Homeland Insecurity 

Immigrant mother struggles to find a safe place for her kids

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Ana Canenguez wanted to kill herself when she was 7 years old. But, even on tiptoes, she couldn’t quite reach a tin of rat poison on a shelf at the back of a street-corner shack where she lived in Santa Elena, El Salvador.

She received little affection as a child, her mother having sent her and her younger sister to live with her grandmothers and four other children. When she was 10 years old, she persuaded her mother, who lived in San Salvador, to take her and her sister in. But her situation only worsened, with her mother beating her and her stepfather sexually abusing her.

Desperate to escape, Canenguez moved in with a 24-year-old man when she 14, but he abandoned her when she became pregnant with his son, Jose. She moved back in with her mother to raise Jose, then became pregnant by her stepfather. When her stepfather’s child was born, whom she named Oscar, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. She told her mother that her stepfather was Oscar’s father, only to be turned out into the street at the age of 17 with 2-year-old Jose and baby Oscar.

She stood in torrential rain with her son and baby, watching a bus approach, homeless, penniless, wanting to throw herself and her children under its wheels. All that held her back was a profound belief that God would “never leave me alone,” she says in Spanish.

Canenguez’s aunt took them in, and the single mother set about building a new life for her and her children. She rented a small space in a noisy outdoor market and sold handmade sweets. She also met a young man, Job Ramirez, with whom she had two boys, Job and Geovanny, before marrying him in 1993, and then having two more boys, Mario and Erick. They lived in a two-room hovel and Canenguez worked seven days a week selling sweets, then toiletries and biscuits.

She struggled to buy Oscar the medication he needed and take him for checkups to the doctor. “He never spoke, he never told me anything, only cried when he was wet, hungry.” Oscar died at age 13 in 2001. Shortly after, Canenguez and her husband separated.

In early 2003, Canenguez’s brother suggested she come to New York, where he lived. Her plan was to work for two years to earn $50,000, which she calculated would pay off debts to two banks she owed for loans for her street-market business, buy her and her children a house in El Salvador and pay for their schooling. Canenguez, herself educated only through the sixth grade, feels that education is vital, but in El Salvador, little emphasis is placed on attending public school. “If nobody goes to school, nobody cares,” she says.

Just after dawn on Jan. 31, 2003, Canenguez told then-15-year-old Jose that she was leaving him and his brothers in the care of her husband, but that Jose was also responsible for the children, who were still sleeping. “He was very quiet. He almost didn’t say anything.” She hugged and blessed him. “I’m going to come back for you,” she told him. “It’s just for a time.”

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Job woke up to find his mother gone. His father told him she would be back in a month. “I was very sad all the years I didn’t see her. Every Mother’s Day, I cried in my room.”

“It’s very hard to leave your children,” Canenguez says. “But you know what’s worse? You get up, your children say they are hungry, and you don’t have anything to give them to eat.”


THE LEGAL ANSWER

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Her brother loaned her $6,000 to cross through Guatemala, then Mexico, and then to the U.S. border to reach New York. But her expectations of making money “so I could fill my children’s emptiness” were quickly dashed. She worked for her sister-in-law cleaning houses but earned only $100 in the first week. That, she says, was what she earned in a week selling 50 boxes of biscuits in the San Salvador market.

After several months in New York, she moved to Utah in May 2003, at the urging of an acquaintance in Ogden. She worked in a Mexican restaurant, seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to closing, and was paid less than minimum wage. She sent nearly all the money she earned to her children’s father for their food and to pay bills.

In August 2003, Canenguez moved in with Mexican national Eusebio Granda. After a year without work because of a blood disorder and the birth of Luisito, her son with Granda, in late 2005, Canenguez asked her oldest boy, Jose, then 18, to come and join her. She wanted him to work so she could send more money to his brothers in El Salvador. Her husband looking after their four children in El Salvador “asked for more money than I had. He thought you come here, and there’s money in the street.”

Granda found work on local farms near Tremonton, a small town in northern Utah. Their two American-born children, Luisito and Katy, attended preschool for two years in Honeyville at the Centro de la Familia, a federally funded Utah agency that helps the families of migrant workers.

But when the lives of her four children who remained in El Salvador were threatened, she knew she had to do more than send money and hope for a better future. She paid for two children to be smuggled over the Mexican-U.S. border in May 2010, then went herself in 2011 to Mexico to rescue her last two remaining children when her attempt to smuggle them from El Salvador to the United States resulted in them being picked up by Mexican federal officers.

But when she tried to cross the border into the United States with the two children to bring them back, illegally, to Utah, they were arrested. Now, she and four of her sons wait while their two deportation cases are appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals and the 10th circuit court.

This is the heart of the immigration debate, argues Randy Neal, an immigration attorney who, for 18 months, was an attorney within Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) prosecuting cases before Salt Lake City’s immigration judges. “A vast majority of immigrants cannot understand that you have to have permission to make this country your home. Somebody who is born in El Salvador, who wants a better life for their family, doesn’t understand why wanting that isn’t enough. The real question is, do people have a right to relocate for a better life? The legal answer is no.”

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In the few years that Canenguez has had all seven of her living children under one roof, she and they have been committed to education, to the point where her second-oldest son, Job, has won accolades at school and she was named Utah Head Start’s Parent of the Year, just days after she was ordered deported. When it comes to the Canenguez household, it seems the federal government seeks both to help her youngest children, through their preschool and migrant-worker program, and at the same time tear away the person who is so important to their nurturing and future education.

By mid-December, all Canenguez could do was hold out for a miracle, as her attorneys prepared appeals and a request for prosecutorial discretion sat on the desk of an official in Salt Lake City’s ICE office. If prosecutorial discretion were granted, it essentially meant that ICE agreed that she and her children are not significant enough a concern to warrant their limited resources, and they would shelve their cases.

Her attorney, Sharon Preston, argues it’s hard to think of someone who deserves prosecutorial discretion more than Canenguez. “When you’re praising people who want to be members of this society, who really wanted it, it’s her.”

TO FIND A SAFE PLACE

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In the eight years since Canenguez first left El Salvador for the United States, gang violence was on the rise. Geovanny, Canenguez’s third-oldest son, was terrified when he woke up one morning in March 2010 to find police at the house next door. Two adolescent girls had been raped, killed and cut into pieces after one of them refused to date a gang member.

Her children, so small when Canenguez left, were growing up. Most of Job’s friends were gangsters “who kill or are killed,” he says in Spanish. Gang members followed him to school and told him he had to be “a soldier” or else they’d kill him. Geovanny, then 13, told Job that gangsters stopped him and demanded he join them.

When Job called his mother about the threats, Canenguez knew she had to bring them to the United States to “ponerse a salvo”—find a safe place. Even the dangers of reaching the U.S. border—according to a ProPublica report, “293 Salvadorans had died or disappeared in Mexico between 2007 and 2009”—paled before “what awaited [my children] in El Salvador,” she says.

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She wanted all four of them to come to the United States but didn’t have the money to pay for their travel. Job and Geovanny eventually crossed the U.S. border with five other children, Job recalls, with the youngest, his brother, at 13; the oldest, 17. He describes a terrifying journey, in which predators, whether armed cartel members or snakes in the desert, constantly threatened them.

When they realized the border patrol was close, exhausted after walking for hours in the desert, they gave up, sat down and waited to be arrested. The Department of Homeland Security issued the boys with Notices To Appear before an immigration judge in removal proceedings, but they were eventually turned over to their mother in Tremonton to await a court date.

“I NEED HELP”

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Job and Geovanny arrived in Tremonton in the spring of 2010. By then, Canenguez’s eldest son, Jose, had started a family with his girlfriend, Andrea, who had come from El Salvador to make a new life with him in Utah. Canenguez, while overjoyed to see her children, was also preoccupied with dealing with her one brush with law enforcement resulting from an altercation with a couple in Tremonton.

She had been waiting to put her children on the school bus when a Peruvian mother had pushed in front of the line to put her children on first. Canenguez and the mother argued. The Peruvian and her husband followed Canenguez to her home. Canenguez called 911 and in her broken English told the dispatcher, “I need help,” but couldn’t explain more. The man held her so his wife could “educate” her, the woman told her, by punching her. Canenguez kicked the woman just as the police arrived. The Peruvian husband, who could speak English, gave his version of events to the police, who had to wait for an interpreter to talk to Canenguez.

She was charged with assault and disorderly conduct in Tremonton justice court, was found guilty of two misdemeanors, and requested a trial de novo—effectively vacating the original sentences. However, at 1st District Court in Brigham City, her conviction of disorderly conduct was amended to an infraction.

Despite this setback, Canenguez was emerging as a local leader in the migrant-worker community in Box Elder County after she enrolled the two children she had with Granda in the Head Start Migrant program in Honeyville in 2010. Debbie Justice is executive director of The Learning Center, which is part of Utah’s Head Start Association. She says Head Start is typically seen as a preschool program, “when it’s actually a family-development program.” Along with studying and passing exams that took her to a ninth-grade education, Canenguez volunteered at the center, whether it was cutting the grass, breaking up a huge pile of boxes or cleaning.

LOST IN THE DESERT

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In spring 2011, Canenguez was elected president of the parents committee for the Honeyville migrant center. Under her presidency, center manager Benjamin Wynn wrote in an application to nominate her for Utah Head Start’s Parent of the Year award, “parent participation at the meetings increased, hours of in-kind [volunteering] increased, and the funds the parents raised increased dramatically.”

Her election, however, took place in her absence, which was due to an anonymous phone call her estranged husband in El Salvador received in April 2011 threatening the lives of her two children, Mario and Erick, who were still living there. “We need you to give us $25,000 to not hurt your children,” the voice said. When her ex-partner protested that he didn’t have the money, the extortionist replied, “You don’t, but your wife does.”

“It felt like a sniper is pointing at you,” Canenguez says. She raised the funds to smuggle the children across the border, only for the boys, ages 10 and 12, to be arrested when they reached Mexico by federal officers.

With the help of the Salt Lake City Mexican Consulate, Canenguez was able to get a visa to go to Mexico, where she spent two months fighting red tape to get her children out of a Mexican orphanage near Puebla. Mario, who was 2 years old when his mother left, only recognized her because she looked similar to his aunt.

She arranged for a guide to take them across the border, but Canenguez’s luck ran out on her second attempt to enter the United States illegally. The coyote who was leading them and seven others across the scalding-by-day, freezing-by-night desert became lost and wandered in circles. At dawn, the rest of the adults went off in search of water. Canenguez concentrated so much on praying for the sun-stricken coyote that she didn’t realize that 10-year-old Erick was no longer by her side. He’d left with the others in all the confusion.

Canenguez scrambled up hills, then slid down them in a welter of stones, all the while screaming Erick’s name and clutching Mario’s hand. For hours they ran across the endless desert, the distraught, desperate mother begging God to “wake me from this nightmare.” After five hours, she says, still running, still searching feverishly for her little boy, she looked up at the sky and pleaded with Jesus, “Help me, help me.” A few minutes later, she says, she spotted tiny figures in the distance, walking up the side of a white mountain, her son trailing behind.

The three wandered lost, without water or food, for hours, until they found a house with an old trailer and some animals. When a man drove up, she asked him to contact the U.S. Border Patrol so they could turn themselves in.

Homeland Security issued Canenguez and her children Notices To Appear before an immigration judge in removal proceedings, before releasing them on their own recognizance to begin the legal process of fighting their deportation.

DEATH TAX

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Now, with the threat of removal to El Salvador, Canenguez and her children face a potentially dark future at the hands of Salvadoran gangs. “I’m afraid if we get there, gangsters will kill Job and Geovanny for escaping,” Canenguez says.

Her attorney Sharon Preston doesn’t think she’s exaggerating. “Their lives are truly in danger,” she says.

Canenguez and her children have pursued asylum claims, citing the dangers they would face in El Salvador. To qualify for asylum, you must be able to demonstrate a fear of persecution because of one of five key elements: your race, nationality, political opinion, religion or membership in a particular social group.

In El Salvador, says Canenguez’s son Mario, minors are a valuable commodity for gangs such as MS-13, or its archrival, M-18. Once recruited, Canenguez says, what savage crimes they commit rarely, if ever, result in prosecution, in part because witnesses are too terrified to testify against them. But being threatened with death by a gang if you don’t join their ranks doesn’t provide the “particularity” U.S. law currently requires to grant asylum.

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Canenguez’s own fate is also bleak if she’s deported. Whoever threatened Erick and Mario knows that she was able to raise money to take her children across the border. It could be a neighbor, a friend, or someone she doesn’t know. Whoever it was is “sure we have money,” she says.

If they are deported, not only will she have to find work and a home for them, she will also have to deal with the fears of someone demanding an exorbitant monthly “tax.” She recalls a couple, both evangelical pastors, who were deported to El Salvador and then told by a gang they had to pay a tax. When they couldn’t manage the payments, they were killed.

What little money Canenguez earns cleaning rooms goes to attorneys. Such excuses for her empty hands will not protect her from extortionists. “They kill you if you don’t have the money,” she says.

If the U.S. government does move forward with deporting Canenguez and her four children, her partner, Eusebio Granda, doesn’t know what he will do. Their two U.S. citizen children who benefited from two years at the federally funded Honeyville preschool now face a future without their older siblings and their mother’s loving guidance. “It’s something we haven’t spoken about,” he says, something that none of them can bear to address.

Gonzalo Palza is chief executive officer of the federally funded Centro de la Familia, which runs the Honeyville preschool. “If we are not able to retain the parents to nurture their children, then we are being very ineffective in our mandate,” he says.

THE BUSINESS OF MIRACLES

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The only remaining legal resource available to Geovanny and Job to fend off their deportation is a 10th Circuit appeal their current attorneys, Christopher Keen and Ed Carter, say they will file in late January.

Carter says the boys “never had a chance to make a good substantive claim about what they want to do with their asylum application.” He describes the application that had been prepared by an earlier attorney on the case “as a superficial description.” He spies a legal argument in the family’s commitment to education as offering a “particularity.”

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“I think there are deeper things there than just gangs wanting to beat you up,” he says. “Somebody at that age, to have a commitment to getting an education, even though separated from his mother, should be rewarded.” He argues that issue has not yet been addressed. “You just want to feel like you’ve had a chance to make your case, that you’ve received all the process that was due.”

Attorney Preston told Canenguez up front that there was no hope in pursuing an asylum claim for her, or for Erick and Mario, but since they “honestly feel their lives are in danger, I had no choice, I had to try.”

On Oct. 31, 2012, an immigration judge denied their asylum application and ordered them deported. All that’s left, other than an appeal, was Preston’s request to Salt Lake City’s ICE office for prosecutorial discretion. With far more administrative violations than the system can handle, ICE has the power to shelve “nonpriority” cases—those that don’t pose a threat to national security or public safety.

The five family members are “going to all stand together or fall together,” Preston says. But miracles do happen, even in the labyrinths of immigration law. “I have witnessed miracles. They were based on good luck and some little avenue in the law.”

PARENT OF THE YEAR

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Canenguez’s caseworker at Centro de la Familia recommended she be put in for Parent of the Year in early 2012, after having heard the story of her struggles to find a future for her children after Oscar’s death. In June 2012, Box Elder Migrant Center manager Benjamin Wynn received an e-mail from the Utah Head Start Association informing him that Canenguez had won. When Wynn told Canenguez, “she was ecstatic and started crying for joy,” he wrote in an e-mail to the association.

On Nov. 3, 2012, Canenguez went with her family to receive the award at the 2012 Utah Head Start Association conference, which was held at the South Towne Exhibition Center in Sandy. When Gonzalo Palza said hello, she was unable to respond. Was something wrong, he asked? “They’re going to deport me,” she said in tears. She told him that two days before, an immigration judge in Salt Lake City had denied the asylum application for herself, Erick and Mario and ordered them removed.

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Upset, Palza asked her if he could tell those in the room what she had shared with him, then urged her and her family to join him onstage. He told the audience of several hundred Utah Head Start employees not only why she had won the award, but also her life story, culminating in imminent deportation.

The audience members, many in tears, gave Canenguez a standing ovation.

As she recalls the bittersweet events of that afternoon, Canenguez shakes her head. “One day they’re telling me I had to go, the next day they’re giving me …” she says in Spanish, her voice breaking.

Among those applauding Canenguez was Learning Center’s Debbie Justice. “The federal government drives me crazy,” she says. “Head Start is not allowed to ask the immigration status of any individual. We do this great job of helping folks, of making these great immigration success stories, and then we turn them out.”

Palza expresses similar frustrations. “We struggle to serve children and prepare them for their first years at school, and, indeed, are mandated to do so by the federal government,” he says. “On the other hand, we are faced with the forced dislocation of families, which, if widely prevalent, would make our efforts mostly self-serving exercises, and a grossly inefficient use of federal funds.”

LOSING HOPE

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Canenguez is not the only one in her family whose hard work has been recognized. Job, a soft-spoken 18-year-old, is as committed to education as his mother, attorney Preston notes. In the 2 1/2 years since he arrived in Utah, he’s learned English to the point he helps other students, has won an achievement award and earned a glowing recommendation letter from Bear River High School vice principal Chad Kirby, who writes that since Job arrived in Utah, he “has worked hard to get everything accomplished so he is on pace to graduate. … He has a tremendous future ahead of him and I would hope that we would allow him to reach his full potential.”

When Job met Preston, he asked her, “How can I go to college?” While undocumented children, traumatized by their experiences, “often get into trouble,” Preston says, Job and his brothers are focused only on their education. But while she sees hope in the faces of the younger children, in Job’s features she sees knowledge of “what’s going on.”

All Job wants, he says, is an opportunity “to study here, to get ahead, to get a good job to help my mother who has worked all her life.” All the future holds in Central America is poverty and violence—or worse. The aspiring reporter believes his father has nowhere to live and that he himself is on a hit list. “If they see me, they will shoot at me. My country is so small, they find you very quickly.”

When the topic of immigration comes up in conversation, Job becomes sad, he “loses his strength,” Canenguez says. Still, she holds out for a miracle, be it immigration reform, a last-minute legal reprieve, either from the appeals court or prosecutorial discretion.

But in the final week of 2012, ICE’s spokesperson Virginia Kice informed City Weekly in a statement that Canenguez and her four El Salvador-born children had not been granted prosecutorial discretion.

Kice noted that Canenguez had recently crossed the border—a significant negative factor for ICE when considering prosecutorial discretion—and has convictions lodged in Box Elder County for disorderly conduct in February and April 2010. That, however, is misleading, given that Canenguez appealed the justice-court case as a trial de novo, resulting in a single infraction for disorderly conduct in district court.

When City Weekly informed Canenguez of ICE’s decision to not grant prosecutorial discretion, the line went silent for a moment. Then, she said in soft, disbelieving tones, “They didn’t?”

Debbie Justice says Canenguez’s story “seems like a huge tragedy. Her kids are doing great now and they’ve got to go.” Her hope for Canenguez, what she calls “my happily ever after story,” is that wherever she and her children end up, “she continues to be a great advocate for her children, her family and the community.”

For now, Canenguez pushes Job and her other children to learn, to realize the gift and the potential America dangles before them. “Here we haven’t a future, we’re undocumented,” Job told her once.

“Who told you that?” she replied. “You have to study, until the very last day.” 

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