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Officials will drop efforts to deport parents of gifted child

Decision ends nine-year battle surrounding illegal immigrants Ben and Londy Cabrera.

February 03, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

U.S. immigration officials announced Friday that they would drop efforts to deport the illegal immigrant parents of an academically gifted American child, ending a nine-year battle over whether exceptional educational needs can avert deportation.

Benjamin and Londy Cabrera, who illegally emigrated from Mexico and Guatemala, respectively, in the 1980s, argued that deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to their two American daughters, both Los Angeles natives.

In particular, attorneys for the Cabrera family cited the special academic needs of 15-year-old Diana, a straight-A student who has been identified as exceptionally gifted and honored with national awards. Their case attracted the attention of several elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who unsuccessfully sponsored a private bill for the parents to secure legal status.

"I am speechless," Londy Cabrera said in a telephone interview from Reno, where she moved her family from Bell Gardens in 2005. "Sometimes I lost my faith and said, 'Forget it, it's over,' but because of my daughters I kept going. Now I feel like flying."

Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement regional office in Long Beach, said the passage of time and unspecified new facts in the case led the government to end its deportation efforts. "The case is over," she said.

The government's decision ended a seesaw legal battle. Though the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals has ruled that "compelling educational needs" of American citizens could justify canceling removal orders against noncitizen family members, it has not clearly defined whether gifted students could qualify, according to Amy Prokop, a Los Angeles attorney for the Cabrera family.

In 2002, Los Angeles immigration Judge Bruce J. Einhorn ruled in favor of the Cabreras, saying that Diana's stellar academic achievements would be "savagely and permanently interrupted" by her parents' deportation. Attorneys with the Department of Homeland Security appealed the decision, and the immigration appeals board ordered the Cabreras deported.

But Cabrera attorney Carl Shusterman fought back in federal court, and the case ultimately ended up back with Einhorn. Last month, the judge ruled again in the Cabreras' favor, saying their case had only grown stronger. His decision is not a legally binding precedent.

The government said Friday that it would waive its right to appeal.

Einhorn, who retired this week, said Diana had continued to soar academically, with test scores in multiple subjects at or exceeding 99% of her peers. She is enrolled in a gifted program at her Reno school and has qualified for two national programs for gifted students.

"Just as it would be developmentally harmful to require a disabled child to forgo the special educational services available in the United States, it is as equally damaging and tragic to require a highly gifted student to forfeit a developmentally appropriate education because of the immigration status of her parents," Einhorn wrote in his Jan. 18 ruling.

The judge also wrote that deportation of the parents would cause hardship to at least a dozen other family members who are American citizens and legal permanent residents. They include Londy Cabrera's mother, who, after her eldest son's brain surgery two years ago left him unable to work, moved in with her daughter.

Under federal law, immigrants can win cancellation of their deportation orders if they have been in the United States for 10 years, demonstrated "good moral character," not been convicted of criminal offenses and shown that their removal would pose an "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to their American parents, spouses or children.

The Cabreras furnished evidence that they pay taxes, obey the law, volunteer in their community and work -- Benjamin as a waiter and Londy as a teacher's aide.

Prokop, the Cabreras' attorney, said the ruling probably won't open the floodgates for similar claims because gifted students at Diana's level are rare. It is not known how often such claims have been made because not all immigration rulings not publicly released, she said.

For her part, Londy Cabrera said she planned to give thanks at church, make a special dinner of pasta and red wine and then surprise other family members with the good news.

"I never thought this day would come," she said. "I just want to pray and thank God."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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