MAXWELL:  America is the only home she knows

4/19/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Deportation is not, of course, a penal sanction. But in severity it surpasses all but the most Draconian criminal penalties.

_ Chief Judge Irving R. Kaufman, in the case of (John) Lennon vs. Immigration & Naturalization Service

Canadian-born Catherine Caza, 40, has never met Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, but she sure does want to.

The governor also has a compelling reason to meet Caza. He is the only state official who can prevent the Immigration and Naturalization Service from deporting her, a legal permanent resident, to a country that she left in 1960. That is when her parents brought her from Sault St. Marie, Ontario, to Detroit _ at the age of 3.

“I am an American,” she said. “I have no affinity with Canada.”

If Chiles meets Caza, he will see for himself that she is American in every way. Chiles will hear her accent, which may remind him of his own Florida Cracker heritage.

He will learn that she is not a dangerous criminal but an intelligent, hard-working college student, a community volunteer who raises money for combat-wounded American veterans, the mother of a bouncy daughter, 7-year-old Carly, who loves to dance to rap music.

After meeting Caza, Chiles may agree with those who know her well, that she deserves to be granted executive clemency on a drug conviction of selling pills to an undercover officer in 1981.

Her ordeal began in 1980, when Caza became infatuated with Ron McKenna. At least, that is what he called himself. During the nine-month relationship, McKenna asked Caza to get drugs for him almost every time they met. She relented and got him 21 tablets of Quaaludes and LSD. The problem was that McKenna, an undercover cop, arrested her.

“After he arrested me,” Caza said, “he told me that if I cooperated, wore a wig and put on a body bug and tried to get people in this lounge on Gulf-to-Bay to sell me drugs, I wouldn’t be in trouble. I wouldn’t do it. I just don’t believe in that.”

She was released on her own recognizance. In 1982, on the advice of a public defender, Caza pleaded guilty to illegally selling controlled substances and received five years’ probation. She knew that the conviction made her deportable but thought that her troubles were over after the INS did not contact her further.

What she did not know, though, was that the INS had initiated the process to deport her. Ordinarily, the agency brings such an order before an immigration judge a few weeks after issuing it. In Caza’s case, the INS did not act for 15 years, filing the order in court on Feb. 24, 1997, long after she had forgotten about the charge and had established a stable life as a mother and as a student at St. Petersburg Junior College.

The tragic irony of the agency’s procrastination is that if it had filed the order in 1982 _ as it was supposed to _ Caza would have been eligible for a waiver of deportation and probably would have received it. This waiver protected legal aliens who had lived in the U.S. for at least seven years from hardship. At the time of her conviction, she had been a legal resident for 21 years, and leaving the country would have posed a hardship.

Now, Caza and thousands of other legal aliens have no hardship protection. Revised immigration laws of 1996 retroactively made any legal immigrant with a drug conviction subject to immediate deportation _ no matter how long ago the conviction occurred.

Last year, the Associated Press reports, the INS expelled 113,324 people who were in the country unlawfully and has set a goal of 127,000 expulsions this year. Because the INS sat on its hands, Caza has been declared an “undesirable” and may wind up becoming a deportation statistic.

Why did the INS wait 15 years to come after Caza? Listen to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner: “Removing individuals who are unlawfully here remains a key component of our overall enforcement strategy to restore credibility to our nation’s immigration laws.”

Meissner is hardly describing Caza, and the question remains: Why come after Caza at this time? Immigration officials refuse to comment on the case, which is now in litigation.

On June 26, 1997, Judge Rex Ford ordered the INS to take Caza into custody and to forcibly remove her from the country. When she asked him what would happen to Carly, who was born in the United States and is an American citizen, if she were expelled, the judge said: “Some of these cases are absolutely heart-wrenching. I will tell you that the law changed, and there are no waivers for these things now. I’m not unsympathetic.”

Caza was not taken into custody because, in addition to having an immigration lawyer at her side, the facility for women was crowded and would not accept new detainees. Meanwhile, she has appealed to Ford to reverse the deportation order, even though she and her lawyer know that the revised policy has tied the judge’s hands.

“I guess we’re just trying to buy some time,” she said.

Her life is in limbo because she can be deported at any time. Her only realistic hope of living normally again is to get a full pardon from the governor.

Her attorney, B. John Ovink of Tampa, has filed a request for executive clemency with the state board, which consists of the governor and the Cabinet. It meets in early June, when Caza and Chiles may come face to face. After hearing her appeal, the Cabinet will make a recommendation, the final decision resting with the governor.

Ovink said that if his client is pardoned, the INS would no longer have cause to deport her.

“To institute proceedings to deport Catherine for a crime committed 16 years ago is egregious,” he said. “To institute proceedings the moment that no relief is available anymore is completely outrageous. She was entrapped by a cop she had romantic feelings for.

“If deported, she will not ever be eligible to return to live with her daughter in the U.S., and only with dispensation from the attorney general _ which is virtually impossible to obtain _ will she ever be able to visit the U.S. ever again. I want the clemency board to look at her as a person, as an individual who has paid society for her crimes and never got into trouble again, started a new life and is personally responsible for herself and her family. I want the board to forgive Catherine Caza because she deserves a break.”

Despite the huge odds against her, Caza has not been a mere victim. She has written more than 1,500 letters to federal and state officials, including members of the Florida Cabinet, several times. Most recently, she wrote to 30 governors and will write to the rest of them. Georgia’s Zell Miller and New York’s George Pataki have replied, sympathizing with her problem but politely pointing out that they lack influence in federal cases.

State Rep. Debra Prewitt, D-New Port Richey, and state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, are actively working on Caza’s behalf. But even with such help, her life is falling apart. Commuting 60 miles a day to school and surviving on student loans and her mother’s generosity, Caza lives in fear.

“I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she said. “It’s put stress on all my family _ my mother, a widow, who lives across the street from me. It’s really got to Carly. Last semester, she went from being the head of her class to being behind. She got into a fight on the bus and had to write a letter of apology.

“I’ve been focusing on saving myself _ trying to stay in the country. She’s probably getting yelled at more. My patience, you know. I’m a student and what little money I have has been going to lawyers. It hasn’t been a good quality of life for any of us. It’s hard to organize your life with something like this hanging over your head.”

Caza dreams of graduating with a degree in social work, getting a good job and rearing Carly in America.

“To exile me to a country where I have no ties, where I know no one, is wrong,” she said. “I am an American. I want to stay in this country with my daughter _ who wasn’t even born when I got into trouble so long ago.”