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    A marriage in exile

    The post-Sept. 11 immigration crackdown and an overstayed visa have put thousands of miles between a bay area woman and her husband.

    By LEONORA LaPETER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 14, 2002


    photo
    [Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
    Sara Aterhzaz holds a portrait of herself and her husband.
    ST. PETERSBURG -- They met a year ago making Subway sandwiches on the night shift.

    One night when they were cleaning up, he asked her to go for a beer at Dan Marino's Town Tavern. She didn't like beer very much, but he seemed kind of interesting. He'd come over from Morocco the year before to work at Epcot's Moroccan Pavilion in Orlando, and he spoke five languages.

    Mohamed Aterhzaz, 25, and Sara Jane Anderson, 28, talked for five hours on Marino's outside balcony that night. After that, they were never apart. Not a day. They were married at sunset on Dec. 1, on the pier behind Saffron's restaurant in front of a handful of family and friends.

    A month later on Jan. 2, officials from the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service knocked on the door of their second-floor garage apartment in Kenwood. Aterhzaz was taken to an INS jail in Bradenton because his visa had expired the previous October.

    Mrs. Aterhzaz thought their marriage alone would be enough to stop them from deporting her husband. It wasn't. He was forced to return to Morocco May 16.

    "My husband is Muslim. That's why he's back home. I really believe that's why," said Mrs. Aterhzaz, who grew up in Tampa. "He has no terrorist ties. He's never been arrested. Not even a speeding ticket. If we'd just filed the paperwork, none of this would have happened."

    On Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft told the House Select Committee on Homeland Security that the Department of Justice has conducted the largest criminal investigation in history and deported some 417 immigrants for violations of U.S. laws. Hundreds more who are in violation of the law are in the process of being deported.

    Mrs. Aterhzaz believes her husband was caught up in the wave of anti-Arab sentiment following Sept. 11. Immigration experts say that wave has resulted in immigrants being sent back to their countries for even small violations. Many of these people don't have the money to fight deportations, and there is no system in place to provide them with free legal aid.

    "Generally, we're seeing heightened security, and there are incidents such as these that I don't think anyone would have dreamed of before," said Jack Pinnix, an immigration lawyer in Raleigh, N.C. and president of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association. "If someone has a lawfully valid marriage to a U.S. citizen, historically that hasn't presented a problem. It's been sort of the case where the equities of keeping a U.S. family unified outweighed any U.S. public policy. And though I haven't encountered it in my own practice, it's certainly chilling."

    The Aterhzazes knew his visa, issued to work at Epcot, had expired. But they mistakenly thought the marriage prevented him from being ousted from the country. And they didn't have the $450 immigration officials wanted for his residency application.

    "Marriage itself doesn't save them from being deported," said Nadine Wettstein, legal director of the American Immigration Law Foundation in Washington D.C. "The INS has gotten less flexible over the years. They tend to be less flexible especially lately with certain ethnic groups. It doesn't surprise me they have been giving him a hard time."

    Mike Abukishk, manager of the Subway where the Aterhzazes met and a guest at their wedding, said he has mixed feelings about what happened to Mohamed Aterhzaz.

    "In a way, knowing that he overstayed his visa, I couldn't blame the INS for picking him up," said Mr. Abukishk, who is originally from the Middle Eastern country of Jordan. "But he was already married a month before they picked him up. He should have been given a chance."

    Mrs. Aterhzaz said she tried to get officials to grant her husband another visa before he was told to leave the country. After he was arrested, she called around to local law firms looking for a lawyer who would work for free. It was a tall order, but she had no money and there is no system of public representation for those facing deportation. Someone gave her the name of David Schauer, a St. Petersburg criminal lawyer who was trying to break into immigration law.

    Schauer said he got Mr. Aterhzaz a $5,000 bail. Mrs. Aterhzaz borrowed the money from friends and family, and her husband was released from jail on Jan. 14. Then, during a hearing, an immigration judge gave Aterhzaz what is known as a "voluntary departure." This means he would have to leave the U.S. within 120 days, but he could come back once his papers were in order, Schauer said. Those who are actually deported typically cannot return to the country for at least seven years.

    The Aterhzazes agreed, thinking they would be able to get Mohamed Aterhzaz's paperwork in order before he left. Schauer filed the paperwork with the INS in Tampa: a bevy of forms that included a petition to have him made a resident, a request to adjust his status and permission to work.

    But INS officials returned it, saying he would have to send the application to an office in Mesquite, Texas. So Schauer shipped the application there. Officials there rejected it, saying Tampa would have to process it. He then shipped it back to Texas with a letter from officials in Tampa. By this time it was the end of March, and it was clear the documents were not going to go through in time.

    Schauer sought a hearing to reopen the case. Sometimes judges will make an adjustment to an alien's status right there in the court. But the Bradenton judge denied his request.

    Schauer noted that a Mexican immigrant he recently represented, who got into the country illegally and married an American woman, was given an adjustment in court and allowed to stay while his paperwork was processed. The only difference is that the Mexican man's paperwork was filed before he was picked up by the INS.

    Schauer, 42, acknowledges he was inexperienced in immigration law when he took Aterhzaz's case. But he doesn't think it would have changed the outcome. A judge refused to consider his petition to reconsider the case.

    INS officials in Miami failed to return phone calls on Aterhzaz's case. But information provided on an automated INS phone line said a judge refused to reopen his case on May 16, three days after he left the country.

    "I know there is precedent for what I wanted to have done, to have the case reopened and for him to stay in the country while his paperwork was processed," Schauer said. "He's not a criminal. He was an overstay in this country with a relationship that was before 9/11. It wasn't a sham marriage. If he had not been from Morocco and he had been from Germany, the outcome would have been different."

    For her part, Mrs. Aterhzaz has packed up her belongings and is trying to find homes for her two dogs. She plans to go to Morocco sometime in August to be with her husband while the paperwork is processed. Immigration experts estimate it could take a year or more, if the couple is successful. If the U.S. doesn't admit him, they've talked of going to other countries, maybe Spain or Canada.

    "I don't want to give up my family here, or my dogs, my heart and soul," she said, wiping tears from her eyes, "but in a choice, I choose him. I choose him."

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