In their small Madera apartment, Lucila Huerta tends to her bedridden husband, Guadalupe, on Monday afternoon. She faces deportation, and worries he will die if she is forced to leave.
Federal immigration officials want to kick Lucila Huerta out of the country. Doing so, her attorneys say, might prove costly for taxpayers.
Huerta, an illegal immigrant, is providing around-the-clock care for her husband, Guadalupe Huerta, a U.S. citizen living in Madera. He lies bedridden in their tiny Madera apartment, suffering from the lung disease called Valley fever and paralyzed by meningitis.
Without her help, the couple's attorneys say, Guadalupe Huerta would have nowhere else to go but a nursing home. Medi-Cal, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income residents, would pick up the tab at about $82 to $95 a day -- and much more if the 43-year-old Madera man is hospitalized.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The couple and their supporters held a news conference Monday to plead their case to the public. They've already asked immigration officials to allow her to remain in the United States on humanitarian grounds. If immigration officials turn her down, Lucila Huerta, 49, would be deported Wednesday.
"I tell him he has to fight to get better because I might have to leave," she said. "It pains me to see him like this."
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the couple's request is being reviewed. Kice said the agency will look at all aspects of the case, including her initial removal from the United States.
But Rick Oltman, national media director of Californians for Population Stabilization, a group that favors immigration limits, believes the government has no choice but to deport her.
"She will have to go back. I'm sorry for the husband, but we can't be making exceptions for every hard case," Oltman said. "Everyone who is here illegally needs to pay attention to this."
Lucila Huerta said she first tried to enter the United States with someone else's documents in 1999 and was caught at the California-Mexico border. Five days later, she snuck across at Tijuana.
Lucila met Guadalupe Huerta in 2001 at the Madera restaurant where she worked, and they soon married. He operated a farm tractor in the Chowchilla area.
But he was already ill. Lucila Huerta said they thought it was a minor ailment that would pass. Instead, she said, it got worse.
In 2005, his family convinced him to go to Mexico, where they hoped to take care of him. His wife was against him going and she remained behind in the United States.
But his health deteriorated, and he quickly returned to the U.S. He was immediately hospitalized at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center with meningitis, an inflammation of brain and spinal cord tissue. He couldn't talk or move his head when he arrived in Los Angeles, according to Huerta's lawyers.
After 2½ months at the Los Angeles hospital, Guadalupe Huerta returned to Madera, paralyzed and in need of constant care.
Lucila Huerta began providing that care, feeding her husband, cleaning him, turning him to avoid bedsores, injecting him with twice-daily doses of antibiotics.
"He depends on her a lot, not just physically but emotionally. I've been a witness in his improvement," said Noel Aguirre, a supporter of the Huertas and pastor of their church in Madera. "He's strong right now but he's strong because of her."
Lucila Huerta was unnoticed by federal immigration officials until, urged by her husband, she applied for a green card in 2006. That's what brought Huerta's illegal status to the attention of immigration officers, said attorney Camille Cook, who is helping the family.
Because she re-entered the country illegally, Huerta was subject to a 10-year-bar from entering the United States, Cook said. She wasn't eligible for a green card.
"Her only choice would have been to remain living in the United States without a (legal) status and wait until there's some kind of immigration reform," Cook said.
The Huertas, with the aid of attorneys, their pastor and medical officials in Madera, are now trying to convince immigration officials to allow her to stay in the U.S. A key part of their argument is his medical condition, and the cost to taxpayers take care of him if his wife can't.
"Should she be deported, Mr. Huerta will require immediate institutional placement forever," said a letter in support of the couple's case, written by Gail Rowell, director of continuity of care at Madera Community Hospital. Rowell said a hospital stay could run $800 to $1,500 a day -- although Medi-Cal typically pays less than other insurance.
The prospect of moving to a nursing home worries Guadalupe Huerta, who wants his wife to care for him.
"I think I will get worse if I go to a facility," Guadalupe Huerta said. "I'd like to stay home. She gives me a lot of confidence and encouragement."