By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
In 1996 Fernando and Marie returned to the Philippines to marry in Manila. They had two receptions -- one in a restaurant after the wedding, and an informal one at Fernando's parents' house. In keeping with custom, before crossing the threshold into the house, the couple ate something sweet for prosperity and good luck. After a three-day honeymoon at a nearby resort, the newlyweds returned to Houston.
"We're just two simple people who got together," Fernando says.
Today Fernando and Marie share a sparsely furnished apartment in southwest Houston with their two-year-old daughter and ten-month-old son. They had been married two years when they discovered she was pregnant. "We found out on our second anniversary," Fernando says. "She was kind of a gift to us." A playpen lies at one end of the living room, and a knee-high gate keeps the children out of the kitchen. Little hangs on the walls. Their answering machine message ends with "God bless you."
In five years the young man from Cavite had achieved his piece of the American dream: a successful career and a family. But he still lacked one key ingredient: a green card. So when his employer agreed to sponsor his permanent residency application, Fernando decided to hire Gordon Quan of the reputable immigration firm Quan, Burdette & Perez to handle all the legal paperwork. After his mess-up with the first visa, he wanted to make sure nothing else would go wrong.
Taking care of business at the INS office located in the Greenspoint area requires getting up well before dawn. Some people even sleep outside overnight. By 6 a.m. the line already has wrapped around the building and into the parking lot. Once the doors open at 7 a.m., applicants shuffle in, and depending on what services they need, whether it's work authorization, naturalization or green cards, they are directed to another line. Some lines are first-come, first-served; other lines dispense numbers and people wait to be called. Numbers are limited, and when they run out, INS officers advise people to come back the next day. Even simple tasks, such as obtaining a form or changing an address, require standing in long lines.
On the day of his green card interview in May 1998, Fernando was relieved he had an appointment and did not have to stand in line. He and his attorney, Quan, arrived early. At the interview, Fernando gave his name, address and other basic information.
But Fernando, Quan and the INS officer knew the interview was a waste of time, because all green card applications for physical therapists had been suspended for several years. But being a cumbersome agency, the INS scheduled the appointment anyway. In 1996 Congress passed a law that made significant changes to requirements for health care workers coming from abroad. The new law required applicants to file visa screens, certification that ensured workers had proper licenses and could speak English. By 1998 the INS still had not issued regulations to implement that law, leaving Fernando's application and those of other physical therapists in limbo.
The INS officer told Fernando that he would just have to wait until regulations were in place. The interview lasted five minutes. "It was quick. I barely remember it," he says.
Over a year later, in July 1999, having heard no news about his green card, Fernando filed for a renewal of his work authorization. In September he received shocking news: The INS sent a Notice of Intent to Deny. When he had filed for his work permit, the letter said, the INS had discovered he had an old file in another office regarding his unauthorized employment with Phil-Am, which had resulted in deportation proceedings. Because Fernando had not disclosed this at his interview, the INS concluded, he had "willfully misrepresented a material fact." And that was grounds for deportation.
The letter, signed by district director Richard Cravener, advised him that, for a fee, he could submit a waiver. Cravener did not return calls from the Houston Press.
Fernando says he didn't understand that getting notice of a court date was technically part of deportation proceedings. Neither the green card application nor the work petition form asked if he had ever been in deportation proceedings. And the officer who interviewed him never asked if he had been given voluntary departure, only if he had been deported.
"The officer never asked this question," says his current attorney, Nicole Morrison, who works for Quan's firm. "It can't be a lie if she didn't even ask it."
Fernando didn't file the waiver because he feels he did nothing wrong. He would never misrepresent himself to get a green card. Why would he, when the INS had his record? Even if Fernando did file a waiver, it could still be rejected.
"He probably could have gotten a green card by now if he signed the waiver and said, 'Yes, you're right. I lied,' " Morrison says. "He would have one today. But taking the moral high road has its consequences."
Fernando wrote a two-page letter explaining that he had received voluntary departure after his unauthorized work. He submitted affidavits from himself and Quan, and photocopies of his passport and receipts.