Life in the Shadows is one in a series of occasional articles.
On Friday nights, Michael Campo throws his clothes and homework into his backpack and waits at his mom's Long Beach apartment for the phone to ring. When it does, 10-year-old Michael runs downstairs and jumps into his dad's car.
Thus begins the weekly ritual familiar to millions of American children in split families who bounce back and forth between mother and father.
But Michael's situation has an added wrinkle that threatens to derail the custody agreement and his weekends with Dad: Carlos Alvarado is an illegal immigrant involved in deportation proceedings.
Alvarado's case raises complex questions that will increasingly face both state and federal judges: What happens when immigration law and family law conflict? When a parent is here illegally, does a federal deportation order automatically trump a state custody order? Should child custody issues be considered in immigration cases?
A Los Angeles immigration judge ruled that Alvarado could stay in the country, determining that he wouldn't be able to continue his family court-ordered visitation and child support payments if deported.
Because Alvarado shares custody of his U.S.-citizen son with the boy's mother, the judge wrote, he doesn't have the option of taking the child home to Mexico.
A higher court overruled that decision and sent the case back to the judge. Alvarado is scheduled to return to immigration court this summer.
"I could lose everything, and above all, the right to be with my son," said Alvarado, 36, who lives in Lakewood.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts nationwide, said it does not track cases involving split families.
Alvarado's attorney, Alan Diamante, said there are no published court decisions for immigration judges to follow when immigration and family law intersect.
"They definitely need to give guidance on these cases," he said.
Former Los Angeles immigration judge Bruce J. Einhorn said the state family court and the federal immigration court are completely different systems, run by two different governments.
"What you really have is an occasional train wreck waiting to happen," he said. "You have two systems speeding along and, when they meet, it's usually a head-on collision."
A custody fight
Carlos Alvarado sneaked across the Mexican border in 1991. He and Marla Campo met about five years later and she gave birth to Michael in October 1997. After a few years, the couple separated.
In family court, the judge gave Campo custody of Michael. Under the order, the boy would visit his father one evening during the week and two weekends each month.
In 2003, Campo disappeared with Michael. Alvarado called police, who tracked her down. She said she was angry at Alvarado for not helping her financially.
"It got ugly," said Campo, a nurse's assistant and legal permanent resident from Belize.
The couple returned to court and the judge modified the order to give the parents joint legal custody. Though the custody order designated two weekends a month for Alvarado, Michael spends every weekend with his father.
The judge also set a child support payment of $276 a month. Alvarado, who has a work permit and has been with the same plastering company for 13 years, also pays for Michael's health insurance.
Alvarado landed in immigration court after violating probation on prior convictions of driving under the influence and driving on a suspended license. County jail officials referred him to immigration authorities.
Alvarado's trial in immigration court took place in June 2005. Judge Christine E. Stancill ruled that he could stay in the U.S., saying that if Alvarado were deported, communication and visits with Michael would appear to be an "impossibility."
Stancill noted that in other cases, an undocumented parent may take the entire family home to his native country if deported.
"The compelling difference in this case is that the family would not be returning intact to Mexico but rather the respondent's relationship with his 7-year-old son would be permanently severed," she wrote in the decision.
She added: "The emphasis on the emotional well-being of the child is well founded in our child custody laws, and to go even further would be contrary to the spirit of our immigration laws."
The government attorney appealed the case, saying in court papers that "this separation is no different than if [Alvarado] relocated to another state in the U.S."
In February 2007, the Board of Immigration Appeals issued its decision overturning the ruling.
The board determined that the effect of Alvarado's visitation with Michael was not enough to meet the required standard for him to stay in the country. The board noted that Alvarado said he would live in the border town of Mexicali if deported, which "would not require a lengthy journey for the respondent's children to visit him."