|JOHN WALKER/THE FRESNO BEE
|Margarita Mendoza, left, shows her green card in the law office of Lazaro Salazar, with legal assistant Elena Lopez, right. Mendoza failed to inform immigration agents that she married in Mexico before entering the U.S.
Margarita Mendoza of Fresno was excited last year about the prospects of becoming a U.S. citizen.
Now Mendoza, who has lived in the United States for 30 years, might be deported.
Her citizenship application was denied because of an omission that occurred 30 years ago: She failed to tell immigration officials that she had gotten married between the time she applied for a visa and the time she received it. At the time, no one ever asked about it, she said.
Immigration advocates say cases like Mendoza’s are relatively rare. But with last year’s surge in citizenship applications, those advocates say more cases like it are likely to emerge. She’s scheduled to attend a hearing at an immigration court in San Francisco on May 16.
"Immigration agents never asked if I was married or single … I didn’t know it was a problem until I tried to become a U.S. citizen," she said in Spanish. "If they would have asked me, I would have told them the truth."
Roxanne Hercules, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said Mendoza should have updated her information regardless whether she was asked by officers if she had gotten married.
"It’s her responsibility," Hercules said.
Hercules said officers will ask questions based on the information they have on the person coming into the United States, but it depends on the case.
But immigration advocates say Mendoza made a trivial mistake and she shouldn’t be entirely held responsible for it.
"If I were a person living in a foreign country who was about to immigrate and not an immigration lawyer, I could have easily made that mistake," said Mark Silverman, a staff attorney at the San Francisco office of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an advocate for immigrant rights.
Rick Oltman, national media director of the Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization, declined to comment specifically on Mendoza but said it’s the kind of issue that the immigration court is set up to decide. The group favors eliminating illegal immigration and limiting legal immigration.
"The rules were written for a reason and you have to abide by the rules," Oltman said. "If they’ve [applicants] violated a rule or law, it has to be looked at."
Usually, citizen applicants are placed in deportation proceedings because of past criminal convictions, Silverman said. He estimates that of the thousands of applicants, about 30% of them in California will end up in deportation proceedings because they had a prior criminal conviction.
Overall, just over half of those deported in 2007 — including undocumented immigrants as well as green-card holders — had a criminal conviction, according to data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The data cover 11,710 deportations from a region extending from Bakersfield to Northern California.
Nationwide, 1.4 million citizenship applications were filed last year, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That matches the prior record, set in 1997.
Historically, increases in applications happen before a fee hike, presidential elections, immigration debates and new legislation, according to the federal agency.
Mendoza’s case is a lesson for everyone who wants to become a U.S. citizen this year, Silverman said.
Since arriving in California, Mendoza worked at a packinghouse in Sanger and then became a homemaker. Over the years, Mendoza traveled several times back and forth from Mexico to United States with her green card. She filed her naturalization application in June.
Then in November, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services informed Mendoza her naturalization application was denied. Two months later, she was ordered to appear in court for a hearing that could lead to her deportation.
Mendoza was issued a visa as an unmarried daughter of a legal permanent resident on April 29, 1978.
But a Mexican marriage certificate shows she married Carlos Vega Hernandez March 9, 1978, and her son was born April 7, 1978, according to the letter from Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Sharon Rummery, an agency spokeswoman, said if someone gets married before entering the country and uses a visa meant for an unmarried daughter or son, the visa becomes invalid.
"The law says a lawful permanent resident can only petition for an unmarried minor or adult child," Rummery said.
Now 53, Mendoza said her mother, who petitioned for her green card, is deceased.
Today, Mendoza lives with three of her five grown children and has been separated from her husband for 10 years, she said.
Lazaro Salazar, Mendoza’s attorney, said the law must be respected but he believes Mendoza has a chance of remaining in the United States. Salazar said her absence would create a hardship for her twin sons who have special needs because of mental health issues.
Mendoza wishes she could go back in time.
"If this would have happened from the start, I would have returned to Mexico," she said.