Maura Gomez believes that if she hadn't tried to be a good Samaritan, she wouldn't be counting the days until she has to leave the country.
"I just said one word, dejenlo [leave him alone]," she recalled. "And that word is costing me everything."
Gomez, a 38-year-old single mother of two, says she spoke out when she saw a man being beaten by a pair of uniformed men in dark jackets. She called 911. When the police arrived, she found out that the men in the jackets were Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. And because Gomez is an illegal immigrant, she was suddenly in deep trouble.
The incident last October in the Mid-Wilshire district led to Gomez's arrest on suspicion of interfering in the work of a peace officer. Los Angeles police officers turned her over to the INS, and an immigration judge has ordered her to leave the country.
Since both her children were born in the United States and are American citizens, Gomez faces some difficult choices as the date of her departure nears. She can either be separated from them or take them to her native Honduras, a country they have never seen.
"If I have to take them to Honduras, it's going to be a disaster for them," she said in Spanish. "I'm ruining the life of my children because I tried to do the right thing."
The incident, widely reported in the Spanish-language news media, has served as a reminder to thousands of illegal immigrants how close they dance to deportation in their daily lives, long after they have begun to establish roots here.
Gomez, who has lived in the U.S. seven years, was never charged with a crime in the incident, but is being forced to leave under the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The law made it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to remain in the country, even if they have lived here several years.
The law was approved in response to growing anti-immigration sentiment and a widespread belief that illegal immigration has contributed to an increase in crime, an assertion challenged by immigrant rights advocates.
Gomez's attorney, Alma Rosa Nieto, is troubled by what she views as the harshness of the new federal law. "She's never committed a crime in her life, she's always worked hard to pay her taxes, but none of that matters," she said.
With only a second-grade education in her native country, Gomez supports her family working as a nanny and in other low-paying jobs. She is currently free on bond pending a May 29 hearing before an immigration judge, at which her attorney will seek to have the deportation date pushed back.
INS District Director Richard Rogers says Gomez and another woman detained in the incident, Zoila Rodriguez, intervened when agents were attempting to apprehend Rony Vasquez, an illegal immigrant who had escaped from an INS van parked at the downtown Federal Building.
INS agents tracked down Vasquez at a former address. When the agents tried to take him into custody, he resisted and assaulted the agents, ending up in the lobby of an apartment building where Gomez was visiting a friend, Rogers said.
He said Wednesday that he could not recall how Gomez interfered with the immigration officers. In October, however, he told the Spanish-language daily La Opinion that Gomez was inciting the crowd of witnesses against the agents.
"She was interfering in the performance of the officers' duties," Rogers told The Times. "That's against the law."
Rogers pointed out, however, that Gomez could have been deported even if she hadn't said a word. "Anybody that is in this country illegally is subject to removal immediately," he said.
Even Gomez's attorney agrees that everything about the incident conforms with federal law and the policy of Los Angeles police, who briefly detained the two women.
LAPD officials are required to notify immigration officials when they arrest illegal immigrants for all but the most insignificant misdemeanors.
Sitting with her children in her Los Angeles apartment, Gomez recalled the Oct. 7 incident, crying at times.
She had been cooking dinner in the apartment of a friend in the 400 block of South Kenmore Avenue when she heard a commotion coming from the lobby. Her children--Jeffrey, 7, and Alejandra, 6--were playing in the lobby, so she rushed to the door.
A man was screaming in Spanish for help, she said. "He was saying, 'Senora, save me.' These men were kicking him. They had him tied up."
"With his hands behind his back," Jeffrey added.
"I said, 'Leave him alone.' My children were trembling," Gomez said. "What else was I going to do? I thought, 'They have guns; a shot will kill my kids.' I called the police."
Attorney Ramin R. Younessi, who is representing Vasquez, said he has obtained tapes of the 911 call that Gomez and Rodriguez and other residents of the apartment building made to the police.
"These two ladies are seeing this guy being beaten up and they have no idea who is doing it," Younessi said. "They're begging the LAPD to show up and stop this madness."
Vasquez was charged with assault. INS officials said he bit one of the agents at the scene, an allegation his attorney disputes.
Gomez and Rodriguez were not charged, but were locked up at the Terminal Island detention center for being in the United States illegally.
Complained Younessi: "They're being deported just because they're nice people and they felt sorry for this guy."
Gomez said she spent nine days in INS detention, worrying about her children, who were staying with friends.
"All I could do was cry in jail. I couldn't sleep," she said. "I don't wish it on my worst enemy."
Attorney Nieto said Gomez has run out of legal options. "There is no potential remedy," she said. "It would have to be within the discretion of the INS to give her some voluntary extension."
With her days in the United States numbered, Gomez worries how her children will adjust to life in Honduras. And she wonders if she should have done something differently when the INS tried to arrest a man outside her door.
"If I offended the immigration agents, I ask that they forgive me," she said. "I am a person who understands the laws of this country and knows they have to be respected."