Wednesday, August 29, 2007

From Times Select: He’s in Iraq. U.S. Reward: Deport Wife?

He’s in Iraq. U.S. Reward: Deport Wife?
Published: August 28, 2007

While Alexander Gomez was in Iraq at the United States government’s bidding, that same government was trying to kick his wife out of this country. For the Colombian-born Mr. Gomez, more accurately Specialist Gomez of the New York Army National Guard, something was definitely out of kilter.

Not that he could do much about it, not from the military base near Nasiriya, in southern Iraq, where he was a mechanic in an Army maintenance company. “I had to stay focused on what I was doing there,” he said.

As things go in this war, Nasiriya was hardly the most dangerous place, said Specialist Gomez, who returned from Iraq last year after 14 months and now lives with his wife, Marly Sampedro, in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Still, “It wasn’t summer camp,” he said. “We were in a hostile environment. The most important thing was to stay focused. If you lose focus, you’re going to go home in a bag.”

In the end, everything worked out fine for him and Ms. Sampedro, who is also from Colombia. But their story offers insight into some of the problems that are peculiar to immigrants serving in the wartime United States military.

There are thousands of foreign-born men and women like Specialist Gomez, who remains on active duty with the 145th Maintenance Company, based on Staten Island. According to the Defense Department, about 21,100 legal immigrants who are noncitizens are serving in the United States armed forces. Each year, several thousand of them become citizens, taking advantage of a speeded-up naturalization process offered to those who put their lives on the line for their adoptive country.

That’s what Specialist Gomez, 33, did. He had a green card and was not a citizen when he joined the Guard in 2003. Nor when he met Ms. Sampedro in 2002. Nor when he married her in 2004, around the time that their son, Alexander Jr., was born. Nor when he headed off to Iraq in November 2004.

Thanks to the expedited process for service members, he got his citizenship in April 2005. That did not do Ms. Sampedro any good, though. The circumstances are somewhat complicated, but they boil down to this:

Ms. Sampedro, who is 37 and struggles with English, had come to this country from Cali, Colombia, in 2001, with a son from a previous relationship, Milton, now 14. She applied for asylum. The request was ultimately denied, but when she first arrived, it was good enough for a hearing officer to let her in temporarily.

That made her an “arriving alien,” in the jargon of the immigration world. When she applied for permanent residence — a green card — the authorities told her in 2005: No way. Arriving aliens, they said, may not seek an adjustment of their immigration status. That she was married to someone who by then was a United States citizen made no difference.

Not only that, but the authorities wanted to deport Ms. Sampedro and Milton right away. They said she had lied to them by claiming American citizenship for herself. In fact, she had made no such claim. The charge was a mistake, as the government later acknowledged.

Nonetheless, there she was in the spring of 2005, with deportation staring her in the face, with a husband in Iraq and with no idea what to do about their baby: take him with her to troubled Cali or find foster care in New York?

Desperate, she turned to the New York Association for New Americans, an immigrant services agency. An agency lawyer, Michael Lehach, took up her cause.

To cut to the chase (and through a thicket of legalese), he blocked a deportation order and then got the government to back down altogether. Ms. Sampedro and Milton not only got to stay, but they also recently got green cards of their own. End of story.

But there is a larger point. For Mr. Lehach, it is that “Marly and Milton are not the only family members of United States servicemen who find themselves in jeopardy with Immigration.” There may be hundreds of people, if not thousands, with similar troubles, he said.

To him, “it’s unacceptable that a bona fide spouse and child could be removed while he’s serving his country. They should get the maximum amount of favorable discretion that the government can give.”

As for Specialist Gomez, he fully expects to be sent at some point back to Iraq or perhaps to Afghanistan. Does he bear any resentment over how his family was treated? Not at all.

“It’s the law, and we all have to obey the laws,” he said. “I always believe in this country and its laws.”