Miami-Dade couple separated by deportation cling to hopes of reuniting

Paola Arango was 10 when her parents brought her to the United States after fleeing guerrilla violence in Colombia.

The family applied for asylum, but an immigration judge denied it and ordered deportation. The family, including Paola, left the United States in 2009 – when she was 20.

Now 25 and living again in Colombia, the country where she was born but does not know, Arango is pressing the United States to let her return so she can rejoin the American husband she left behind in Miami-Dade.

“I long to return,” she said in a recent interview via her husband’s iPad. “I haven’t gotten used to being in Colombia. Definitely not.”

As Congress prepares to debate immigration reform, Paola and Bruce Eckel — who talk to each other every day via the iPad — hope their story will spur immigration authorities to speed approval of her quest to return.

Their story is relevant because a bipartisan immigration reform bill now in the U.S. Senate would allow deported immigrants who have no criminal convictions to apply to return to the United States if they have a U.S. citizen spouse or children. “We just want immigration to help us out, to make things faster,” Paola said.

Not only does she miss her husband, but she also misses the United States, the country where she grew up and she considers her own. Her story is all the more poignant because had she ignored the deportation order and stayed illegally by now she likely would have legal status.

“If I had stayed I would have been able to stay with that DREAM Act order,” she said.

She was referring to temporary legalization under President Barack Obama’s program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It gives two-year legal status to young immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were children.

But Paola’s family preferred to obey the judge’s deportation order so they would not be considered immigration law fugitives. By doing that, Paola was doubly punished under immigration law. She was forced to leave the United States and then barred from returning for 10 years.

The saga began on June 13, 1999 when Paola’s parents fled Colombia because of guerrilla threats. They came to Miami. In a bid to stay legally, the parents asked for asylum but it was denied in 2009.

Instead of waiting for the federal agents to deport them to Colombia, the family flew to Dubai where they had relatives. They chose to avoid Colombia because of lingering fears about the guerrillas.

A week before their departure, Paola and Bruce were married at Bruce’s home in Palmetto Bay. The two had met three years earlier at Florida International University (FIU) where she studied biology and he electrical engineering.

Instead of going on a honeymoon, she left with her parents to Dubai. After two months in Dubai, the family decided to return to Colombia after learning that security conditions had improved since their original escape in 1999.

Paola Eckel has since moved into an apartment with a co-worker and is teaching English at Berlitz in Bogotá. She stays in touch with the husband in Miami via the Internet video phone service. They spend hours talking and looking at each other. At dinner time, her face on her husband’s iPad sits at the table and they talk to each other during the meal.

In the recent interview via her husband’s iPad, she described her life in Bogotá.

“Here I’m like a grandmother,” she said. “I never go out and if I do go out it’s usually with parents.”

Bruce travels to Bogotá frequently to spend time with his wife.

“It’s usually around a week or two weeks and a couple of times I stayed over a month,” he said.

More important, the couple has pressed Paola’s bid to return legally. Bruce started the process in February 2010 by filing a form I-130, a petition for alien relative, in which he asked the U.S. government to grant his wife an immigrant visa.

The petition was approved in the spring of 2011 and the couple appeared before a U.S. consul at the embassy in Bogotá nine months later. That’s where the first major obstacle arose. The consul reminded Paola of the 10-year prohibition against her return triggered by the deportation.

Nevertheless, the consul asked that they fill out form I-212, an application titled Permission to Reapply for Admission into the United States after Deportation or Removal. They say they filed the form in February 2012 and are still awaiting a resolution.

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) official said: “Due to the Privacy Act, USCIS is precluded from discussing details on any case, but USCIS decides every case on its merits and the requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

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