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Family's hopes pinned on changes in immigration system

WIMAUMA — He felt his mother's hands shaking him from sleep.

"Get dressed," she whispered in the dark.

Bobby Rodriguez, 12, slipped on the first thing he could find, a gray pullover with the image of the Virgin Mary sewn in white thread.

He walked into the living room to see a shattered first-floor window, an escape route for several relatives moments earlier. In the middle of the room stood his mother, now in handcuffs and surrounded by federal agents.

It was the beginning of the end of a family.

Within three months, Bobby and his 10-year-old sister, Cynthia, were without parents, living with a legal guardian in a modest Ruskin home.

They are among hundreds of thousands of U.S.-born children whose parents came to this country illegally, had families, and got deported under America's much-debated immigration system. Amid public debate over amnesty, border security and the vast number of undocumented immigrants, Bobby and Cynthia are the quiet remnants of a system that has fractured families.

Recent remarks by President Barack Obama and lawmakers such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have raised faint hope for deportees and immigration advocates that new proposals might help reunite families.

It may be too late for Bobby and his family.

"It will never be the same," he said.

• • •

It was the early 1990s when Baudencio Rodriguez-Velasquez and Ramona Lopez separately left Guatemala and moved to Florida.

They were illegal. They had no green cards. But the risk of getting caught seemed worth the promise of a new life in America.

They met here and, in the next several years, began raising four boys and a girl. They never married.

Baudencio worked in landscaping and played the guitar at church. Lopez stayed home with the kids. The couple steered clear of trouble, though both at one point were ordered by an immigration judge to leave the country.

They stayed anyway, without incident, until one morning in March 2008.

That's when Lopez heard a knock on the door of the four-bedroom apartment the family shared with several relatives.

Lopez was packaging homemade tortillas in the kitchen. Migrant workers often would arrive in the morning to pick up lunch and the tortillas, so the knock came as no surprise.

"The first thing she thought was to open the door and give them their lunch," said Cynthia Rodriguez, now 15.

Two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents barged in.

Where's your father, one of the agents asked Bobby.

At work, he responded.

"I just cried," he said. "That's all I could do."

Adela Gomez, who knew the family, arrived at the apartment on Guadalupe Boulevard and took the children to her Ruskin home. The ICE agents were interested only in the parents, since the children all were U.S.-born.

Later that day, Gomez met with Bobby's father, Baudencio.

"He probably smoked about two boxes of cigarettes,'' Bobby recalled. "I had never seen my dad smoke a cigarette in my life."

He remembers his father's dilemma: Run away with the kids or turn myself in?

A couple of hours later, Baudencio arrived at the Tampa ICE office. He was deported to Guatemala that same month.

Lopez was released with an ankle monitor. She was given a few weeks to get her affairs in order.

• • •

Bobby's parents were deported in 2008, three years before ICE began focusing on apprehending undocumented immigrants with criminal histories.

Of the deportations that year, 25 percent were undocumented immigrants without criminal records. In 2012, that number was reduced to 4 percent.

"The agency exercises prosecutorial discretion, on a case-by-case basis, as necessary to focus resources of these priorities," said ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell.

Because Bobby's parents both ignored orders to leave the country, ICE never forgot them.

• • •

On a sweltering June day in 2008, Baudencio met Lopez and the couple's five children at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City and began the five-hour journey to Tuicoche, some 6,000 feet above sea level.

The road was a treacherous trek into the mountains. At times, it seemed the bus would slide off the precarious curves and tumble into the valley below.

Bobby's little brothers, ages 5, 3, and 1, squirmed impatiently as the bus trudged toward their new home in Tuicoche.

This was Baudencio's birthplace, a small, rural community near the Mexican border. With money he had saved in the United States, Baudencio purchased a house. He worked in the cornfields and gave people rides in his truck for cash.

"That's how we lived," Bobby said.

He remembers walking the town the first day with a cousin. Children, many of them barefoot, played along a road.

"I wasn't used to that. I had my Nikes on," he said. "I took that for granted."

Not for long.

About three weeks later, the phone rang at the Ruskin home of Adela Gomez.

It was Baudencio and he needed a favor: Can you take Bobby and Cynthia?

• • •

Cynthia opened the shoebox where she keeps family photographs, then scattered them on the living room carpet.

Some were taken before the family separated; Cynthia wearing a white, flowing dress and hitting a piñata during a birthday party; their baby brothers riding in a small car.

There also were photos from Guatemala, sent to them by their mother. They show their little brothers in front of a mountain. Baudencio in a singing contest.

The pictures are several years old now.

Bobby is 17 and a senior at Lennard High. He works part-time serving food at a senior living facility. He's not sure what's next, though he has thought of joining the Army or going to barber school.

Cynthia, at 15, is a straight-A student and math whiz.

They never returned to Guatemala. The younger kids stayed with their parents, who decided Bobby and Cynthia were better off in America, where they would find more opportunity than in the mountains of Guatemala.

Bobby picked up the photograph of his father.

"I just looked up to my dad," Bobby said. "I still do."

Bobby's mother phoned about every two weeks to check in on them, to ask about school, grades and behavior.

His father never called. Baudencio turned to alcohol when Bobby and Cynthia left. Through relatives, Bobby heard stories of his father, wandering the streets of Tuicoche, drunk and alone.

In December, his dad called for the first time in nearly five years. He had sobered up. He was going to church again.

Bobby still wants his dad and mom back in the United States.

"How it used to be," he said.

While recent talk of immigration reform has raised some hopes, lawmakers trying to overhaul the system have paid little attention to cases such as Bobby's.

Advocates want the issue addressed in any new legislation, and U.S. House negotiators have talked of providing relief to families torn apart by the current system.

But many legislators strongly believe the rule of law must take priority over attempts to accommodate people who, even with good intentions, came here illegally.

Reuniting families is a long and arduous process and even more complicated when a parent has been deported. Under ideal circumstances, Bobby could not sponsor his parents' return until he is 21.

So, for now, brother and sister rarely talk about family, or about what happened that morning in 2008. But they hold on to hope.

In his closet, Bobby stows his dad's shirts, including the pullover with the Virgin Mary.

Cynthia keeps the photographs.

Wiping tears away, Cynthia and Bobby stacked the photos back in the shoebox.

She secured the lid and placed the box on her dresser.

Times staff writer Alex Leary and staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386.

Family's hopes pinned on changes in immigration system 03/16/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 18, 2013 12:36am]

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