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The Homefront: Heather Cordes, with brother Michael and sister Julya, awaits a ruling on their mother, who's being deported under bizarre congressional logic.

Menace to Society?

If Patricia Law is not a terrorist, why is she being treated like one?

By Najeeb Hasan

PATRICIA ANN LAW needs one more chance. That's how she sees it anyway. She is 52 now, with four children, so it's only natural for her to reflect on wasted opportunities in the stillness of a prison five hours from friends or relatives. It's been 18 months since her parole officer picked her up for allegedly failing a urine test, handing her over to immigration authorities.

It would be easy for Patricia to grow bitter, especially after she staved off deportation proceedings from prison less than a year before this latest detention. But her many letters from prison are extraordinary if only because there is no hint of bitterness. She writes about the chances she missed in life. She extends advice and encouragement to Heather Cordes, her daughter, who has lost two mothers in the span of two years—Patricia, her biological mother, and Heather's stepmother, who was killed last year in an automobile accident near Booneville. Patricia composes poems that touch on fantasy and love. She tells about a play she's produced with fellow Bakersfield inmates, about helping them "to learn to have fun without drugs or alcohol." She writes about needing dental glue for her teeth.

Patricia is no terrorist. Originally from Scotland, she's had a history of personal problems, especially with wine and cocktails. Cordes, her daughter, says there were times when she didn't want to deal with her mother—but violent? A threat? A soldier in the war on terror?

"Patricia? She certainly knows how to squeeze all the juice out of a lemon," says 72-year-old Arnold Siegel, her on-again, off-again roommate for the last five years. "Every time I think about her, I remember her as a fun girl, happy-go-lucky, not a worry in the world. Everybody loves her. Where I work now, she knows all the homeless people. They always ask about her. She doesn't have a bad bone in her body. If she saw a bum on the street, she'd give her last dollar to him."

It was Siegel's apartment where Patricia drank two glasses of wine the day before a urine test and Siegel's apartment where the parole officer came for Patricia last February. She hadn't lived with him then. He had tossed her out, as he would do every once in a while when she irritated him. Their relationship had always been like that. "I'd throw her out for a couple of days and then take her back," Siegel shrugs.

He met her at the Sunnyvale Nutritional Center, where he, a retired Lockheed engineer, was a volunteer cook. She had been slapped with a DUI and was assigned to community service at the senior center. "I met her there," he recounts. "We became friends. She didn't really have a place to live. She had very little money. I took her into my home."

It was admittedly an odd relationship. He was a committed Christian who didn't drink or smoke. "I've had to struggle with my friends and family about her," Siegel concedes. "She wasn't hurting anything. She wouldn't steal. I used to leave money lying around all the time. It was just her personality. We clicked."

Patricia had returned to check her mail and settle down with a plate of food that Seigel had prepared for her. "Two guys came in and cuffed her while we were talking," says Seigel. "I opened the door. I could have probably not let them in. She was sitting right here." He points to his couch. "They said, Patricia, stand up and turn around."

Legislation

The mid-1990s witnessed two catastrophic terrorist attacks on American soil. The first, executed in 1993 by Muslim militants, damaged the World Trade Center. The second, in 1995, destroyed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Muslim extremists were immediately blamed until authorities discovered that Timothy McVeigh of New York was responsible.

For advocates of tighter immigration law, the hint of foreign terrorism was enough. Five days after the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, then-President Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, ostensibly crafted to make it easier to prosecute terrorists. Six months later, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which arrived on the heels of Prop. 187 and anti-immigration sentiment in California.

"There [were] actually three very bad [pieces of legislation] in 1996," notes Bill Hing, a professor of law and Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis. "One of the contexts of these laws had to do, surprisingly enough, with both the Oklahoma City bombing, and the first World Trade Center attempt, which again involved some immigrants. There was a lot of concern that immigrants coming in were terrorists, and there were very strict requirements enacted in '96, focusing on certain countries of the Middle East and other Islamic countries. If you put welfare reform aside, what you have is stricter control at the border and stricter monitoring of legal immigrants who are here. If they make one false move, they're out."

The Anti-Terrorism Act enhanced the definition of an "aggravated felony," which, through previous immigration law, defined which crimes would be deportable offenses. Aggravated felonies were first limited to major crimes, such as murder and drug trafficking, then broadened to include crimes resulting in more than five years in prison. The act was eventually expanded to even less serious crimes, such as bribery, gambling offenses and the obstruction of justice. It also did away with the immigrant's right to appeal for a waiver of deportation, which judges might use to weigh contextual circumstances, including the severity of the crime and the hardship deportation would cause families.

Six months later, the Immigrant Responsibility Act fine-tuned the aggravated felony definition even more. Instead of defining an aggravated felon as someone serving five years in prison, the term was reduced to one year. Deported felons were forbidden to return to the United States. Most disturbingly, the law mandated that its provisions apply retroactively.

Once both laws were enforced, the result was chaotic. Immigrants, including those who were lawful permanent residents, faced deportation for crimes they'd committed years before. According to a study of the aggravated felony standard written by attorney Melissa Cook, in 1987 Alejandro Bontia was convicted for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend. Fifteen years later, Bontia, now with a wife and child, was ordered deported. Nigerian Olufolake Olalye, a legal permanent resident, was ordered deported for shoplifting baby clothes worth $14.99.

"An aggravated felony sounds really bad to people, but it's whatever Congress says it is," Hing says.

Mothering Her Mother

Heather Cordes didn't always have the best relationship with her mother. During the mid-1990s, Heather lived in a Sunnyvale trailer park with Cordes' stepfather. "He was a jackass," Cordes says. "He would take the kids with him to score drugs in East Palo Alto." Their neighbor, a friend of Cordes' stepfather, ended up abusing family members. In the ensuing investigation, Patricia was accused of complicity.

"She was in jail because she was being accused of that," Cordes says. "She had a public defender who told me that your mom's not cooperating. She just keeps saying, I'm innocent, I'm innocent. He wanted me to talk to her and tell her to cooperate. One day, they called me to court, and they're offering her a plea bargain. She wasn't taking it—she was hysterical. I went down there, and they had my mom shackled to a chair in the judge's chambers. They were offering my mom a year as opposed to 17 years if she lost in court. She said, I'm innocent. I didn't do anything. I said, You need to take this plea bargain. Basically what happened was that she took it and trusted me. No other reason than that."

Patricia served a year in prison and was released. Unfortunately, the 1996 anti-immigration laws were beginning to be enforced. After her release, she violated the terms of her probation when she was arrested for a DUI. She was sent to the Chowchilla Correctional Facility, where immigration authorities, reacting to the retroactive nature of the new immigration laws, took custody of Patricia and eventually transferred her to a federal holding facility in Florence, Ariz., prepping her for deportation to Scotland.

Cordes flew to Arizona, appealed on her mother's behalf and was rewarded with her mother's release. But immigration authorities, arguing that the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act eliminated the possibility of a waiver, appealed Patricia's case. That's when she found herself arrested for drinking two glasses of wine at Seigel's apartment.

"Arnold called me and said they're going to deport your mother," Cordes remembers. "For three days I was depressed. What can you do when there's nothing to be done? Then I put an ad on craigslist: Please help, I wrote. I have no money. I started getting all these responses. Sometimes people would write just to say that they would pray for me."

Through Cordes' plea on craigslist, she connected with Jagdip Sing Sekhon, a San Francisco immigration attorney, who accepted her mother's case pro bono.

"This is a woman who used to call me in the middle of the night asking for money," Cordes says. "It went on to the point that I couldn't talk to her. But when she came back from Arizona, I couldn't believe how much better she was doing. She got herself a shitty job for $6.50 an hour. She went to the dentist—she saved her money and got new teeth. She never would have done that before. And this parole officer rolls her up because she drank a glass of wine?"

Cordes pauses, shaking her head with irritation at the memory. "I don't know how to put this in words. What makes me fight for my mother like this? It's the feeling that I have that I know what they're doing to her is wrong. I just feel it."


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From the September 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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