“I Am Here Illegally. They Wouldn’t Take Me In.”

Case exposes odd twist: Feds usually reject those who surrender

Federal agents who hunt for illegal immigrants have a policy
against arresting those who voluntarily turn themselves in – as
Eloina Meza discovered recently in Denver.

After hiding for 12 years, Meza mustered her courage and approached
immigration agents at their offices – “I saw the security, the
police, the cameras up around the room” – and tried to surrender.

Her son, Edgar, 8, a U.S. citizen who suffers from Down syndrome
and heart trouble, needs her constantly. A single mother, Meza had
grown increasingly worried that, if immigration agents were to
catch her, she and Edgar could be separated.

Instead, she wanted to turn herself in and have a judge review her
case so that she might stay legally in Denver with her son.

But immigration officials on Sept. 14 turned Meza and Edgar away.

“I was saying, ‘I am here illegally.’ They wouldn’t take me in,”
she said. “I thought they’d at least ask some questions.”

Meza, 44, crossed the border from Mexico in 1994. She has worked
several jobs around Denver, from $4.50-an-hour packaging in a
warehouse to a stint with the U.S. Postal Service.

Her situation exposes an odd dimension to the nation’s newly
beefed-up immigration enforcement system: The same agents who labor
to find illegal immigrants on the streets and in jails – they
caught and deported 100,100 noncriminal immigrants such as Meza
last year – generally won’t accept those who surrender asking for

“Walk-ins” taken in past

The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement division “must use its limited resources and
prioritize its mission to target aliens that are the greatest
threat to the community – criminal aliens and terrorists,” ICE
spokesman Carl Rusnok said.

Yet ICE agents around the country have some discretion, according
to a 2005 ICE legal memo. Denver agents in the past did accept
“walk-ins” but have discontinued that practice.

A Sept. 14 letter from Meza’s attorney, Francesca Ramos, asks Jeff
Copp, ICE’s Denver district special agent in charge, for “your
assistance in having Ms. Meza placed in removal proceedings without

The goal, Ramos wrote, “is to seek cancellation of removal to
ensure that she will not be separated from her very ill son.”

ICE officials gave no response. The Postal Service confirmed her
letter was delivered Sept. 15.

Immigrant-rights advocates call the ICE turn-away policy inhumane.
“You ought to be able to turn yourself in,” said Robert Deasy,
spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association in
Washington, D.C.

Meza probably “is entitled” to stay in the country with her son
under immigration-law provisions that grant legal status to people
in the country illegally for more than 10 years who also can prove
an exceptional humanitarian need, Deasy said, “but the enforcement
priorities of the Department of Homeland Security do not appear to
include enforcement activities that will benefit a deserving

U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo – a leading immigration hard-liner in
Congress, which recently pushed through millions of dollars to
toughen enforcement – also is incensed.

“Is a policeman going to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take you in
right now because I’ve got to direct traffic?”‘ asked Tancredo, a
Littleton Republican.

“(ICE agents) have a responsibility to enforce the law,” he said.
“… And they can’t use the old excuse about resources. They’ve
gotten a lot more. What are they using that for? What do they need
resources for if that person walked in? They don’t have to search
for them.”

Now Meza and Ramos say they’re thinking about voluntarily
approaching ICE agents again.

“I feel more pressure, more fear,” Meza said.

She lives in an area where illegal immigrants struggle to get by
juggling jobs and looking out for one another to avoid police and
possible deportation.

Meza said she’s always turning her head, checking when she leaves
her shared rental house. She drags Edgar out with her late at night
to a grocery store, thinking it’s the only safe time to get food.

For years, she has been working up the nerve to turn herself in,
praying for guidance at a church where parishioners urged her to
visit a lawyer.

Lost her job after 9/11

Edgar was born May 22, 1998, at an Aurora hospital, where doctors
warned that “he is very fragile.” In addition to Down syndrome,
he has a congenital heart problem that required three open-heart
surgeries to put in a prosthetic mitral valve and a pacemaker,
according to medical records.

“He requires close supervision. His pacemaker needs to be checked
monthly, and he needs to be monitored carefully due to the
anticoagulants,” said a letter from Dr. Robert Wolfe at the
University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. “Moving away from
this center is potentially life-threatening for Edgar.”

Another factor compelling Meza to beg for legal residency: She
hasn’t been able to work since 2001. After her stint with the
Postal Service, she settled into a job at Pour la France cafe at
Denver International Airport. But after the 9/11 attacks, airport
supervisors checked workers’ Social Security numbers. She was found

Now, she relies on friends to get by. Medicaid pays Edgar’s medical

“In Mexico, if you go to the hospital and don’t have money, they
won’t help you,” she said.

She has dreamed of returning one day to her home in southern
Mexico. But today, Edgar’s needs come first.

She helps him slide in the park after school and even plays soccer
with him, she said. His smile ignites her whole world.

“He must always be with me,” she said.