S. with her parents, Marvin and Marina, when she was five. Her native Costa Rica is all but unknown to her.
The Gonzales family came to America on visitor's visas. According to Tolerance.org, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group, “a lawyer told them that as long as they played by the rules, they could apply for permanent resident status after seven years.”
Tolerance.org. said the family opened a restaurant and bought a house. They were active in their church and became community leaders, volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and the community blood bank.
But changes in immigration laws – and attitudes toward immigrants – turned their lives upside down. The law that would have allowed them to become permanent residents was repealed in 1997. In November 2001, a second lawyer advised the family to wait until the anti-immigrant furor caused by the September 11th terrorist attacks had subsided.
It didn’t and, in 2002, someone contacted Marvin's employer, former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden — for whom he worked as a mail courier during the anthrax scare — and suggested they investigate the family's immigration status.
"When they looked, they saw that our visas expired in 2001," Marie said. Because they had valid Social Security numbers, Marie says it was the first time her family realized they were undocumented. The deportation notice arrived in the mail soon after.
Last May, Marie graduated from Helias High School, with honors and with dreams of going to law school. But as an undocumented student, she wasn't eligible for in-state tuition or financial aid.
Marie and her parents are among the almost 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. A steady drumbeat of anti-immigrant sentiment — from the Minuteman Project to the elected officials who want to close U.S. borders — has created a backlash against people like the Gonzalez family.
But in Jefferson City, residents are bucking the trend.
"They have become vital members of our community," said local business owner Ed Stroesser. "They give more to the community than most folks in this town."
Stroesser belongs to the Gonzalez Group, nurses, teachers, homemakers, businesspeople, state employees and a priest — about 40 members strong — who are fighting to stop the family's deportation.
Since forming in January, they have researched and rallied themselves into a grassroots machine, pumping out petitions, phone calls and faxes, talking with any reporter who will listen, organizing marches to the state capitol.
Marie has spoken at rallies, testified before the Missouri legislature and become a spokesperson for the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would help some undocumented students attend college and gain legal status.
"Hopefully I've changed a few people's minds," she says, "so they can see that immigrants can be great people."
The family has won city and county resolutions, asking Missouri's Congressional delegation to step in and do something. "They are de facto citizens," mayor John Landwehr wrote in a February letter to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. "The only thing missing is the stroke of a pen."
But beyond receiving a 30-day extension of their stay in the U.S., nothing has helped. They have visited with representatives of Missouri’s senators, Kit Bond and Jim Talent, both Republicans. The senators, who did not immediately return phone calls from IPS, have declined to introduce legislation on behalf of the Gonzales family, and have reportedly called the case "compelling ... but not unique."
But, Maria told IPS that Sen. Bond today (Thursday) telephoned the DHS, and was told the Gonzales case is “under review”.
Congressman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, has previously contacted the DHS during one of Marie’s Washington visits last week, but officials there said they were unable to help.
Now the family is urging either of their senators to introduce a private bill that would allow the family to remain in the U.S. Long-term, their hope was that comprehensive immigration legislation would pass quickly enough to allow them to stay, but this is unlikely to happen. The DREAM Act was introduced by Senator Orren Hatch, Republican of Utah, and Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, in the last session of congress, and must be re-introduced in the current session. Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy have also introduced comprehensive immigration legislation in the current session.
“It's one of those things where I can't imagine what it will be like," Marie tells Tolerance.org. "We have been fighting for this not to go through, but none of the laws that exist right now will help my family. We've worked hard, we pay our taxes and we love this country. But none of that matters."
Carlos Vogel, Director of Communications for Community Change, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group that has been working with the Gonzales family, told IPS, “Each year, more than 65,000 high school graduates are deported from the United States. Many of them dream of going on to college, but are not eligible for in-state tuition or financial aid. Our country is being short-sighted because these people are valuable human assets and should be encouraged, not deported.”
Today (Thursday), the family led an "immigration awareness rally" in the capitol rotunda in Jefferson City with local leaders. After the Fourth of July parade will come the flight to Costa Rica.
Reached today at the Jefferson City office of Senator Bond, Maria Gonzales told IPS, “I love this country. I belong here. It’s the only country I’ve ever known. And I have not given up hope. We still have five days. Maybe a miracle will happen.”