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Thursday, July 01, 2004

'All-American' exiles / Family deported to Philippines after almost 2 decades in the Bay Area

'All-American' exiles / Family deported to Philippines after almost 2 decades in the Bay Area

Delfin and Lily Cuevas choked up during the speeches at their eldest child's graduation ceremony earlier this month at Cal State Hayward. A camera hung around Delfin's neck, at the ready for the special moments that would be savored in later years.

The Fremont couple, dressed in light clothing and sunglasses to block the morning sun, blended in among thousands of well-wishers.

Over two decades, Delfin and Lily had become experts at not calling attention to themselves. They raised three children -- Donna, 24, Dale, 23, and Dominique, 21 -- drove minivans and lived a modest existence in a middle-class East Bay neighborhood. They achieved the American dream, only without the government's blessings.

Members of the Cuevas family lived illegally in the United States for 19 years. Late Wednesday night, their American dream ended when they boarded a 747 for the Philippines, deported by the Department of Homeland Security. The three adult children will live in a country they barely remember.

"We're more scared now than when we came to America," said Lily. "When we came here, we knew we would have a bright future. We don't know what to expect (in the Philippines)."

The Cuevases are among thousands of people around the country who didn't legalize their status and were deported back to their home country. Their case was unusual only in that they went public with their story and received much support from Filipino Americans and other immigrant groups around the state.

Little had been known about what motivated Delfin, 58, and Lily, 50, to bring their family to the United States. When their children spearheaded a failed campaign to gain private legislation that would allow them to stay here permanently, the couple, fearing the loss of their jobs, stayed quietly in the background.

The children, who didn't know about their undocumented status until deportation papers arrived in December, gained the public's sympathy as innocent victims. By default, the parents, judging by letters sent to The Chronicle, became the villains.

People who know the couple disagree.

"They overstayed their visa for their deep love of their children," said Tami Kallen, Delfin's co-worker with the state's Employment Development Department. "That's what parents do. Our goal in life is to provide the best opportunity for our children. They lived their lives here for the opportunities they felt their country couldn't provide. Their daughter graduated from college and had a lot to offer society, and her siblings were following her path."

Delfin and Lily didn't wish anything out of the ordinary for their children. The ultimate goal was to send them through college, and not necessarily in the United States.

"My parents always stressed that education can take you anywhere," said Delfin. "Nobody can take that away from you."

In the early 1980s, the young couple thought all that was achievable in their native Philippines. Delfin, from Mindanao in the southern part of the archipelago, took a job transfer in the mid-1970s to Cebu City, Lily's hometown. Afterward, the couple met in 1979 at an electronics firm, where both worked, and they married a year later.

Delfin made a comfortable living as a wholesale manager, which allowed Lily to quit her job as an accountant and concentrate on raising a family. Delfin drew a monthly salary of 6,000 pesos (about $545), and the family could easily afford to rent a three-bedroom house for 500 pesos a month.

"We never really thought of coming to America," said Lily. "Life was good. Delfin had a good job."

Then a national tragedy changed everything.

On Aug. 21, 1983, opposition leader Benigno Aquino returned from a three-year exile in the United States to challenge the legitimacy of President Ferdinand Marcos' 17-year dictatorship. Aquino stepped onto the Manila airport tarmac and was instantly gunned down, allegedly by communists, although many blamed Marcos.

Aquino's murder sent the country into a political and economic tailspin that eventually led to Marcos' ouster in 1986. The peso's exchange rate against the U.S. dollar plummeted from 11 pesos in June 1983 to about 18 a year later. International companies, including the Japanese firm, National Panasonic, which employed Delfin, pulled some of their interests from the country.

By the end of 1983, Delfin had been laid off and the prospects of finding a job were grim. Lily could land only accounting jobs that paid the daily minimum salary of 9 pesos.

The couple decided to come to America and live illegally. To them, the risk was worth taking.

"The price of everything went up and the exchange rate of the peso bottomed out," said Delfin.

The 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles eased travel restrictions and the family secured visitors' visas with a one-year travel expiration date. Delfin arrived in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1984, with $200. He stayed briefly in the city with a cousin before moving in with another relative in Fremont.

By the time Lily and the kids followed on Donna's 6th birthday on Oct. 14, 1985, Delfin was working as both a gas station attendant and janitor. He moved the family into a converted garage. Delfin and Lily slept on the carpeted floor while the children shared a sofa bed.

It was nothing fancy, but it was home for three years.

"We were much better off," said Delfin. "Even living in a garage, compared to a house in Cebu, we didn't really care."

Their visitors' visas, after a six-month extension, expired after one year. The family has been undocumented since.

Delfin would take various maintenance jobs. For the last three years, he assessed the eligibility of workers for unemployment compensation for the state's Employment Development Department.

Lily worked in a gas station, a dry cleaner, a courier service and a restaurant. She later found jobs as an accountant, most recently with Pacific Gas and Electric in San Francisco.

Every decision centered around the kids. Delfin and Lily had received Catholic school educations through college, and they wanted the same for their kids.

Except for Donna's first three years in grade school, the children attended private Catholic schools. They graduated from Hayward's Moreau Catholic High School, even though the family lived two blocks away from Fremont's Kennedy High.

The parents say they have no regrets about their decision to come to America, nor did they fear being caught and detained by immigration services. They might have had their struggles, but Delfin and Lily say America held more promise than what they left behind in the Philippines.

In 1994, aided by a soft housing market and incentives that favored buyers, the Cuevases were able to buy a townhouse in Fremont for $170,000. Most of the couple's salaries went into the children's education and the house. They rarely took a vacation.

The family went to Disneyland and San Diego one year. The kids once stayed in New Jersey with relatives. Lily also went to New Jersey, not for a vacation but for her brother-in-law's funeral in 1990. Last year, Delfin reunited for a weekend with childhood friends in Las Vegas. Dale sometimes drove to Los Angeles and Las Vegas with friends. Outside of Northern California, that was all the family saw of America over 19 years.

"We always put it off," said Lily, regarding more costly vacations. "We said we'd do it when we retire."

Delfin and Lily didn't take steps to legalize the family's status until it was too late. They thought their chance of getting permanent status increased the longer they lived in the country.

Starting in 1992, the Cuevases were eligible to apply for permanent residence based on immigrant law provisions on good moral character and seven continuous years of residence in the United States. They also had to prove that deportation would cause them extreme hardship.

But the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act increased those standards to 10 years of continuous residence and "exceptional and extremely unusual" hardship for documented family members. Because none of the Cuevas family members were citizens or permanent residents, the hardship provision did not apply to them.

Delfin and Lily finally hired an immigration lawyer in October 1996, hoping to secure a hearing with an immigration judge before the new law took effect on April 1, 1997.

Thousands of others in similar situations, however, took the same course, which resulted in a backlog of applications. Their papers weren't processed until after the new law took effect. In 2000, an immigration judge ruled against the Cuevases' argument that they met the deadline under the old law and ordered the family deported. The decision was upheld by the Board of Immigration Appeals in 2002 and by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in December.

The children, led by Dale, then went public with the family's story. They appealed in vain to lawmakers, including California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, for a private bill that would have granted the family permanent residence.

Many in the Filipino American community and other immigrant groups came to the family's support. A group of Bay Area college professors and lecturers formed the Support Committee for the Cuevas Family. Seventy local and national Filipino, immigrant advocacy, labor, civil rights, student and teacher organizations endorsed the family. The San Francisco Immigrant Rights Commission passed a resolution that urged Feinstein to sponsor a bill allowing them to stay.

"It's the first time anybody's made a public appeal," said Robyn Rodriguez, fellow at the Center for Comparative Immigration at UC San Diego who co-founded the Support the Cuevas Family Committee. "A lot of people demonize this issue, but all of a sudden, the Cuevas family put faces and names to it. They're a middle-class family, own a house, the kids go to college. They seem to be the all-American family."

But the family could get only a three-month extension, which ended Wednesday at midnight. Immigration services granted the Cuevases extra time to put their townhouse on the market, sell their cars, pack up the last 19 years of their American lives in 99 boxes and ship them by sea to a land that poses only question marks. Because they were deported, the family is now barred from re-entering the United States for 10 years.

On Tuesday, movers filled a 40-foot trailer with the family's possessions and left their home empty except for the boxes and luggage that they will take on the plane. If they can't stay, they're taking their America with them -- four beds, dining and living room sets, three TVs, a washer, bicycles, even winter coats that they hope to donate to Filipinos about to immigrate to America.

Delfin tried to give away sausages from the emptied refrigerator. Lily suggested that a visitor take it, lest the sausages find their way to the Philippines.

Dominique held a party for a couple of dozen friends. Donna and Dale were in and out of the house between last visits with friends. The family was excited to see Dusty, their half-pit bull, half-German shepherd who is also moving to the Philippines, back from a stay at the veterinarian's office. No one got much sleep.

In the morning, the family kept busy with last-minute preparations, granting TV interviews to local stations.

At 4 p.m., Donna and Dominique, with the help of friends and cousins, left messages on their bedroom wall: "Memories are forever and I will cherish them," wrote Donna.

After boxes and luggage were loaded onto three pickup trucks, the mood finally turned. The kids splintered off for private moments with their friends.

The laughter subsided, replaced by forced smiles, awkward silence and reddened eyes.

Lily shed the first tears as she hugged her next-door neighbors of eight years.

The family was escorted by about 30 friends and relatives from their home. Members of the Support the Cuevas Family Committee and a battalion of news crews greeted them at the San Francisco International Airport.

The crowd grew to more than 100 as people familiar with the family's case joined the committee's loud rally in a last show of support.

The family will move into the three-bedroom house in Cebu City in which Lily was raised. About 15 family members, including Lily's 80-year-old mother, Jesusa, already share the crowded space.

During their 90-day extension, they tried to squeeze out a few more good memories.

Relatives from around the country visited.

Lily and Delfin took their final daily walks to nearby Marshall Park with Dusty, who was named after former Giants manager Dusty Baker. The exercise was one of the couple's favorite pastimes.

Nursing student Dominique completed the semester at San Jose State. She also received her first official toasts from friends on her 21st birthday on May 7.

Dale enjoyed the freedom of the road, going back and forth to Southern California for friends' graduations and going-away bashes in his honor.

Donna and her friends hung out at the beach in Santa Cruz, her favorite summer destination.

And Donna graduated, an accomplishment the family feels belongs as much to her parents as to her.

It would be the last achievement in America for the Cuevas family.

A commencement speaker "spoke about graduation as a beginning," said Delfin, whose eyes went watery behind sunglasses during the speech. "I was thinking, how can it be for my children?"

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