Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 41
 
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
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Local Immigrant Seeks to Bring Awareness of Plight of Non-Citizens Through His Story

Dilshanie Perera

Manolo Donis is a local resident and a model citizen: he was the main chef at an area restaurant for seven years and a worker in the food services industry for the past 13, a volunteer fireman who recently rose to the level of captain, a father of two, and a committed member of St. Paul’s Church.

The only problem is that he is technically not quite a citizen, having come to the United States at age 17 from Guatemala without the necessary legal documents. Because of the current laws, his immigration status now threatens to tear apart his family and upset the life he has established in the area.

On November 15, an immigration court in Newark will decide “if they’re going to let me stay, or if I have to leave voluntarily,” Mr. Donis acknowledged. “If they say no, I can appeal the case and keep fighting, but that’s another headache. The process has been forever. For years now.”

When he arrived stateside in 1997, Mr. Donis spoke no English, and spent three days in Brooklyn before arriving in Princeton. He is now a fluent bilingual speaker, something he attributes to the help of the people he met through the food industry, and his own interest in learning the language.

“I started working in the restaurant business, and I basically fell in love with it,” Mr. Donis said. “I want to go to school and get my certificates, but this whole thing has stopped me from doing that,” he added, referring to the deportation hearings.

In 1999, the owner of the restaurant where he was employed started a work visa petition on Mr. Donis’s behalf, but the business was sold before the legal process pertaining to his status was completed. With the termination of the petition, Mr. Donis was automatically put into “removal proceedings,” which he has been contesting with the assistance of Princeton-based immigration lawyer Stephen Traylor.

Mr. Traylor explained that the initial case had been largely approved. They presented the courts with documentation that Mr. Donis had not taken the job from an American citizen when hired by the restaurant. “We had clear evidence; the Department of Labor had certified that.” He has also been paying taxes and filing a tax return under a tax payer identification number obtained from the IRS.

With a son aged three-and-a-half and a 13-year-old stepdaughter who are both U.S. citizens, Mr. Donis and his wife are worried about the outcome of the hearings.

“He’s their support,” Mr. Traylor said, of Mr. Donis’s role in the family. “He supports them financially, and he’s their father too.”

“You think all of these terrible things, like what if they say no?” Mr. Donis admitted. “What’s going to happen to my family? Where are they going to go? What are they going to do? It is a nightmare.”

Nonetheless, both Mr. Donis and Mr. Traylor remain optimistic, with the latter explaining that there is a provision in the law. “If you can show that the person has been here for more than 10 years, and if you can show they have a child, parent, or spouse who is a U.S. citizen, and they have no criminal record, no problems with the law, and are of good moral character, that is all good. The hardest part, however, is that you have to show extreme and unusual hardship for the children or parents should the deportation proceed.”

Mr. Donis has not seen his parents or siblings since coming to the U.S. With nine siblings, he explained that it was hard for his father to send everyone to school, “and I said, I have to help out in some way.”

“It was a hard decision for them to let me come here at 17 years old. My mother was devastated, and I didn’t know she was pregnant at the time I left … by the time I got here, my brother was born. I don’t know him in person, only through pictures. He’s now 13 years old,” Mr. Donis said.

About five years ago, Mr. Donis was inspired to “do something for the community” and having “always been interested in emergency services,” signed up to be a volunteer firefighter at an area firehouse.

“I graduated in ’06 from the fire school, and was a lieutenant, and now am a captain,” Mr. Donis, who recently completed his firefighter 2 training, said, emphasizing that one of the most gratifying aspects of time spent there is that “you have the knowledge in case you see something happen, in the street or anywhere. You’re prepared to help other people.”

For now, Mr. Donis continues to work and volunteer and raise his children while he is awaiting the hearing.

“Here, in the U.S., there is freedom to achieve the things you want to. Unfortunately, the immigration thing holds you up.”

For more information on immigration and area services, please visit the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund at laldef.org.

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