Maria Isabel Chaparro knows what freedom is.
It’s hugging her two teenage children and her husband every day.
It’s having a California driver’s license.
It’s applying for a job, being asked to show two forms of identification and whipping out her permanent resident card and a U.S. passport.
It’s going on a recent mission trip with her daughter to Mexico and not getting anxious when the border guard stops her car.
Most of all, it’s knowing she never again will experience the events of Nov. 4, 2010, when immigration officials grabbed her from her front yard, put her in handcuffs – and later put chains on her waist and ankles – and deported her in the middle of the night to her native Honduras, a scary and unfamiliar place. Isabel, as she is known to her family and friends, had been living here for 25 years, but didn’t get to say goodbye to her children and never was given an explanation or a hearing.
Surprisingly, in December, after three years of exile, Isabel was able to return to Turlock and her family – her husband, Cesar, and her two youngest children, Alex, 15, and Kaylee, 14. Her older son, Dalman, is 28 and lives on his own.
A vivacious woman with an appealing, wide smile and a dimple, Isabel had been granted a one-year probationary status while she tried to gain permanent residency. Though the three years seemed like a long separation, she and her husband understand that in most cases deported immigrants can’t re-enter this country for 10 years. They are thankful for the way her case worked out.
Instead of a scheduled April court hearing, they said, Isabel simply had to go to an immigration interview in Fresno in May. Before the appointment, their attorney supplied them with a nine-page list of possible questions that would be asked. But when they arrived for the interview, the immigration official asked Isabel only to state her full name, her marital status, the names of her children, her address and her phone number. Then she was told the interview was over.
“For me, it’s a miracle,” said Isabel. “I was so nervous. I didn’t know that would be the last time for an interview. A week later, I had my green (legal resident) card. I think it was because Turlock Covenant Church prayed for two years and one group prayed for three years for me. Everybody was praying.”
The Rev. Steve Carlson, senior pastor at Turlock Covenant, agreed with her. “She did miraculously get her residency, and the next step will be her citizenship,” he said. “It was an answer to prayer. Good things are happening for them, and we’re really thankful for that.”
The church came alongside the family after Isabel’s deportation, joining with another church, Church of the Cross/Iglesia de la Cruz in Delhi, to hire a private investigator, write letters to immigration and government officials, and raise funds to send Alex and Kaylee to stay with their mom one summer in Honduras. The Chaparros had been worship leaders in the Turlock church, and Isabel had led Bible studies and helped counsel Spanish-speaking women in the Delhi church who had lost children.
Her story put a face on the debate about illegal immigration and helped point out the complexity of the issue, said the pastors.
Left hardship and abuse
Isabel’s story, first detailed in a 2011 Modesto Bee article, began when she was 19 and pregnant. Fleeing from a life of hardship and abuse, she made her way to this country and took menial jobs to support Dalman. Later, after taking English classes, she met Cesar, a legal resident from Mexico, and the two got married.
Isabel, who was happy living in this country but regretted coming illegally, wanted to establish her residency before she was married. She paid a man named Noel Rowe to help her file the necessary papers to become a legal resident. But Rowe, who claimed to be an attorney and who advertised widely on area Spanish-language television, was a scam artist later arrested in Georgia. He had filed papers for asylum for his clients instead of residency and didn’t tell Isabel about scheduled court dates. When she didn’t appear, the judges issued deportation notices, which she didn’t receive.
Rowe was jailed on federal charges of trafficking false residency documents. But that didn’t help Isabel, who paid other attorneys over the years to try to resolve the situation. None could untangle the mess. Finally, she and Cesar had exhausted their funds and gave up the legal battle, deciding to concentrate on raising their family instead. After all, in a state full of illegal immigrants, why would officials target her, the wife of a legal resident and mother to three U.S. citizens, someone who was helping the poor and needy in her community and who had never been arrested or charged with anything?
That question never has been answered, though immigration officials did confirm that Isabel was originally ordered deported by a judge in 1997.
One immigration memo later uncovered by the churches instructed field officers to deport only illegal immigrants suspected of terrorism, convicted of crimes or involved with gangs, or otherwise threatening the public safety, and not to deport those caring for minor children or the elderly.
Looking back on her three-year exile, Isabel said it was a “very, very hard time” being separated from her family for that long. But, she added, “Now I think maybe it was OK” because it led to her permanent resident status. In another three years, she’ll be eligible to get her U.S. citizenship, a prospect that makes her eyes sparkle.
The first thing the family did after Isabel received her resident card, Cesar said, was to “thank God.” Then, said Kaylee, “we went out to eat with my mom’s friend.”
The family had been living with Cesar’s sister after Isabel was deported, which helped with finances and child care. After Isabel was granted residency, the Chaparros moved into their own home, also in Turlock. It’s a welcome change, especially for Alex and Kaylee, who enjoy having their own bedrooms again, they said.
“It’s a good feeling, just having my mom around,” Alex said. “We’re together every day.”
“Now that she’s back, we go shopping together,” Kaylee said.
“We want to start over again,” Cesar said. “It was a really difficult experience. I hope nobody else has to go through it, the children, especially. We’re living more secure. I want to thank Turlock Covenant Church (and others) for the support they gave us.”
As for Isabel, she’s decided to look for a job.
“My heart is to help other people,” she said. “For 17 years after I was married, I didn’t work. Now I have freedom. I want to train to work in the homes and help older people.”
In the meantime, she said, “The most important thing is my family. And my brother’s here, my friends. I’m free. I have liberty now. I feel more secure. (When I was deported), my mind was so confused. I was sad when I was separated from my family. But I still knew that God is good, because in the midst of this pain and loneliness he was with me, and I knew people were praying for me.”