LI girl back at home after immigration fight

March 30, 2011 3:22:05 PM PDT
A 4-year-old American citizen from Long Island is back home with her parents Wednesday after a bitter immigration fight.

/*Emily Ruiz*/ arrived at /*John F. Kennedy International Airport*/ overnight after visiting her grandfather in /*Guatemala/*. But when he flew with her to the U.S., both were turned around and sent back to Guatemala.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials say the girl's parents, who are illegal aliens, opted to allow their daughter to return to Guatemala rather than pick her up, possibly concerned they would confront questions about their own residency status.

The parents, through their attorney, contend that's not so.

"The CBP spokesman's statement is wrong," said attorney David Sperling, who retrieved the girl from Guatemala and returned with her. "The parents were not given the option to be reunited."

Emily's saga began March 11, when she traveled with her grandfather to the United States. Their flight to Kennedy Airport in New York was diverted to Dulles International outside Washington. It was there that immigration authorities detained the grandfather, who has not been identified.

Because he had an immigration infraction two decades ago, he was denied entry into the country.

This is where the accounts of what happened diverge.

"The parents were offered the chance to pick up the child but elected to have her return to Guatemala with her grandfather," CBP spokesman Lloyd Easterling said in a statement. The agency, he said, "strives to reunite U.S. citizen children with their parents."

Sperling, the Ruiz attorney, argues that Emily's parents were told the two options were that she would either have to return to Guatemala or be placed in the custody of officials in Virginia. The girl's father, Leonel Ruiz, opted to have Emily return to Central America with her grandfather.

The CBP spokesman declined to comment further when asked about the family's claims.

Jeanne A. Butterfield, a former executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association who is advising Sperling, said she was dubious of arguments that the girl's parents feared questions about their own immigration status.

"If that's the case, why would the father take his story national?" she asked, noting Leonel Ruiz has been interviewed by Univision and The New York Times. "He told the story, had his picture published. He is easily findable. I think it only buttresses the father's credibility."

Butterfield said she thinks a CBP staffer made a mistake by having the girl sent to Guatemala. "This is not a blanket policy. It just lifts up the culture asserted by some that if parents are undocumented they have less than full rights. It allows an agent to make a decision like this and feel like it's OK."

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, whose district includes the Ruizes' hometown of Brentwood, was incensed by the ordeal and called for an investigation of what happened.

"This bureaucratic overreach and utter failure of commonsense has left a little girl - a U.S. citizen, no less - stranded thousands of miles from her parents," he said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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