When the day finally came to pick up their green cards — 16 years after they first arrived in the United States — Juan and Mayra Gonzalez were given the worst of surprises.
They were told they'd be deported to Guatemala with or without their four children, who are all American citizens.
"I tell them, you see, you separate my family, you destroy my family," said Mayra Gonzalez.
What the Gonzalezes did not know is that the law had changed since they first received permission to work here in 1991 — the sixth change since they've been in the country.
Laws Baffle the Experts
Immigration lawyers say their predicament is far from unusual. The laws have grown so complex in recent years that even the experts have trouble deciphering them.
"Immigration law is a trip to Wonderland without Alice, and even those of us who live and breathe are baffled on a regular basis," said immigration lawyer Michael Maggio.
Over the past decade, immigration law has changed numerous times — involving constantly moving deadlines, retroactive provisions, and special exemptions that often apply only to particular nationalities.
The problem is compounded by misinformation within the immigrant community.
"People are making their living in many cases preying on immigrants with false information, false promises of green cards," said Denis Johnston of the American Friends Service Committee.
Stricter Laws on the Horizon?
Proponents of stricter immigration laws say any confusion is the result of granting immigrant groups too many special exemptions.
"How can we ever as a country hope to regain control of our borders if we tell aliens coming here, it doesn't matter whether you play by the book, it doesn't matter if you break the law?" said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
As for Juan and Mayra Gonzalez, they are simply asking the Immigration and Naturalization Service to reconsider their deportation order.
"For my children, that's why I fight until the last minute," said Mayra.
But as of now, Juan will spend his last day in the country on Tuesday, and Mayra and the children will follow in June.