NEW ROCKFORD - Eric and Marina Arroyo's immigration nightmare lasted five years, and when it finally ended on Jan. 8, a community celebrated their victory.
In her New Rockford home last week, tears ran down her face as Marina Arroyo clasped a packet of letters that community members had written to the immigration court, describing their determination to fight for this family.
"We couldn't have done this without their help," Arroyo said. "I know it is an answer to many prayers that we could stay here."
Jill Schramm/MDN • Eric and Marina Arroyo pose with their sons, from left, Gaius, Resh and Javan, at the New Rockford Public School Jan. 24.
The paperwork troubles surrounding the family's legal immigration began in 2004 and escalated when the Border Patrol detained them following a traffic stop in November 2007. The Arroyos and their three sons had faced deportation to their native Philippines. Only through a legal avenue known as "prosecutorial discretion" are the Arroyos now free to live and work in this country indefinitely.
Throughout the more than five years of hearings, the Arroyos were never without a courtroom full of friends who traveled to Bloomington, Minn., to be with them. The support didn't go unnoticed by the judge and attorneys.
"I believe that they really saw that the community is behind this family," said Kent Braunberger, funeral home director in New Rockford, which has a population just under 1,400. "They are just really good people. They are part of our community."
Experience exposes need for reform
New Rockford residents who followed the Arroyo family's immigration case say they are troubled by the nation's immigration system.
"You get inside the system and you see how broken it is," said Kent Braunberger of New Rockford. "This whole situation for them makes me such a believer in the fact that this country needs immigration reform."
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators plans to fix the system by creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, making legal immigration more efficient and getting tougher with employers who hire illegal immigrants. They continue to work on specifics, as do members of the House of Representatives who are working on similar legislation.
President Obama on Tuesday announced his plan for immigration reform that calls for strengthening border security, cracking down on employers hiring undocumented workers and giving 11 million undocumented immigrants a legal way to earn citizenship by passing background checks, paying taxes and a penalty, going to the back of the line and learning English. Children of illegal immigrants could expedite their citizenship quest through attending college or serving in the military at least two years.
The court decision giving the Arroyos legal status to remain in this country was bittersweet for them in that they were not given the future opportunity to apply for citizenship.
Friends of Eric and Marina Arroyo say the country's fixation on illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border overlooks broader problems in the immigration system problems such as paperwork that confuses immigrants and employers, inefficiencies that drag cases out for years and court decisions that lack enforcement. They want the system to distinguish between a legal immigrant who tries to follow the rules but makes an error and a person who intentionally migrates illegally.
Obama has called for improving court efficiency through investing in more immigration judges and staff, more training for court personnel and better access to legal information for immigrants.
In releasing his reforms, the president said, "Our immigration system should reward anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules. For the sake of our economy and our security, legal immigration should be simple and efficient."
That's the wish of New Rockford in a nutshell.
At one point, the prosecutor questioned how the Arroyos could maintain themselves in this country for years after the government denied the continuation of their work permits. He asked for documentation of their support, which led to the letters from school officials, the mayor and multiple community members.
A couple had been given $250 a month for two years. A church benevolence fund and a community benefit fund provided a steady stream of support, helped along by a major fundraiser and community members such as one donor who gave $200 a month. People would hand the family grocery and gas gift cards or leave groceries at their home. The family received donated vehicles.
The letters to the court spoke of how a small town fighting the ravages of population decline welcomed these "outsiders," whose example impressed upon the town's schoolchildren just how important citizenship is. The support came not only from New Rockford but extended from Harvey to Carrington.
The Arroyos' strongest backers came from the faith community, which was touched by this family's unwavering trust in God.
"I am very proud to have them in our community. I am very, very grateful that they are friends and neighbors," said Michael Nicolai, a New Rockford chiropractor. "It's been a frustrating thing, watching them struggle through this time. And yet as I witness Eric and Marina's faith, in the process, I have had a sense that it's going to turn out all right because I believe that the Lord is in control of this whole thing as it is unfolding. It's been an encouragement to my faith as I watched them."
Although friends knew the power of Marina's prayers, when she began asking God for a five-bedroom house to replace the family's small, two-bedroom apartment, they just shook their heads.
"We were thinking, 'Yeah, right in New Rockford.' Where would the money come from? Where would that house even be?" Braunberger said.
On Mother's Day last year, the Arroyo family moved into a four-bedroom house with a spare room that they converted into a bedroom. Two supporters had discovered the house for sale in New Rockford, bought it and invited the Arroyos to live there rent-free. Recently, the Arroyos began making payments to the owners toward purchase of the property.
Eric, a machine operator at a Carrington pasta plant, and Marina Arroyo, a nurse at a New Rockford nursing home, began getting back on their financial feet after the government restored their work permits in July 2012 and their former employers hired them back in their previous positions. The work permits were the first hopeful sign for the family since their immigration process had begun unraveling in December 2004.
Marina Arroyo said her dream from childhood was to come to America. The opportunity presented itself when a shortage of health-care workers prompted the U.S. government to create a visa program for doctors and nurses.
Arroyo and her sister, both nurses, were recruited to North Dakota through a program operated by a Harvey physician and his wife. Arriving in December 2003, Arroyo initially worked at the hospital in Harvey to gain training and improve her English skills. Eric Arroyo and their boys arrived in Harvey in June 2004. Marina Arroyo received her state nursing license in July 2004 and transferred to the Home of the Good Shepherd in New Rockford.
According to a timeline that Marina Arroyo kept of the events, she began following the guidance of her attorney in late 2004 to complete the medical and English testing and paperwork required to renew her visa. She first realized there was a problem when her attorney informed her that immigration officials failed to receive necessary documents and her only recourse was to return to the Philippines. Despite efforts by Arroyo, her employer and friends to work with attorneys and immigration officials to remedy the situation, problems worsened.
In May 2005, immigration officials denied her a work permit, causing her to lose her job. Marina Arroyo and her friends sought out other immigration attorneys to try to restore her visa. One attorney gave her a 20 percent chance of convincing the government to let her remain in the country. The Arroyos found a Minneapolis attorney willing to help them try to beat those odds.
Eventually assured by an immigration official that her case was being reviewed, Marina Arroyo waited. Meanwhile, Eric Arroyo's renewal application for a work permit inexplicably showed up as "pending" in the immigration system. The result was Eric was able to continue working until November 2007, when the arrest changed everything.
On Nov. 14, 2007, an Eddy County Sheriff's deputy pulled Marina Arroyo's vehicle over for a faulty headlight. Discovering her lapsed visa, he took the Arroyo family into custody.
Hearing of the arrest, Nicolai and Braunberger and his wife, Carol, hurried to the Arroyo's apartment late that night, watching helplessly as officers took the family away to the immigration detention center in Grand Forks. Carol Braunberger followed, sleeping in her Suburban outside the center overnight. After questioning the family through the night, authorities released Eric and the boys, who walked out to find Braunberger waiting to take them home.
A community fund drive to raise the $15,000 bond to release Marina ended when a resident posted the full amount so she could be released the next day.
"The community was aghast when they got picked up," Kent Braunberger said. "There were a lot of upset people and really concerned."
The possible deportation of the three Arroyo boys shook the school, which has a current enrollment of about 340 students.
"The school back here was grieving actually grieving," said Carol Braunberger, family and consumer science teacher.
On two occasions in the subsequent five years, it was standing room only in the school lunchroom when voluntary prayer meetings were held for the Arroyos. The emotions remain overwhelming for Javan Arroyo, now 18, as he recalls the many prayers and messages of support.
"It was very heart-warming. I thought my friends would show some concern but the level of concern was unbelievable," he said. "These are just incredible people that we have been blessed with."
To pay back the community support, the Arroyos volunteered. Eric and Marina served meals at the senior center, and Eric and the boys helped at the local food pantry. Marina continues to volunteer with Eddy County Public Health even since returning to work. She also assists the adviser for the Students Against Destructive Decisions chapter in operating the chapter's youth center.
Marina Arroyo said her sons were her motivation to continue the fight when the battle became wearing.
"My kids are the reason why I did not go home. They love the community. They love their friends, and this is home for them," Arroyo said.
Javan and his brothers Resh, 15, and Gaius, 12, are involved in athletics and other school activities while maintaining topnotch grades, according to their teachers.
"They are just likable kids," English teacher Kristi Frahm said. "They have such a good work ethic. They just want to learn."
Javan Arroyo credits his faith for helping him deal with the initial insecurity that came with the threat of deportation.
"The Lord has us in his plans. We haven't made it here so far without his help. If we just continue to live according to his plan and live like he wants us to, we will be taken care of wherever we are," he said
A straight A student and last fall's Homecoming king, Javan has participated in regional and all-state honors choirs, plays several musical instruments and is a member of a local rock band through the school.
His immigration status has created challenges in applying to colleges, though. He wants to attend North Dakota State University in Fargo to study architecture.
The Arroyos hoped to apply for U.S. citizenship after five years, but the court's closure of the case on Jan. 8 did not grant that option. They also cannot travel outside the country. Because of travel restrictions during the hearing process, Marina and Eric were unable to be with family when their fathers died in the Philippines.
Eric Arroyo said, at one point during their immigration trial, he was ready to go back to the Philippines permanently. But he sensed God urging him to keep fighting.
"This isn't about you," he recalled God telling him. "This is about me to glorify me through this situation."
As difficult as the past five years have been, Eric Arroyo said he has seen God glorified. He said it is one thing for his sons to hear him talk about how God can work in their lives and quite another for them to see it happen first hand. The experience has matured them, he said.
"Whatever trials come, they will surpass it. They are going to face it with faith in their hearts," he said. "There is a God who helps us."