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Deportation May Cut Short an Immigrant Success Story

Couple, in U.S. for 20 years, must leave unless they are given a last-minute reprieve.

September 29, 2004|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

Jayantibhai and Indiraben Desai are agonizing over a gamble they decided to take with their lives.

For more than 20 years, the Norwalk couple worked hard. They bought a house, paid taxes and sent their two sons off to college. They were a success story in the making, but for one thing: Their status as illegal immigrants.

In 1997, on their lawyer's advice, they surrendered to immigration authorities, confident that a judge would eventually allow them to remain in the United States.

For the years it took before their case was decided last month, they thought the risk of coming clean had paid off. They were wrong.

Now, unless they are given a last-minute reprieve, the Desais have until Thursday to leave. She would be deported to Britain and he would have to go back to India.

"I can't believe this is happening," said Jayantibhai Desai, 48, in America since 1981. "How are we going to leave our kids here? They are trying to destroy our whole family."

Indiraben Desai, 52, fighting back tears, has reached a bitter conclusion: "When you tell the truth, you don't win."

Immigration officials said that families who have lived in the country illegally should not expect leniency because they have managed to avoid getting caught or because they have children who were born in this country.

"There is really little available that will allow someone who is unlawfully present in the U.S. to change to a lawful presence," said Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington.

Jayantibhai Desai originally entered the U.S. on a visitor's visa and his wife, a Tanzanian-born British citizen, followed in 1982. Both overstayed their visas. He managed to legally extend a work permit he had secured and juggled two jobs. She became a homemaker.

Jayantibhai Desai applied for amnesty in 1986 under a program offered to some 2.7 million illegal immigrants, but was denied.

In 1997, the standard for overturning an order of deportation was changed to require applicants for permanent residency to have lived in the U.S. for 10 years, be of good moral character, and demonstrate that their departure from the country would cause an "exceptional" or "extreme" hardship -- not to themselves -- but to immediate relatives being left behind.

"That made it a lot tougher to qualify," Strassberger acknowledged.

The deportation order issued last month is indeed an extreme hardship, the Desais say. Their son, Sagar, 19, suffers from ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the colon, and depends on his father's medical insurance to cover his extensive medical bills.

Jayantibhai Desai worries that his sons may end up on the street if the family's house is repossessed. He also wonders about the fate of the Social Security he has been paying into all these years.

Illegal immigrants who are removed from the country are not eligible to receive benefits, officials at the Social Security Administration said.

But living with the stigma of being an undocumented immigrant has also been painful. Indiraben Desai remembers not being able to attend her father's funeral in Britain in 1993 because she feared that if she left the U.S. she would be unable to return.

Carl Shusterman, the Desais' lawyer since 1997 and a onetime attorney for the Los Angeles office of the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said he plans to appeal the deportation order.

Shusterman, who said he has successfully handled 80 such cases in the past, advised them to present themselves to the immigration service in hopes of getting a hearing before a judge.

Under the old rules, he said, it seemed like a "slam dunk."

He and other lawyers said rulings such as the one in the Desais' case could discourage undocumented immigrants from surrendering to the authorities.

Proponents of tougher immigration laws argue that it is wrong to pardon illegal immigrants, no matter how long they have been in the country, because it encourages further wrongful stays here.

"We don't want to see millions of people given green cards because they managed to evade the law for so long," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that favors stricter immigration law enforcement.

The Desais cannot fathom the idea that they are being forced to leave.

"There's no place for us to go," Indiraben Desai said. "It will be hell."

For their sons, it is unthinkable that their parents may soon have to leave.

"I will be devastated," said Sagar, a sophomore at UC Irvine who is studying biomedical engineering. "I had no idea it would come to this."

"I don't know how I'm going to cope without them," said Suhang, 18, a computer engineering major at UC Riverside. "Your parents are here one day and gone the next? How can you live with that?"

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