AMERICAN FORK, Utah — An Argentine family who sought asylum in the United States from religious persecution scrambled Wednesday to stuff 10 years of their American life into a few suitcases.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement late Tuesday denied Claudio Correa's and Deborah Zalazar de Correa's petition to delay their deportation so Correa could finish treatment for hepatitis C and their son could complete high school. ICE gave them less than two days to prepare for a flight to Buenos Aires on Thursday.
Sen. Orrin Hatch intervened on the Correas' behalf to no avail. Hatch spokeswoman Heather Barney said the office explored all the options, but at this point the family has none.
The couple didn't challenge the order to leave the country but requested a six-month deferral after ICE arrested Correa at his American Fork home Oct. 22. They say they never tried to hide, paid taxes and participated in church and civic activities.
"It's very sad that they cannot have any kind of consideration," Zalazar said, her house a jumble of cardboard boxes and suitcases. "I feel hurt because we gave the country a lot of years."
Zalazar and her children, Kevin, 17, and Magali, 14, sifted through closets, drawers and shelves deciding what to take and what to leave. "I know all my friends here, and in two days, I have to say goodbye to all of them. I don't like," Magali said, sorting through a stack of books.
Boxes filled with clothes destined for a thrift store clogged the kitchen floor. Most of their possessions — cars, computers, televisions, snowboards, power tools, everything a middle-class American family would have — will be left behind and sold.
But what makes them ache most is leaving a country they embraced and tried to become part of through legal means but fell prey to bad advice and ignorance of confusing immigration laws.
"I have always tried to do the right thing," Correa said from the Utah County Jail, adding he hasn't received so much as a traffic ticket. "I never wanted to break the law. I am a victim of not following closely all immigration requirements. I trusted and I did not investigate enough, and now I'm paying the consequences."
The Correas, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, say they fled Argentina 10 years ago next month to escape anti-Mormon sentiment. They are glass artists who moved to Utah about four years ago to work on projects that reflect their deeply held religious beliefs. They contracted with a Lehi studio that does stained and etched glass for LDS Church temples and other religious and government buildings.
"There is a small percentage of people in the world who can do the type of art glass our studio is doing and Debora and Claudio are a few of these people," according to owner Tom Holdman. "It is impossible for them to go back to Argentina and have the same impact on the world and in our country."
Correa, 47, said he was harassed in Argentina for working at an American company and being a Latter-day Saint. He received menacing phone calls and his home was vandalized with graffiti such as "Go away Yankee Mormon." A bomb threat to the company was the final straw.
The family came to the United States, settling in Iowa where they had friends, on a visa waiver, which allows for only 90 days in the country and provides virtually no path to residency. Correa understood his employer would petition for a work visa. But that didn't happen. He then learned his family could obtain temporary protected status due to political, economic and social unrest in Argentina. But that legislation was not passed.
Finally, after two years in the country he was told about the possibility of asylum based on the persecution that prompted them to leave their homeland. Asylum petitions, though, must be filed within one year of arrival unless extraordinary circumstances exist. An immigration judge ultimately denied their request and subsequent appeal in 2006.
Correa says a lawyer told him to remain the country because immigration officials would reopen their case once they had been here for 10 years, and Dec. 13, 2010, had been marked on their calendar ever since. He said he believed as long as he was working toward getting a visa he would be OK. He said he never received a letter giving his family a voluntary departure date. ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said their attorney at the time would have received the notice after the appeal hearing.
In a statement last week, ICE said the Correas case underwent comprehensive review by judges at several levels and the courts held that the family has no legal basis to remain in the United States.
"We, as a family, really try all our best to be good people, and we thought in this land we would find peace," Zalazar said.
Their neighbors and fellow LDS ward members rallied around them, even writing character letters for them as part of their ICE petition.
"If our country doesn't want these people here, there is probably something very wrong because they will be an asset wherever they go," said Judy Hopkins.
The family's current lawyer, German Flores, believes media coverage was a factor in the ICE decision, saying he felt the agency feared granting a deferral would opened the door for others.
"I've been successful with these types of cases before, but there was no publicity," he said.
Zalazar doesn't think it mattered and said she has no regrets about sharing her story.
She is looking ahead now. She wants to help her children adapt to their new life, and she's especially worried about Kevin, who needs medication for rheumatoid arthritis.
For his part, Kevin said he thinks moving to Argentina is "scary." He speaks Spanish, but he's not good at reading and writing it. He took French for three years in school.
"Going to school will be really hard," he said. "I'm going to miss school dances and going to school here."Comment on this story
Zalazar, though, said her family is strong.
"I am a very positive person. I know we did everything we could do right here, to do things as much legally as we could," she said. "If everything goes wrong, I'm thinking God leads me somewhere else."
Contributing: Cecilia Skinner