A Mother's Choice
It's less than 48 hours before Amina Silmi is supposed to turn herself in to be deported to Venezuela. Her oldest daughter, 12-year-old Haiat, sits on the floor, doing her math homework. The two younger children — daughter Fida, 6, and son Belal, 5 — are chasing each other around the house. Nothing is packed. No plans have been made for the children.
A few days ago, Silmi, 35, said that Belal and Fida weren't aware of the threat to their family. But in school today, Belal, who is mildly autistic, made a picture of his mother clutching a heart-shaped balloon lifting her into the sky. Belal drew himself holding on to the balloon, trying to pull his mother back to earth. Silmi cries when she looks at it.
For the past several weeks, Silmi has steadfastly refused to discuss what she will do if no intervention comes through to stop her deportation.
Yet, in less than two days, Silmi could find herself standing in the middle of Caracas, Venezuela, a country she left 14 years ago and where she knows absolutely no one. She would have no job, no home, no place to turn for help.
She might not even have her children.
Silmi says she can't fathom taking her kids — who were born here, are American citizens and speak no Spanish — with her to Venezuela, where her son wouldn't receive the special care he now gets in school. But leaving them behind is not an option either. "I don't leave my children here," she says sharply. "I can't leave my children here."
Instead, she's hoping her attorney pulls off a last-minute miracle. When asked why she should be allowed to stay in the United States, Silmi's voice grows louder as she explains in her thick Spanish accent that she's never been in any trouble. Never broken any laws.
But that's not quite true. Nearly 14 years ago, Silmi came to this country from Venezuela on a temporary visa — and never left. The government discovered her unlawful status four years ago after a visit to Niagara Falls ended in sobs of raw fear.
That moment launched a nearly four-year legal battle for Silmi. Her supporters said she should be allowed to stay because of her three young American-born children. What kind of life would they have in Venezuela, a country in turmoil? And who would be heartless enough to separate a mother from her children? They pointed to a letter Haiat wrote to Sen. George Voinovich: "I sleep with my mom to make sure you do not take her away. Please leave my mom with me!"
The other side observed that the law is the law. If you make an exception for Silmi, then where do you draw the line? "It wouldn't be all that difficult to find exceptional cases, meriting some type of special treatment," says John Keeley, director of communications for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., a think tank devoted to tighter immigration controls.
Is Silmi — who claims she was physically, sexually and psychologically abused by her first husband — an example of a poor immigrant lost in the expensive maze of immigration law? Or is she an example of how the legal system should work?
Ultimately, the U.S. court system would make the final decision on those questions. After months of public twists and turns in her case, Amina Silmi was deported on March 31. That forced her to confront the question she'd avoided for so long.
During a series of interviews held in the weeks before and after her deportation, Silmi never answered questions about what she planned for the kids if she had to leave the country. She just shook her head slowly, saying she couldn't even contemplate it, that it made her sick to think about it.
The government made it clear that it would pay to have Silmi's children flown with her to Venezuela. If she wanted to stay with her kids, that was her only option.
But how does a mother choose between opportunity for her children and the opportunity to be with her children?
Silmi has long, black, wavy hair. During our interviews in her rented Lakewood duplex, she wears comfortable clothes — a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt one day — and little makeup. Though she is Muslim and pages from the Koran hang above her mantel, she does not wear a hijab, the scarf that is the most common form of headcovering for Muslim women in the U.S. During TV appearances (her case attracted media attention locally and as far away as Japan), she dresses in boot-cut black pants, chunky black shoes and a leather coat.
Silmi's troubles began shortly after she arrived in America in August 1990 on a temporary visa, following most of her family, who'd left Venezuela for better opportunities just as her parents had left their native Palestine years earlier. Silmi had only been in this country for six months, living with her parents in New York City, when her brother was approached by a man interested in marrying her. She said yes and the two wed in March 1991.
The couple honeymooned in Atlantic City before setting up house in Florida. Silmi does not go into detail about her alleged abuse, saying only that it was "a miserable life."
It was worse than that. According to an affidavit she filled out for court, Silmi's husband began hitting her even before the honeymoon was over. (Silmi says she has no idea where her husband lives now and Cleveland Magazine was unable to locate him for an interview.)
"I was 20 years old and I had never had any experience with a man," the affidavit states. "I begged him to wait and he forced himself upon me. He actually raped me. Because of the violent way he raped me, I started to hemorrhage. He hit me repeatedly. I had never been hit before."
Silmi went to see a doctor, but states that she was "so traumatized that the gynecologist couldn't even get me to open my legs." After examining her and seeing that she was "torn up inside," the doctor asked her if she had been raped, according to Silmi's affidavit.
That was just the beginning of what Silmi claims was a short, but violent union. Three months after the wedding, she found out she was pregnant. The abuse, however, didn't stop. Once, Silmi says, her husband beat her because she visited a cousin who had prepared a special meal for her to ward off morning sickness.
"You're going to hurt the baby," Silmi told him, begging him to stop.
"I don't care about the f---ing baby," he allegedly responded.
As her husband hit her, his brother ate the food that had been sent home with Silmi.
She says the house was always clean and points out that there were no kids around to make her husband nervous. She says she still can't understand why he beat her. But she quickly grew accustomed to it. On days her husband did not hit her, Silmi says she asked him what was wrong.
When she was three months pregnant, Silmi's husband suggested she take a trip to New York to visit her family. After two weeks, Silmi called him, saying she wanted to come home. She claims that he refused to buy her a ticket back to Florida. "You stay in your father's house. I stay in my house," she remembers him saying. "I don't like you. I don't love you. You make your life."
"What about the baby?" she asked.
"What baby?" he allegedly replied.
&e has never seen Haiat, his daughter.
Silmi, however, was ecstatic to have a girl. She remembers thinking that she couldn't wait for Haiat to grow up so that she could have a friend, someone who would always be there.
It's 12 hours before Silmi is scheduled to be deported and she has still made no plans. Finally, as the sun sets, she concedes that she has to be "prepared for anything," even though she does not really believe she will be deported. She calls her attorney, Svetlana Schreiber of Svetlana Schreiber & Associates.
The two women meet at Schreiber's downtown office at 9 p.m. and complete the papers needed to grant power of attorney for Silmi's three children to her sister, Jamila Jabr, who lives in North Olmsted. They finish at midnight and Silmi returns home.
She spends the night pacing, moving from chair to chair, couch to couch. Her turmoil peaks each time she goes upstairs to look at her sleeping children. She doesn't wake them, just watches their little faces.
A friend spending the night for moral support repeatedly urges Silmi to pack, to shower, to try to get some sleep. Finally, Silmi gets cleaned up and packs a small bag, the one she used to carry her books and papers when she recently obtained her high-school equivalency degree. It contains one change of clothes.
Morning arrives and Silmi and her family head downtown to the immigration offices, where Silmi must turn herself in at 8 a.m. She is met by a band of supporters who huddle with her around an American flag in the frigid, windy plaza in front of the building. TV cameras record the scene.
Once inside, in Room 535, Silmi is handcuffed and separated from her children. It is Haiat, her oldest, who sobs the loudest, clinging to her mother.
"Jamila, cuida mis hijos por favor," Silmi says to her sister. Jamila, please take care of my kids.
Before noon, Silmi is on a plane to Atlanta, with only her bookbag and a purse with $2,000 — all the money she will have to start a new life in a country where she says dogs roam the street and nobody cares about women or children. In the last few years, conditions in Venezuela have apparently only gotten worse than what Silmi remembers. Once considered one of Latin America's most stable democracies, political and economic turmoil have produced record numbers of asylum seekers in recent years, according to a report in The Miami Herald.
Silmi's plan, she says, is to build a life for herself quickly, then arrange to have her children flown to her. She doesn't sound at all certain that it will work.
Silmi admits she's made a lot of wrong turns in her life. But she wasn't even at the wheel when the worst of them occurred: While trying to find the U.S. side of the Niagara Falls in June 2000, Silmi's second husband accidentally drove their rental car onto the bridge to Canada.
For an illegal immigrant, that's about the worst move you could make.
Though Silmi says she was fed up with men after divorcing her first husband, she agreed to marry again while visiting her sister in Cleveland. She met her second husband, a Palestinian immigrant, at a party. Almost immediately, he wanted to get married. She was reluctant. "He was in a rush," she remembers, snapping her fingers.
He asked Silmi if she was going to live with her family forever. In what she describes as an impetuous moment, she agreed to his proposal. You know what, she remembers telling herself, I'm going to try.
Silmi had two more children with her second husband. As was the case with her first husband, she never pressed him to sponsor a green-card application for her. She cannot explain why.
Silmi describes her second marriage as very unhappy. The one nice thing her husband ever did, she says, was offer to stop at Niagara Falls on the way back from a wedding in New York. That's when he made the turn onto the bridge to Canada.
Caught in the flow of traffic, there was no going back. At the border control, Silmi got out of the car, but it was too late. She and her husband were detained for four hours. Her husband, she reports, wasn't worried because he was just a few weeks away from receiving his green card. He laughed at her, sneering that she'd soon be headed back to Venezuela. Silmi was terrified. She left customs with a letter ordering her to appear in immigration court. She was only a few weeks shy of her 10-year anniversaDy in America, which would have made her eligible for a green card.
After their ordeal at the border, Silmi's husband insisted they still go to see the falls. On the way home, they stopped for something to eat. Silmi, sick with fear, could eat nothing. Her husband ate his meal and then hers.
Three and a half years later, as Silmi battled to remain in this country, her husband was deported to Palestine for food-stamp fraud he'd committed before meeting Silmi.
Silmi is quick to point out that she never participated in any criminal activity and was not a drain on society. At a candlelight vigil held for her this winter, a lone protester stood in front of the church, shouting invective at her supporters: "She doesn't work. Send her back. I'm an American. I pay taxes. I pay taxes every f---ing day. She's a loser! Send her back!"
Claims like this upset Silmi deeply. "It hurts my feelings very much when they say Amina Silmi is milking the system, which is not true," she says during an interview in her home. She then runs upstairs, returning with a tax return she filed jointly with her husband. The only help she received from the government, she says, was food stamps for her kids, not herself, and a monthly $560 Social Security check for her son, Belal, who is mildly autistic. She doesn't back down when asked if this is what people mean when they accuse her of being a drain on society.
"[My children] are American citizens," she says firmly. "They have a right to have it if they need it."
Just a few hours after turning herself in to be deported, Silmi is put on a plane to Atlanta. From Atlan- ta, she is told, she will be deported to Venezuela. But five minutes before she is to board the plane, the immigration officer she is with receives a call: A stay has been granted.
She is going home. Or so she thinks.
Silmi spends the next 10 days detained in Georgia, before being flown back to Cleveland. To make the children feel better, their aunt tells them Silmi is being held in a place that's like a hotel: a nice room with a TV. Then they see their mother on the news, wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.
"You lied to me!" Haiat yells when she sees the footage.
Silmi is detained for five hours at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport before being transferred by van to the Trumbull County Adult Justice Center in Warren.
Haiat says she is happy that her mother is still in the country, but worried that she will still be deported. In the weeks before Silmi was detained, there was almost a feeling of excitement in the house. Haiat practiced her speech for the candlelight vigil and wrote letters to politicians. The first time I met her, she greeted me brightly: "Would you like coffee?" she asked. "How do you take it? American?"
That aura of hope is gone now. "I'm scared," Haiat admits for the first time, "'cause she could leave any time." While she is at school, Haiat can't concentrate. She worries that her mother might be put on a plane to Venezuela as she sits there learning fractions. Once she gets home and checks in with her aunt, Haiat can finally relax.
Her birthday is in a few days and she notes that it's the first time her mother won't be with her for it.
The children usually make the 75-minute trip to Warren each Saturday. On the day I visit Silmi in jail, a crowd of her family is swarming around the bulletproof glass shield separating them from her, each vying for phone time. Haiat explains that they will have to skip next week because they will finally pack up all of their belongings from the Lakewood home where they lived with their mother and move them to their aunt's house.
When Haiat sees me walk into the bustling visiting area, she runs over with a question. If I'm allowed to visit her mother without a barrier, she would like to come along. She wants to talk to her mother without the glass.
But while the media can obtain one-on-one time with Silmi, the family must meet like this.
Haiat's gaze drops to the floor.
In front of her mother, though, Haiat tries to be upbeat. (The 12-year-old explains later that she doesn't want to make her cry.)
Haiat presses a snapshot of a new baby — my 3-week-old daughter, who Silmi asked about each time we spoke — against the glass, smiling and trying to get another minute or two on the phone.
After Silmi's family leaves, she is taken to an interview room. She's describing life behind bars when silent tears escape down her face, her chest heaving as she tries to regain her composure. A guard quickly radios for tissue, then sets a roll of toilet paper on the table in front of her.
"Do you know Donna Roberts?" Silmi asks. Roberts is Ohio's lone woman on death row. "She's here. She's next door to my cell. I don't belong here.
"It's so different here," she continues. "You know what I do here? I learn how to cook drugs. They don't talk about their children. They talk about how to cook drugs."
How are the kids are doing, I ask.
"They're fine," she says sadly, without elaborating. As long as there is hope that she won't be deported, Silmi will not discuss the possibility that her family will be broken apart. Instead, she focuses on her case. "I don't give up," she says. "I'm not going to give up."
She hopes the courts will make a decision quickly. She has no idea just how fast the wheels of justice will turn once they get rolling.
On March 18, five days after my visit to the jail, the Board of Immigration Appeals rules that Silmi's case will not be heard again, citing "no newly discovered evidence." Two days later, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refuses to grant Silmi a stay of deportation.
The swiftness and finality of the two decisions stuns Silmi's attorney, who had hoped she would be able to present evidence that Silmi was abused, which would qualify her for relief under the Violence Against Women Act.
"There's really nowhere left for us to go," Schreiber says. "It's been a terrible, morbid day. I'm emotionally a basket case."
Silmi, she says, will most likely be deported.
The next morning, I call Silmi in jail and discover that no one has told her what happened. I'm left to inform her of the board's decisions.
"What's this mean?" she asks frantically. "What they going to do now? Who's going to decide my case?"
Repeating what her attorney told me, I explain that it appears her case has come to a dead end, that she will be deported.
She is back where she started, facing the question of whether to take her children with her to Venezuela. I ask her again what her plans are.
"I have no choice," she says. "I don't know nobody there.
"This is ridiculous," she continues, growing agitated. "They want to make me an example. They don't want to give up. The government is just wanting to make me an example."
There is a long pause, then the sound of muffled tears. "I'm not going to sit quiet," she vows. "I'm going to talk."
Just 13 days later, Silmi is deported. If she was talking, nobody heard her.
She did not take her children with her.
Haiat, Belal and Fida are living in North Olmsted with Silmi's sister, Jamila Jabr, who has four children of her own. Jabr says they will stay with her until Silmi sends word to have them sent to her. When asked when that might happen, Jabr pauses. "We don't know," she says. "Venezuela is very scary."
Haiat says she's doing OK. She's making friends at her new school and is still getting good grades. She says her aunt is "cool" and like a "second mother," but then quickly corrects herself. "My mom is my mom," she clarifies.
When Haiat was told her mother had finally been deported, she was in a room full of other kids at the daycare where her aunt works. She kept her composure, she tells me, and only broke into sobs once she got home. She thinks her mother will return home "in a month or so."
ˆvery time Haiat is on the phone, her younger brother asks excitedly if it's his mom calling. Neither he nor Fida fully understand what has happened. Recently, Haiat overheard Belal telling someone that his mom is in jail.
After the appeals decision, the case took yet another twist. Silmi said she was frustrated by Schreiber's failure in court — the attorney says she put in countless hours on the case, much of it on a pro bono basis — and found new legal counsel: Karen Meade, an immigration attorney based in downtown Cleveland. Meade said it appeared that Schreiber presented proof of Silmi's domestic abuse too late.
"There were a lot of mistakes made in this case," Meade claimed. "Hopefully, the family's been put on the right path now."
Meade wanted to try to get Silmi back by applying for humanitarian parole, which would take at least a year and is "a long shot." She also planned to simultaneously file for family visa petitions through Silmi's mother and sister, both of whom are citizens.
But before anything was accomplished, the $2,500 reserved for Silmi's new attorney was depleted.
"There's no more money," says Jabr. "We have to be realistic."
As for Silmi, she's now staying with the mother of an old friend in the industrial city of Valencia, Venezuela. She cannot yet grasp what's happened to her.
"I'm still in shock," she says during a phone interview. "I never believed the government was going to do that."
Though Silmi originally had $2,000 with her when she first stepped on a plane for Venezuela, she went through some of her money buying things, such as shampoo, in jail. Then, she was scammed by an airport worker in Caracas who told her she'd have to pay to enter the country. She says she is out of money.
Defeated and depressed when she arrived in Venezuela, Silmi told a reporter for The Associated Press that she didn't want to live. After her story appeared in local newspapers, however, she was contacted by an attorney who offered to help her for free. She has now pinned all her hope on the possibility that she will receive humanitarian parole and return to the U.S.
That glimmer of hope has breathed fresh life into Silmi, who again refuses to look beyond the legal action at hand. She won't talk about the possibility of failure or what would happen next. Won't answer a "what if" question. As she has at least a half-dozen times before, she changes the subject.
If Silmi had applied for a green card through either one of her husbands, if she had gotten out of the car a few moments earlier — before reaching border control — after that wrong turn near Niagara Falls, if she had pressed for relief under the Violence Against Women Act sooner — if she had done any of these things, she might be with her children today.
"For most of my life, it's like I was sleeping," Silmi says. "I didn't know what was going on in my life. Now, I'm awake. I know what I want now."
Only it might be too late.
12:00 AM EST
May 19, 2004