The Associated Press
By Garance Burke
RAYMORE, Mo. — Myrna Dick is desperate for her young son to take a nap, so she cajoles him with soft Spanish phrases.
"Vete a dormir, mijo," she says, telling Zachary to sleep as he fumbles for Teddy Grahams. "Take the bear in your arms, and the two of you go lie down."
It's a suburban life in a place that hosts fishing derbies and Easter egg hunts and calls itself the "Garden Spot of the State." But it's a life that Zachary, snug in his cornflower-colored jumpsuit, was very nearly denied.
In 2004, the government tried to deport Myrna Dick. It charged that she once lied to gain entry to the United States, that she claimed she was an American when she was in fact a Mexican.
But she was pregnant, and a federal judge in Missouri said her fetus essentially was already an American citizen. He could not be deported, and as a result, neither could she.
Until Zachary was born.
Then, immigration officials reasserted their claims. In February, a federal appeals court gave immigration officials the right to bar the 31-year-old mother from the United States for life, separating her from her son, now 17 months old, and her American husband.
This time, the family's case is attracting the attention of prominent legislators who say it symbolizes the contradictions of the broken U.S. immigration system. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington, nearly 5 percent of U.S. families are headed by illegal immigrants.
"Illegal immigration is deeply intertwined within our households and communities," said former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. "A family like this is an illustration of literally millions of people in the country today."
One of 20 children
Myrna was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and grew up in Santa Barbara Tutuaca, a mountain village of 3,000. Her father, Ramon Ochoa, told his 20 children stories of picking string beans and onions in California's Central Valley, where he traveled in the 1950s and 1960s under the United States' first guest-worker program.
Two older sisters had left the family ranch in Santa Barbara to work in Texas, and would come back periodically with their children to stock her mother's grocery store.
"Our skin would be black from working outside," Myrna said, "and my nieces would come in from America with their beautiful clothes and their dolls. … "
When Myrna, an epileptic, suffered from grand mal seizures, her father sold everything, and the entire family moved to Texas so the 12-year-old could get treatment.
They overstayed a temporary visa and settled illegally in Oakleaf, near Dallas. Myrna spent much of the rest of school in the nurse's office, learning English in fits and starts.
Myrna came to think of herself as a proud Texan. At work one night, she met Brady Dick at the Dallas sports bar where she was a hostess. After a few months of dating, they married in 2002; that same year, Brady submitted an application for Myrna to become a U.S. resident by marriage.
But when she went to renew her work visa in spring 2004, the federal government ordered her immediate deportation.
Officials say she lied
Everyone agrees that Myrna crossed the desert in 1998 after going to her grandmother's funeral in Chihuahua. She said smugglers led her and another woman for hours, and border agents found them on a deserted hill.
"It was all sand and bushes," Myrna said, crying as she told the story of that crossing. "The wind lifted up the dirt. They caught us some place — I don't even know where."
What's in dispute is what happened next.
Michael Sharma-Crawford, her lawyer, says Myrna never claimed she was a U.S. citizen, but instead told officials she was attempting to enter the country illegally. The government says when agents took her fingerprints, she told them her name was Ivette Treviso-Frias (something she denies) and said she was American.
That lie, the government says, makes her ineligible to ever live in America. Six years later, the government reinstated the old deportation order under Treviso-Frias' name to take Myrna into custody.
Statute taken "out of context"
Kris Kobach, who served as immigration adviser to former Attorney General John Ash-croft, says the statute that made false claim to citizenship a deportable offense was never intended to be applied years after the fact. When it became law in 1996, he said it was intended to stop dangerous criminals from coming across the border, not to deport a suburban mother.
"They're taking the statute out of context," said Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
The Eighth Circuit will hear the Dicks' appeal in the next two months, said Sharma-Crawford. If it fails there, he believes the case could proceed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, several legislators are considering introducing a special waiver that would grant some immigrants who made false claims to citizenship the right to stay in the country.
For the moment, however, Myrna keeps waking up at night, imagining Zachary has been taken.
She says she's seen other marriages fall apart over things like this and tries to imagine how she and her husband could live apart, on two sides of the border.