Mark Farrales figured his time in America could be up when he answered the door at his Reseda home to find two men standing there in black bulletproof vests emblazoned with three large white letters.
“It read ICE,” he said. “My heart just sank.”
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were there to arrest him for being in the country illegally.
Brought here by his parents as a child, the now-31-year-old Farrales faces imminent deportation back to the Philippines. His only hope appears to be for Congress to pass a private immigration bill that could grant him citizenship, a legal maneuver that is rarely successful.
Farrales arrived abruptly in the United States as a 10-year-old in 1990, just days after two alleged hit men shot his father twice in the head outside their home in Quezon City in the Philippines, he said in a telephone interview from the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster.
His father, Jaime, who survived the attack, was a prominent lawyer who often spoke out against government corruption and had just announced a bid for congress.
Fearing for their lives, the family escaped to Los Angeles using visitor visas and sought political asylum. Jaime Farrales argued that the politicians he’d rallied against had tried to have him killed. “I never got to see my house again after that night,” Mark Farrales said. “I was completely uprooted from my life there.”
As their father repeatedly applied, was denied and appealed for legal status in the U.S., Farrales and his three sisters assimilated and thrived.
Farrales went on to become valedictorian at Belmont High School, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a degree in government, earned a master’s degree at UC San Diego and was pursuing a doctorate there. “I was in the process of finishing my dissertation on corruption reform,” he said.
When his father died in 2006, so did the battle to legalize the family. Meanwhile, a deportation order and warrant for Farrales’ arrest were issued, said Leon Hazany, a Los Angeles immigration attorney who represents him.
Last month, the immigration agents were knocking at his door. “I was shocked. I didn’t know,” Farrales said. “I didn’t go digging around after he died. I just keep living my life.”
The agency contends that immigration courts have “consistently held that Mr. Farrales does not have legal basis to remain in the United States. He remains in ICE custody while the agency makes preparations to carry out the removal order,” the agency said in a statement.
Hazany said the family’s former attorneys botched Farrales’ father’s case and gave Farrales poor advice, landing him in this predicament.
Before leaving for Harvard, Farrales asked the attorneys if he should pursue his own political asylum application or apply for a student visa. They told him neither was available to him because he was included in his father’s case, Hazany said.
Two of his sisters obtained legal status when they married U.S. citizens, and the third is seeking to do the same. One sister has petitioned to get legal status for their mother.
Hazany has asked the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen Farrales’ case and hopes that even the introduction of a bill will delay the deportation long enough to mount a successful legal defense.
The introduction of a bill would “give Mark a fighting chance to pursue his own avenues for relief to remain in the United States and give him, for the first time, his day in court,” Hazany said.
In cases in which a private bill is introduced on behalf of an illegal immigrant, ICE has an agreement to delay deportation once it receives a request for an investigative report on the case from the congressional committee with jurisdiction, the agency said.
The agreement stays in effect for 45 days after the end of the congressional session. The current session is expected to end this week.
Hazany has contacted the offices of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D- Sherman Oaks) in hopes that they will introduce a bill on Farrales’ behalf.
Boxer’s and Feinstein’s offices said Friday that they were reviewing the case.
Sherman’s office is looking into the private bill option and investigating any other appropriate actions that could be of assistance to Farrales, spokesman Matt Farrauto said.
Each session of Congress receives a few dozen to more than a hundred private bill introductions, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. The vast majority of them amount to nothing.
On Wednesday, Congress approved two private bills — the first approvals since 2005.
One bill would grant legal status for the Japanese widow of a Marine from Tennessee who was killed in Iraq before the birth of their son.
The other, co-introduced by Feinstein, would grant citizenship to a Japanese man in San Diego whose mother was killed in a car accident when he was a teenager. He went on to live with a family member but was never legally adopted.
President Obama would have to sign the bills for them to become law.
Farrales has tried to make the best of his time at the detention center, where he sleeps on a bunk bed in barracks with about 70 other detainees. He began an impromptu English class there, teaching the language to about 10 detainees from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Somalia. He holds class daily and even assigns homework. “I have always wanted to contribute by learning something and sharing it,” Farrales said of his passion for teaching.
Mostly he reflects on the 21 years he has lived in the United States, a place he considers his home. He said he is most thankful for the good fortune of receiving an education and maintaining the friendships he made as a child in his Filipinotown neighborhood.
“I’m saddened but not angry,” Farrales said. If deported, “I wouldn’t be going home — I’d be forced to leave my home again.”