LONGMONT — Leslie Soto is almost 2.
For nearly 24 months she has been the youngest of three children, the daughter of two immigrant parents and, like her siblings, a U.S. citizen.
The children’s father, Pedro Soto, is a permanent U.S. resident. But their mother, SanJuana Soto, is a former illegal immigrant who now has a V Visa, which allows her to live in the United States legally while she waits to be granted permanent resident status.
Her V Visa status and the circumstances surrounding her application for legal residence in the United States have become a terrifying trial for the family.
Just how long the family of five can remain together in Longmont was tossed to fate and the legal system in November 2004 when SanJuana Soto faced a dilemma: return to Mexico and grant her dying mother’s wish to see her one more time, but face losing her chance at permanent residency in the United States; or stay north of the border and let her mother’s last wish go ungranted.
She returned to Mexico.
“What I had in my mind was my mom, so I made the decision to leave,” Soto said last week through an interpreter.
She said she felt a lot of pressure from her brothers and sisters “because when they would call me on the phone, they would be crying.”
Her husband told her he’d support whatever decision she made.
“As soon as I got to Durango (Mexico), I went directly to the hospital. ... It was definitely worth it, because I could tell right away that I lifted the spirits of my mother,” Soto said.
Three weeks later, she was caught illegally re-entering the United States with the help of a “coyote,” a guide who facilitates illegal border crossings. She was waiting in El Paso for her ride back to Denver when immigration officials detained her. They checked out her story and allowed her to buy a bus ticket to return to Denver and her family in Longmont.
But there was a catch.
“They gave me a paper that said I had been detained ... and that I had a date in court with immigration,” she said.
As a former illegal immigrant with a V Visa, Soto was supposed to remain in the United States until she legally became a permanent legal resident.
“It’s true that people with illegal presence are encouraged not to leave the United States while they’re lawfully awaiting adjustment of status,” Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in an e-mail to the Times-Call. “If they do, they’re apt to run into problems.”
That’s just what Soto ran into. Her trip to Mexico to visit her dying mother triggered a provision in immigration law that could lead to her being deported and banned from returning to the United States for 10 years. After that, she would be eligible to apply to return.
Pedro Soto said that if his wife is deported, he will have to remain in Colorado to work to support the family. He would visit her in Mexico on holidays and vacations.
Friends from Longmont have gathered around the family, signing a petition asking for a deportation deferment based on the family’s work and dedication to the community and in the interest of not separating a family.
Columbine Elementary School principal Lynn Widger sent a letter of support for Soto to immigration officials.
“I have known the Soto family for two years,” she wrote. “The parents, SanJuana and Pedro, are stable, supported and involved ... Their children are well-behaved and thriving academically.”
Widger said a deportation would create barriers to the children’s success.
“SanJuana and Pedro are the kind of parents I wish many children had,” she wrote.
So far, the petition and legal requests for a deportation deferment have been rebuffed, said Laurel Herndon, Soto’s lawyer, who argues that Soto’s desperation led her into this situation and she should not be punished.
“It is not clear who has the jurisdiction to make the decision we are asking them to make,” Herndon said.
Rummery, though, is clear on the role of the Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“We don’t have the power to change immigration law out of sympathy for those affected, so the kindest thing we can do is to give people easy access to knowledge of the law,” she said. “We hope their decisions will be wise.”
Rummery noted that immigration officials try to be accessible to answer questions on issues that could threaten immigration and residency status. The agency has a toll-free phone line, 800-375-5283, that provides operators to answer questions in English or Spanish.
“This special feature helps people understand how immigration law affects them, so they can make informed choices,” Rummery said in her e-mail.
However, Herndon hopes an October decision from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals will pave the way for Soto to remain in the United States. The decision said that permanent deportation is an “earlier conflicting statutory provision” to the LIFE Act, which made the V Visas available.
“SanJuana will return to court on March 1, 2006, when she will ask the judge to grant her status as a lawful permanent resident,” Herndon said.
That court date offers a glimmer of hope for the Longmont family where there was none before, she said.
Pierrette J. Shields can be reached at 303-684-5273, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.