It doesn't make sense for the U.S. government to spend thousands of dollars deporting people who are here to do good, even if they're here in violation of the law. —Mark Alvarez, immigration attorney
KEARNS — A community rallied around a single family Monday, begging the federal government to make an exception and not deport the immigrant mother and her four sons.
"Ana does not threaten public safety and neither do her sons," said Raymi Gutierrez, a member of the Salt Lake Dream Team, which advocates for undocumented individuals fighting to win a path toward United States citizenship. She said the family is "a perfect example of how broken the immigration system is" and how badly immigration reform is needed.
"By deporting this family, the United States is deporting them to their deaths," she said.
Some family members are citizens, born in the United States. Others have been snared trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, including the mother who made a public appeal for help Monday.
Ana Cañenguez, 40, said she understands that she broke the law, twice, but said she "had no other option." The mother, who lives and works in Tremonton, said she believes God has a reason for her to be here, or he wouldn't have saved her in the desert or kept her children from harm in El Salvador.
Coming to America
Her story begins in 2003 when she first immigrated to America to provide for her four young children whom she left with an alcoholic father in El Salvador. She said he wasn't meeting their needs and an opportunity for what she believed would be a better life arose.
She made her way across the border illegally and said she began working for little pay in New York.
"It was hard to leave them behind but it was harder to hear they were hungry," Cañenguez said through an English translator during a press conference held at the Iglesia Pentecostol Luz y Verdad, a Pentecostal church in Kearns, on Monday. She worked in New York for several months, but then moved to Utah to work in a Mexican restaurant making minimum wage.
In 2010, she paid for two of her sons, Job Ramirez, 18, and Geovanny Ramirez, 16, to be smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border. She said her sons had been taunted to join Mara 18, a gang of rebel soldiers, and their lives were being threatened for their dissidence.
Cañenguez ended up going to Mexico herself in 2011, after her other two children, Mario Ramirez, 14, and Erick Ramirez, 13, had been detained while also trying to cross the border.
On their way back to Utah, the three of them became lost in the desert and when she became scared for their safety, Cañenguez turned herself in to U.S. Border Patrol agents and they were arrested.
She said she asked them not to separate her from her children again.
"We were separated for eight long years, to be separated again would break my heart," Cañenguez said, fighting back tears. She and her children were released and allowed to return to Utah at the time, but she was told deportation proceedings were imminent.
In October, Cañenguez and her sons were ordered to be deported.
Erick recently wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, asking for prosecutorial discretion for his family. He said he feared for his life in El Salvador and said he doesn't want to be part of a gang that is forced to kill people.
"I have friends here and they like me. They say I'm a good person," Erick said. "I don't want to go back because this is my home."
The eldest facing deportation, Job, attends Bear River High School, learned English in just over a year, and has been told by his teachers that he is doing well.
"I feel comfortable going to school here, there's no pressure, no gangs and I want to go to college," he said, adding that he wants to become a newspaper reporter.
A change.org petition set up by the Dream Team has gathered more than 2,300 signatures in support of the family, but it needs thousands more to spur any type of action. An accompanying letter will be sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, as well as state and federal leaders.
The Dream Team is asking the public to get involved in the case, to stop Cañenguez's deportation by calling ICE officials and members of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and advocating for the family.
Gutierrez said Cañenguez and her family don't qualify for deferred action and were denied political asylum and prosecutorial discretion, but have filed an appeal on the latter.
"They are people. This is a family," she said. "Right now they are together. They are together at last. Let's keep it that way."
An older son, Jose, 25, came to America on his own in 2006 to help his mother earn money to send to family in Central America. Cañenguez also gave birth to a son and a daughter while in the U.S., Luisito and Katy, and they would likely stay with their father, Eusebio Granda, a Mexican national who took Cañenguez in when she initially arrived in Utah. The two have lived together for 10 years.
"It's a mix of frustration and desperation because we can't do anything about it," he said Monday. "The last two years we have had to deal with court hearings, people telling us something here, something there. It would be something very different for them to be away from their mother. They're afraid."
Cañenguez now cleans rooms in a hotel in Tremonton and spends her money on legal assistance. Her attorneys, however, have exhausted all available options to keep her and her sons in the country, and have essentially told her there is no more hope.
Mark Alvarez, a Salt Lake City immigration attorney not familiar with the case, said ICE has the ability to prioritize cases based on their level of threat. He believes cases that don't produce any security or criminal threats should be evaluated further.
"It doesn't make sense for the U.S. government to spend thousands of dollars deporting people who are here to do good," he said. "Even if they're here in violation of the law."
Alvarez said people do get caught in the cracks of immigration law.
"It may be that ICE's hands are essentially tied," he said. "Sometimes the circumstances of a case merit lenient treatment that may not be available in the law."
An ICE official would not comment Monday on the case.
"We hope that the people who need to hear this do, and we can stop this together," Granda said. "We're also asking for an opportunity for the kids to go further because they're doing very well."
Contributing: Ben Lockhart, Nkoyo Iyamba