Tali Lopez wants a happy ending to her “fairy tale” story.
But six months after marrying an old friend and settling in her native Buffalo, Lopez is fighting for her new husband.
Omar Lopez, a citizen of Spain visiting here on a visa waiver, was arrested after a traffic stop last month and has been held at the Federal Detention Center in Batavia ever since.
Lopez is battling her husband’s deportation – he could be forced to leave at any time – and plans to host a public rally at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Niagara Square to solicit support for him.
Friends and family say Lopez’s deportation is an overreaction to a relatively minor infraction. He overstayed his visa waiver by several months.
Even worse, they say, the government’s prosecution is tearing apart a family with deep roots in Buffalo. The family includes his infant stepdaughter, Mila, whom he plans to adopt, and dozens of relatives.
“He just wants to work and support his family,” said Julie Kruger, Lopez’s lawyer.
Kruger has appealed to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that detained Lopez, and hopes ICE will grant a stay that would allow him to remain in Buffalo.
Lopez’s case is the latest in a series of deportations across the country that immigration lawyers and other critics say indicates the Obama administration’s hypocritical approach.
The administration has publicly indicated it would focus deportation efforts on criminals and other high-risk detainees, not law-abiding visitors married to U.S. citizens.
If that’s the case, Kruger said, then why is Lopez still in custody?
“He is not an enforcement priority at all,” she said.
Lopez is here on a visa waiver program that allows visitors from certain countries to stay in the U.S. for 90 days. His deadline for leaving passed last May. He elected to stay and, according to his wife, had begun the process of applying for permanent resident status.
Tali Lopez says she and her husband met four years ago in Spain
She returned to the U.S. and he eventually followed. They decided to marry and live here.
Lopez says her husband also decided to seek permanent residency and hired an immigration consultant. It still took several months to complete the paperwork, she said, and before they could finish, he was pulled over for a traffic violation on Feb. 12.
Found to be driving without a license and in the country illegally, he was arrested and ordered detained in Batavia.
The final decision was made, not by an immigration judge, but by Michael T. Phillips, ICE’s field office director in Buffalo.
“As a visa overstay, his case is a priority under the agency’s current enforcement strategy, which focuses on individuals who have abused the visa or visa waiver programs,” said ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls.
Officials also noted that, under the visa waiver program, Lopez was subject to mandatory detention.
Tali Lopez says she has written two letters to Phillips since her husband was sent to Batavia, and he shows no signs of altering his decision.
Still, she holds out hope that something will change his mind. “I want him to consider that we are, one, a family, two-thirds of which is American,” she said of her herself and Mila. “We want, above all, to be together and to be in this country. It’s my country. I don’t want to have to leave it.”
Lopez says she and Mila will, if necessary, follow her husband back to Spain. She also says she feels like she’s the one being forced to leave.
“I don’t want to be deported,” she said. “I want to stay in the United States. I want to raise my family here.”