Maria Perez, a professional opera singer living in North Buffalo, is being deported back to Venezuela -- a country plagued by street violence where she constantly fears for her life.
Perez, 43, from Caracas, is a classically trained soprano who has graced concert stages for the past 27 years in Buffalo and St. Catharines, Ont., as well as in Caracas; Milan, Italy; and Moscow.
She has a deportation order to leave the United States by March 8. In 10 days, Perez will be forced to return to her native land, where unemployment is high, more than half of the 24 million inhabitants are poor, and the economic crisis has induced a crime wave of street robberies, murders and kidnappings.
"I'm scared to go back there," Perez said. "Venezuela is not safe at all. Venezuela has a big political problem, there is terrorism, and you cannot even go to the supermarket in peace."
Perez, who was also deported from Canada last month, said she is being deported from the United States because during her immigration proceedings here, she decided to go to St. Catharines, believing that she had a better chance of making a successful refugee claim in Canada.
Kevin Corsaro, Buffalo spokesman for the Customs and Border Protection Division of the Homeland Security Department, was unable to comment on the specifics of Perez's case for privacy reasons but offered a general explanation of a person in her situation.
"The fact is, an individual who comes here as a legal non-immigrant on a B1 visitor's visa status is allowed to stay here for up to one year, but at the expiration of that visa, the individual is supposed to properly leave the U.S.," Corsaro said Sunday.
Corsaro said immigration officials do take humanitarian reasons into consideration when issuing deportations.
"Individuals have the ability to claim political asylum if they can prove credible fear," said Corsaro. "If a person will be persecuted when they return to their country, that individual may be able to obtain political asylum."
Perez said her only son, Julio Gomez Perez, 21, a percussion musician, who was also deported from Canada and the United States, went back to Venezuela Feb. 12 and awaits his Canadian wife's petition for him to return to St. Catharines.
He was forced to leave behind his family in St. Catharines -- his wife, Heidi Gomez, and their 4-month-old son, Jordan.
"It's very sad," his mother said. "They're splitting up a family. . . . Our lives are in the hands of immigration [officials]."
Perez has taught private vocal lessons in Buffalo and recorded songs for educational bilingual CDs in Toronto.
She has also performed in Buffalo's Central Library and Buffalo Academy for the Performing and Visual Arts. One of her most notable local performances came in 2002, when she sang on El Barrio, a public service television show on WKBW-TV, where she met widely acclaimed Buffalo Philharmonic Music Director JoAnn Falletta, who praised her voice.
Beginning as a soprano in the Caracas Philharmonic Choir at 16, Perez received her formal training in Moscow and Milan, before returning to Venezuela, where she worked for 10 years singing with a symphony orchestra, performing solo concerts and working as a vocal teacher.
Perez was on a visitor's visa when she and her son came to Buffalo in 2000. They lived in North Buffalo for three years until April 2003, when they moved to St. Catharines on the belief that she was not eligible for refugee status in the United States and had a better chance of making a refugee claim in Canada.
While Perez was living in St. Catharines, she missed her American refugee hearing and was deported from the United States in June 2003.
More bad news came, Perez said, after a Toronto immigration consultant failed to file her refugee claim paperwork, which meant she was deported from Canada on Jan. 24.
Since then, she has been living on Delaney Avenue in North Buffalo with her mother, Francisca Perez. All of her siblings -- her two brothers and her two sisters -- are also living in Buffalo.
Perez has also reached out to the International Institute of Buffalo, where she requested legal assistance and her case is being reviewed by attorneys in its legal department, according to Mariana Bauman, an accredited representative at the institute who represented Perez during her immigration proceedings in 2003.
"I just want the opportunity to be safer in America," said Perez. "I'm really hoping that someone can help me."