News

An expired auto tag and an arrest tear a family apart

Danica Coto and Peter St. Onge
The Charlotte Observer
Deysi Ramirez, center, has snacks with her children and other family at home in Comunidad de Ruiz, Guatemala. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

Graduation day, East Elementary School, Monroe, N.C. The fifth-graders arrive in the early evening, royalty on this June night, pointing and snickering at each other's ties and dresses. They stop when Kayla Ramirez appears, striking in a pink chiffon dress. "Look at you!" a friend squeals.

Kayla smiles shyly, then ducks into a giggling group nearby.

She is 11 years old, a top student, one of her school's best runners. She is someone her fifth-grade teacher calls "brilliant but unassuming," a pre-teen tomboy remarkably comfortable with herself, if not this particular dress.

It is the first Kayla has owned in three years. Her father, Raymundo, helped pick it out two weeks ago on a shopping trip. Kayla's aunt, Silvia, helped style her hair just an hour ago.

And Kayla's mother, Deysi? They haven't spoken on this important day.

Kayla doesn't remember the last time they talked.

They are two people, torn apart. Deysi Ramirez, an illegal immigrant mother stopped for a traffic violation and detained by authorities. Kayla, an American citizen born on U.S. soil, who like most children has little say about her future, yet now pays for an inconsistent U.S. immigration policy - and for the mistakes that parents make.

An estimated 3.1 million children born in the U.S. have at least one parent living here illegally. Every day, legal experts say, families are split up when an illegal immigrant is arrested.

What will happen to Kayla?

On this graduation day, no one is sure whether her mother will end up in the U.S. or her homeland of Guatemala, where 75 percent of the population lives in poverty. No one knows yet what Deysi wants to do with her three children, especially the oldest, the one with the most visible promise, the one whom relatives have volunteered to keep here.

For now, Kayla stands in line at East Elementary, left of the stage, waiting for her name to be called. She looks across the snug auditorium for her father, for 9-year-old brother Sammy and 5-year-old sister Sandy. Raymundo stands with his camera and finds her.

He clicks. Applauds. Clicks. He wishes Deysi could be here.

After the diplomas are handed out, Kayla comes to the stage once more to give the graduation speech. She walks to the lectern, past a sign declaring the day's theme: "Oh, The Places You'll Go!" Kayla fidgets slightly.

"Hi," she begins.

She is 11 years old, an American girl, old enough to sense her world is changing, too young to know how much it already has.

"My name is Kayla Ramirez," she says. "And my year in fifth grade was awesome."

In the summer of 1994, Deysi Ramirez illegally crossed the Texas border at age 18, unaware she was one month pregnant with a girl she would name Kayla.

Deysi (pronounced "day-see") had left Guatemala at the urging of her father.

Family members believed Deysi's older brother Samuel, a police officer, was murdered by Guatemala's secret police for investigating corruption. His body was never found, only his bloody machete and hat. Later, after they moved seven hours away, someone shot into their house.

On Aug. 13, 1994 - just three days after entering the U.S. - Deysi joined another brother, who had been living in Monroe for two years after crossing the border illegally to find work. He had moved from California because he heard the town was small but offered plenty of jobs.

Within a month, Deysi found a job making cages for chickens, then later another job collecting eggs. It was the same kind of work she had done in Guatemala, except now she worked 40 hours a week for $200, instead of 14 hours a day, six days a week, for $20.

About the time she started working, Deysi discovered she was pregnant. She remembers being frightened at first - how could she raise a child alone in a new country? She considered a roommate's offer to adopt the child.

But she began to love the baby growing inside her, and she dreamed immigrant's dreams for her child-to-be. As she balanced boxes on her swollen belly, Deysi thought about the education her child could receive in the U.S., opportunities she would never have found in Guatemala.

There, the government pays for school only until the sixth grade, and many families can't afford education after that, leading to a 30 percent adult illiteracy rate. It's a socioeconomic spiral familiar to many Latin American countries - no money means no education, which means no money. In Guatemala, an estimated 9 million people live below the poverty line.

At three months' pregnant, Deysi found a job at a wood factory in Monroe, counting and hoisting slabs of pine and cedar. At first, she didn't like the man who trained her at work. He sold cocaine, Deysi remembers, and he looked like a gang member with his long hair and earrings. But as the two spent more time together, Deysi found Raymundo to be thoughtful and kind.

Ray had come to Monroe from California, where he had joined a gang after crossing the border from his homeland of Mexico in the early 1990s. He told Deysi that at 18, he quit the gang after taking part in an armed robbery of a liquor store. Ray said he was given probation and placed in an anti-gang program.

Deysi told Ray she wasn't impressed with his macho image and that he should stop selling drugs. He told her he did.

(Extensive checks show no arrest records under Raymundo's name in California. It's unclear if he was treated as a juvenile by California authorities. Juvenile records are not public. A records check in North Carolina shows traffic offenses, including DWI.) After Kayla was born, Deysi and Ray became close friends, going out as often as four times a week. Ray invited her to the movies or to eat Chinese food, her favorite. He carried Kayla on his shoulders and bought her clothes and shoes when they went to the mall.

Deysi wanted a steady relationship with a nurturing man. She wanted to avoid the mistakes her mother had made, staying with a man who hit her often and cheated on her.

Several months into their friendship, Deysi told Ray she was moving in with someone.

Ray got upset.

Do you love him? he asked.

No, she said. He'll give me and Kayla some stability.

Why are you going to live with someone you don't love?

What do you care?

Silence.

Well, Ray said, I love you.

In April 1996, Deysi and Kayla moved with Ray into a one-bedroom apartment in Monroe. Like Deysi's parents, they never married, but they called each other husband and wife. Ray called Kayla his daughter.

During that move, however, Deysi failed to notify the post office about her change of address. She neglected, too, to file form AR-11, which would have informed the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that she was moving.

Two years before, Deysi had applied for a work permit and asylum, hoping she could stay in the U.S. legally because of the danger she faced in Guatemala.

At her new address, Deysi never received the notice for the asylum interview at which she could have pleaded her case. She didn't receive notification of a court hearing for having missed that first interview. She never followed up when the paperwork didn't arrive.

When Deysi didn't appear for the court hearing, on Feb. 5, 1998, an immigration judge in Atlanta ordered that she be removed from the U.S. A warrant was issued for her arrest. Unknown to her, Deysi was a fugitive.

By then, a second child, Samuel, was about a year old, and Kayla was almost 3. Soon, the little girl began to fulfill her mother's hopes for her at school.

In kindergarten, Kayla's teachers saw an eager learner who also took time to help others. In first grade, teachers would report she had a wonderful imagination, that when asked to write, she would go on for pages. One teacher told Deysi that Kayla had asked to sit at the front of the class. I want to listen to everything you say, the little girl told her.

At home, Kayla kept a fuzzy blue folder with the words "All Star" printed on the cover. In it were all of Kayla's awards - for being an accelerated reader, an outstanding speller, exceptional writer, top math student.

In November 2000, Deysi and Ray had another daughter, Sandy. That year, Deysi watched a TV report on immigrants who got their papers in order.

Deysi, who had let her work permit expire, contacted an attorney to go over her legal options.

The attorney told her she faced a deportation order.

Deysi didn't know what to do. She and Ray wanted their kids to graduate from high school and continue a life here. She wanted Kayla's blue folder, with all her accomplishments, to overflow.

As they saw it, there was little to debate. They decided to remain what they already were, two illegal immigrant parents with citizen children - one of 1.5 million such families in the U.S., always a moment from fracture.

Are you legal or illegal?

On Sunday afternoon, March 26, 2006, Deysi and Ray visited relatives at his sister's house before leaving for Ray's soccer game. Their three children preferred the video version of the sport on their aunt's PlayStation, so they stayed behind.

Ray, 31, and Deysi, 30, had played with their soccer teams - and each won - the day before. Ray's team won again Sunday.

It was, he remembers thinking, a perfect weekend.

Before heading home, they planned to stop by Ray's brother's house to celebrate his son's birth. Deysi pulled onto U.S. 74 near the Monroe Mall and headed east. It was a little after 6 p.m.

As Ray leaned over to loosen his cleats and take off his shinguards, he heard Deysi say, Oh, I didn't see you.

Ray looked in the rearview mirror. He spotted a gray North Carolina Highway Patrol car. Trooper C.M. Trouille had noticed the tag on their 1995 Plymouth Voyager had been expired for a month. He flashed his blue lights.

Stay calm, Deysi remembers thinking. She had been stopped twice before for traffic violations. Each time, she'd been given a ticket for having no driver's license, then allowed to drive away. A week before this stop, she finally got her license.

The trooper approached. He introduced himself. He told them the Voyager's tags were expired.

Deysi looked at Ray. Did you know? she asked.

No, he replied.

Trouille took Deysi's license and the van's registration back to his vehicle. He appreciated that Deysi had spoken English to him. Some of the Hispanics he stopped didn't, even if he suspected they could.

Trouille had been a state trooper for a little more than a year. He was 29, and like his fellow troopers, he was accustomed to dealing with Latinos, legal or not.

Of the 70 or so traffic tickets Trouille wrote in an ordinary week, about 10 were issued to illegal immigrants. Many immigrants, when asked, would tell Trouille right away they were illegal. The next step was his choice. He could call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but unless the traffic violation was egregious - or fraudulent documents were involved - no one from ICE would likely come out. ICE was overwhelmed with more hardened criminals.

He typed Deysi's information into his computer.

Quickly, an alert popped up.

"Administration warrant," it said.

And: "Extradition out of U.S."

Trouille called his station to confirm that the warrant was still valid. An officer paged ICE, which confirmed that it was. There would be no discretion for Trouille in this case.

The trooper walked back to the Voyager. He asked a question that echoed in Ray's chest.

Are you legal or illegal?

Ray hung his head.

Trouille asked again.

Deysi wanted more time to think. She remembers wanting to lie, but she thought that would invite more problems.

Illegal, Deysi replied.

Illegal, Ray replied.

Trouille walked to his vehicle and got a call on his personal cell phone. He remembers it was ICE special agent Richard Bernholz, who wanted to make sure that Deysi was, in fact, Deysi. He told Trouille to ask Deysi her father's name, her mother's name.

Trouille objected; a valid driver's license was enough to take anyone else in. Plus, he wanted to arrest Ray, too. "Why not get a two-for-one?" he remembers thinking.

ICE was not interested in Ray.

Trouille reluctantly handed Deysi his cell phone. Yes, Deysi told the official, she knew she was a fugitive and wanted for deportation. Yes, she understood what all this meant.

Deysi gave the phone back to the trooper, who asked her to get out of the car. He handcuffed her, led her back to his vehicle, put her in the front seat.

Ray timidly got out and approached the cruiser. Trouille drove away.

Ray didn't know if Deysi saw him. He didn't know where she was going. He called his niece in town. Another trooper, who had pulled up during the stop, had seized the Voyager, which was in Deysi's name. Ray would need a ride.

Deysi was headed for the Union County jail, where she would be booked on traffic citations and held until ICE arrived. In the car, she was quiet, except for one soft sentence to Trouille.

I have children here, she said.

___

HOW THE OBSERVER REPORTED THE STORY

Charlotte Observer reporters spent four months with Kayla Ramirez and her family. The reporters attended school with Kayla, and interviewed her relatives, her teachers and principal, her mother Deysi's attorney, the arresting officer in Deysi's case, legal experts, and officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Reporters examined California and North Carolina arrest records, court documents and immigration records. No dialogue appears within quotation marks unless a Charlotte Observer reporter heard it. When scenes are reconstructed, reporters talked to all participants.

When a participant's thoughts or feelings are described, they are done with attribution to the memory of the participants.

To view multimedia videos and slideshows, go here.

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