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Choices of the Heart | Last of three parts

A besieged mother wonders how to put her children first

By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / September 25, 2007

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MANCHESTER, N.H. - In her tidy rental apartment this summer, Nanci Nuñez smiles as her 5-year-old son plays with an electronic keyboard that teaches the ABCs. He hits all the correct buttons, winning a cheery "Ding! Ding!"

These are times Nuñez still sees herself as a respectable immigrant mother.

The Dominican woman is proud that her sons speak English as well as Spanish, receive excellent teacher reports, and live in a community with clean running water. These are the advantages of an American childhood.

But her boys may soon lose those benefits - or their mother.

In a secret kept from most of her family and friends, Nuñez is on the brink of deportation for twice selling fake Social Security documents. She has confessed to her crimes but now must decide what to do with her two American-born boys. She can take them back to her destitute rural village in the Dominican Republic or leave them to be raised by relatives in America.

As she struggles to decide, she talks mostly to God, her only constant in a life that has endured devastating turns.

"It is very difficult because the people who see me, they see me happy, always smiling," said Nuñez, 38, shaking her head. "They don't know what's going on, what I'm going through."

ON HER KITCHEN COUNTER EVERY THURSDAY, Nuñez lights a candle to the Divino Niño, the Christ Child. She prays for guidance about what she should do, and forgiveness for what she has done.

Nuñez dreamed of establishing a family in America. When she arrived in New Hampshire, her upbeat personality instantly drew her many friends. With a permanent-resident green card, she found an $8-an-hour job at an auto-parts plant. Soon, she was proudly sending $75 a week back to her family, including her first son, Joel, then 4, whom she had left in the care of his grandparents. Nuñez vowed to send for him as soon as she was settled.

Many mornings, she got up early to read a basic US history book to prepare for her citizenship test. By 2002, she was waking up even earlier to care for her newborn son, Robert Jo-An, whose father was a Dominican house painter in town. Money was tight, but the couple worked by day and relaxed by night with Latin music and Red Sox games.

Nuñez's factory shut down in 2004, and a few weeks later, she was approached by a Salvadoran woman, a friend from the factory. The friend sounded desperate, saying she needed Social Security cards to help her two siblings, who were here illegally, find jobs. Did Nuñez know anyone who could help? Would she like to make some money? In fact, Nuñez did know someone who sold forged government documents. She provided her friend with one Social Security card; and a week later, another.

One day six months later, just after she had dropped her son off at the Head Start day care, two federal law enforcement officers handcuffed and arrested Nuñez.

It turned out that the desperate friend was a police informant. She had been busted for having fake papers herself and had cooperated with police to shorten her sentence.

NUÑEZ'S WORLD collapsed. In her entire life she'd never had so much as a traffic ticket; now she was a defendant in a federal criminal case carrying a maximum 30-year prison term. Because she had immediately confessed to her crimes, her lawyer said, she would probably get a light sentence, maybe just probation. Much worse was the possibility of deportation. What would she do about Robert, who was only 2?

She could not bear to tell her family back home what trouble she was in.

"I don't know what they would think, my mom, my dad," she said through a translator. "After my father sacrificed so much. . . . He always told us to consider well the things we do. Work hard."

She kept replaying the moments when she turned the fake papers over to her friend, wishing she could take back time.

"I understand I made a mistake," she said. "I wouldn't want anyone to go through this. I've paid for it with my tears."

SHE KNEW HOW DISMAL conditions were back in her rural village. If she took her son back with her, Robert would grow up without any of the advantages, or promise, of his life in the United States.

But she also couldn't see how he could stay here. Robert's father could not take over; he had told Nuñez that if she were deported, he could not care for the boy.

And even if he could, Nuñez thought to herself, raising a child is a mother's responsibility.

Growing up, she often accepted bad news with a resigned, "It will be what it will be." Or she saw it as part of God's cosmic plan.

This time, she realized she had to act. She had to fight the deportation.

In the winter of 2006, Nuñez began asking around for a top immigration lawyer.

But her legal battle was soon replaced with a far more urgent medical battle. Last November, she underwent surgery to have her fallopian tubes tied. The year before, she and Robert's father had had a second son, Yandel, and she was determined to end her child-bearing years. During the surgery, doctors found a suspicious tumor. A biopsy later confirmed the news: She had Stage 3 ovarian cancer.

Nuñez's older sister, Fatima, who a few years earlier had also immigrated to Manchester, was able to help Nuñez through her surgery and chemotherapy at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and with babysitting duties. Her two boys loved going to Fatima's warm boisterous home, where Fatima's seven children and stepchildren also lived.

Fatima was a godsend, the wise older sister Nuñez had always trusted. Yet Nuñez kept secret the news of her possible deportation, not wanting to further burden Fatima. Nuñez focused on battling cancer, one day at a time.

"I don't know how long my sickness will last," she said. "It could last - I don't know. Whatever God wants, I just want to be with my children. My children."

Every afternoon, she took out a 32-page prayer booklet, "Fifteen minutes with Jesus," and recited aloud each prayer.

AS THE SPRING FLOWERS BLOOMED around her apartment complex this year, Nuñez had some reasons for optimism. She had lost her hair in the chemotherapy, but the treatment had gone more smoothly than she expected. Doctors said that, so far, they had found no traces of the cancer. She spoke of her illness as if she were cured.

Nuñez felt more free in another way. A judge had sentenced her to probation only, no prison time, good news that came to her on a Thursday. From that day on, Nuñez has lit her Divino Niño candle every Thursday.

She was also happy that her oldest son, Joel, was able to leave the Dominican Republic and come to the US to live in Pennsylvania with his father, a fellow Dominican who had immigrated several years ago.

Soon Nuñez was strong enough to resume dancing with Robert in the dining room to their favorite CDs. She could once again ride her bike around the neighborhood and chase after Robert and Yandel at the local playground. Her hair was growing back - though Robert would still shout out to his mother, "It's time to put your wig on!" when his friends would arrive to play.

Sometimes, when his mother was distressed, Robert would give her a silent hug.

Though she knew the odds were against her, Nuñez hoped that her Cambridge lawyer, Susan Church, would be able to stop the deportation.

Church had warned Nuñez that since the 2001 terrorist attacks, federal authorities had shown little tolerance for law-breaking immigrants. Still, Church was prepared to argue that because she was battling cancer, Nuñez should be given special consideration to stay longer in the country. In addition, she would make the case that Nuñez's sale of two fake Social Security cards was not two crimes but a single crime because they were sold to the same person only a week apart.

Based on the law that would apply in Nuñez's case, an immigrant could be deported only after committing two or more such acts of "moral turpitude." If there was just one criminal act, she would be able to stay in the country.

ONE EVENING IN JUNE, Nuñez was pulling laundry from the dryer in the coin-operated laundromat in the apartment complex when her cellphone rang.

It was her good friend Socrate, who had been acting as translator for Nuñez and her lawyer.

"It's hard for me to tell you this," he began in Spanish. "Prepare yourself, but your lawyer said there is no hope. You have to prepare yourself to go back to the Dominican Republic."

He said the judge had rejected her entire case, including the "single scheme" argument. Nuñez still had a final hearing in the fall, but the case appeared to be hopeless.

Nuñez raced from the laundromat in tears, leaving behind her basket of clean clothes.

Pacing in front of her apartment, she accepted for the first time that she would have to decide her boys' future. The final deportation order seemed inevitable.

That night, she took her small prayer booklet, and read it aloud over and over.

Trying to see a way through all the conflicting pressures, her first impulse was to have the oldest boy stay with his father in Pennsylvania, but to keep her two younger boys with her.

"I have to bring them with me."

Through the next week, Nuñez suffered many sleepless nights, praying that God would intervene and enable her to stay in the United States. She wondered whether all of this - the cancer, the deportation - was a kind of divine punishment for her crimes. Was God making an example of her?

"Sometimes I lose hope and wonder, 'Why me?' " she said.

She struggled to imagine taking the boys with her, depriving them of the opportunity to grow up in the United States and instead locking them into the impoverished life of her native village. Though she had told people she had overcome her cancer, she still felt weak. Who would care for the boys if she was sick again? Her youngest boy was only a year old.

In late June Nuñez was talking with Fatima on the phone. She asked her sister some questions about an educational televison show on deportation that she had just watched.

"Why are you asking about this?" Fatima asked.

Nuñez could not contain her secret any longer. She broke down and told her sister about the pending deportation.

"Oh, God!" her sister cried out.

She asked: "What are you going to do? What about the boys?"

Nuñez told her she was planning to take the boys with her.

Fatima was shocked, silent.

The sisters ended their call.

A WEEK LATER, the two sisters stood in Fatima's kitchen. Fatima announced she had something to say. It was crazy to consider taking the boys back to their village in the Dominican Republic, she said. She listed the reasons: the poor health care, the shabby schools, the lack of jobs.

"You can't bring the boys back," she told her younger sister. "You have to think about what is best for the kids."

Robert and Yandel should come and live with her.

She was also on the brink of becoming a US citizen, she said, and her status in this country would be secure.

Nuñez had always admired her sensible, generous older sister, whose tireless care of her sprawling family was fueled by her deep Christian Pentecostal faith. Fatima had many children, but some were teenagers, old enough to help with the younger ones.

For the first time, Nuñez truly considered leaving her sons.

The sisters talked about how it could work. Nuñez could establish Fatima as the legal guardians of both boys. Fatima would try to make sure the children visited their mother in the Dominican Republic every year.

The two sisters sat across from each other, trying to keep their emotions in check. Nuñez realized her sister's plan felt right. It was the only way her boys could grow up in America. Bringing them back to the Dominican Republic would be a comfort for her, but wrong for them.

Nuñez drove home. As tears streamed down her face, she thought to herself, "That is what God would want."

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.