Abraham Chen stood in the hallway outside the federal courtroom in Lower Manhattan last week, soft wonder lighting his face. “I started this case on Feb. 4,1991,” he ruminated. “Yes, it’s been exactly 20 years. Twenty years and 11 days.”
Moments before, inside the courtroom, Chen had won his long-sought prize: the right to legal residency in the United States for himself and his wife Zvia.
Finally, the 44-year Israeli-born contractor and his mate could stay in their Lakewood, N.J., home without fear of deportation. Finally they could tend to their six children with no more than the everyday anxieties of typical suburban parents. And finally they could be secure that of their children Eldar in particular, their 8-year-old son with Down’s Syndrome and the center of their case, would be spared the wrenching dislocation that eviction from American soil may have brought.
Slowly making their way to the elevator, the Chens and five of their children, who had skipped their yeshiva classes for the trip to Manhattan’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement hearing rooms, were only beginning to absorb the good news.
For now 14-year-old Liave cried silently against her mother’s shoulder. For her part, Zvia tempered the subdued enthusiasm she shared with her husband with a dose of skepticism about final outcomes, especially in light of the decision by the government’s attorneys minutes before to reserve a later appeal.
After David Frenkel, the Chens’ attorney, explained that the opposition’s appeal option would likely amount to no more than a toothless formality, her slight, nervous smile widened.
“Yes,” she said quietly of Judge Steven Abrams’ favorable verdict for a “cancellation of removal” of the deportation threat. “I am happy.”
The case stems from the couple passing the 10-year threshold to apply for a green card and staying here with expired visas, although they say they were misinformed about the deadline. When the family cited the children’s needs as extenuating circumstances, a judge said those needs could be addressed in Israel.
The Chens’ plight may not have broken any records, but their two-decades case, older than their oldest child, was, say observers, extraordinarily long even for an immigration system notorious for drawn-out deportation reviews.
After playing out a series of temporary work visas for Abraham’s small contracting business, the Chens faced lengthy delays and resistance from the IRS to their application for permanent residency. Twelve years into the standoff the family endured a further setback with the diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome for their infant son Eldar.
At the same time, they hoped the special circumstances of Eldar’s condition would enhance their claim to residency, as happens in many, if not most similar cases that come before immigration officials. The Chens contended that Eldar required unique care and schooling best available in the U.S., and deportation to Israel would mean an unfamiliar environment with a new language that would prove traumatic.
“If I were teaching class in law school,” said Frenkel, the latest in a series of lawyers representing the family, “I would say, ‘Here’s a law-abiding family who have been here for more than the required 10 years, and they have a child with a hardship. I would never have anticipated a reaction like this. It’s textbook.”
Instead, to the dismay of the Chens and their successive attorneys, the government pressed its case.
Many reviews, hearings and expert witnesses later, government lawyers challenged Abraham Chen’s tax history, which was rejected by Judge Abrams.
The Chens can now stay or travel outside the country as they please.
Citing policy, the ICE attorneys’ office declined comment.
“You hope for a judge that will grant the request of a family in special circumstances,” said David Grunblatt, head of the immigration group at the law firm Proskauer Rose, “and you expect the government’s attorney won’t be extraordinarily driven. It all depends on how arbitrary the system is going to be.”
From his own experience, Grunblatt cited the example of Iranian Jewish students, whose deportation or continued residence hinged on this or that office they were assigned to, all but randomly, inside the same immigration office building.
The Chens are now contemplating a visit to Israel, a country none of their children have ever seen, knowing they can return to their newly permanent home.
Said Oryane Chen, 14: “I’m looking forward to meeting my cousins.”
Ironically, ICE’s long campaign against the Chens may have worked against it, according to attorney Frenkel. “Even if we lost today,” he said, “we would have appealed. The appeal would easily drag out to two years.” By then, the Chen’s oldest child, 19-year-old Shlomo, would turn 21. And, by a quirk of the naturalization system, as an adult citizen he could sponsor green cards for his parents.
“In the end,” concluded Frenkel, “we couldn’t lose.”