After 3 years, deported mom gets gift of returning home to Turlock

snowicki@modbee.comDecember 24, 2013 

— It’s the best Christmas present ever for the Chaparro family: Maria “Isobel” Chaparro, last seen screaming and in handcuffs as immigration officials whisked her away from her Turlock home in 2010, is back with her husband, Cesar, and children, Dalman, 25, Alex, 15, and Kaylee, 13.

Her fight to become a U.S. citizen is not yet over, but after three years of exile to her native Honduras, she will spend Christmas Day surrounded by those she loves.

“It’s indescribable, the way I feel right now,” said her beaming husband. “We went through hard times, but now we are back together again. It’s a miracle.”

“It’s going to be really, really great this year,” said Alex, a sophomore at Pitman High School. “For the past three Christmases, she hasn’t been here. Having my mom back is the greatest gift.”

Kaylee agreed. “Just being able to wake up in the morning and have her here, and see her at night,” is the best thing, she said.

Isobel said she didn’t bring presents from Honduras when she arrived home Dec. 4. “I want to tell people that it’s not the material things that are important about Christmas,” she said, at times weeping as she told of her ordeal but mostly smiling broadly as she continually touched and hugged her children and her husband. “The best news is that God came so we can love each other. I am so grateful that we can be together as a family in our home here.”

Isobel’s story first was featured in The Modesto Bee in June 2011. It told how she escaped a life of hardship and abuse in Honduras and arrived in California at age 19. After giving birth to Dalman, the single mother moved to Turlock and took menial jobs to support herself and her son. There she met Cesar, but before the two wed, Isobel wanted to become a legal resident.

She paid a man who advertised widely as an immigration attorney on Spanish TV, only to find out years later that he was not an attorney and had defrauded hundreds of immigrants. Not only did he take her money, but he filed wrong paperwork that led to Isobel’s name on a deportation order. He eventually was sent to federal prison, but people like Isobel were left with a tangled legal mess.

The Chaparros hired other attorneys, none of which could help because of the original erroneous filing. They ran out of money for legal bills and dropped the matter. After all, why would immigration officials be interested in pursuing a full-time housewife who helped others in her community and church? In fact, on the day they showed up at her home, she was loading the car with clothes to deliver to a needy family.

Isobel never got to say goodbye to her young children, and got to see Cesar the next day for only a brief visit in a Fresno immigration holding facility. She was sent to Bakersfield and then Arizona before she arrived at night in Honduras. It was very different from the country she had left as a teenager. She was scared and without resources, not having any idea where extended family members might be living. She said last week that she was “terrified” as she boarded a bus and rode until she came to a neighborhood that looked somewhat familiar; she then got off to knock on doors to see if anyone knew her family.

Isobel eventually found a sister. She kept in touch with her Turlock family through Skype, and the children were able to spend a summer with her in 2011, but it was a heartbreaking three-year separation. Repeated visits to the U.S. Embassy brought the same discouraging information: She would have to spend at least 10 years away before this country would let her return.

But two churches – Turlock Covenant Church and Church of the Cross/Iglesia de la Cruz in Delhi – pitched in, with letters, financial help and prayers. They hired a private investigator to track down the facts of the fraudulent attorney to bolster Isobel’s attempt to return to the U.S. One group of six to eight people prayed every week while Isobel was gone.

Thanks to their help and a new immigration attorney, Cesar got a call about a month ago: His wife was given probationary status and could return for a year while she tried to gain permanent residency.

“We are rejoicing because she’s home,” said the Rev. Steve Carlson of Turlock Covenant Church, where Cesar is chairman of the worship committee. “It’s just been a blessing for our whole church. It’s the advent season, a time of expectation of the coming of our Lord. We’re kind of waiting for God to show up. We can rejoice because God has done a great thing of reuniting this family. What a beautiful picture for advent: God showed up.”

He said putting a face on illegal immigration also has helped his congregation understand the complexities of the issue. Although no one, including Isobel, condones illegal immigration, he said, the congregation was shocked as she recently shared what it was like when immigration officials “chained her hands, her feet, her waist. People have a new understanding on why reform is needed in this country because of people like Isobel.”

“It’s such a good thing, a good feeling having her home,” said the Rev. Zeke Nelson of Church of the Cross/Iglesia de la Cruz, where Isobel volunteered to help Spanish-speaking women. “Having her come back any time is good, but especially at Christmas.”

In an added bonus of good timing, Cesar traveled to Fresno last week to get his own U.S. citizenship. “It’s a privilege,” he said. “I feel grateful. I am now focusing on serving my wife and community.”

Isobel must return to an immigration court judge in April to see if the U.S. government will fight her application to stay in the United States. But for now, she’s rejoicing at the fact that she’ll be sharing Christmas this year with her children and husband.

“I don’t want to remember last Christmas,” she said. “I cried a lot.”

This year, the family will eat homemade tamales and chicken or turkey with side salads, then open gifts and spend time with extended family members.

“Sometimes we are missing the point of what Christmas is all about,” Cesar said. “When you have a family, a car, a house, a job, you think you have everything. You miss the point of Jesus’ birth. This year, with my family, I’ll remember what it’s all about – the birth of Jesus Christ.”

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at snowicki@modbee.com or (209) 578-2012.

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