exposing the dark side of adoption
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Akron Beacon Journal (OH)


Author: Julie Wallace and Gina Mace, Beacon Journal writers



That single word -- pronounced twice two years ago in a Medina County courtroom -- ended life as an American for Sandra Orantes Cruz.

The 30-year old mother of three now sits in the Seneca County Jail -- fighting a deportation order that both she and her attorney, James Chin of Cleveland, say she has little chance of overturning.

But she's battling nonetheless -- motivated by her fear of returning to El Salvador, a country she hasn't seen since she was adopted at age 6 by a Twinsburg couple, and the thought of leaving behind her three young sons.

"Going to prison is one thing," Orantes Cruz said during a call from the jail. But losing her children?

"What do I have after that?" she said.

Orantes Cruz grew up here but never took the proper steps to claim citizenship. The status leaves her and others like her at risk of being sent away for criminal misdeeds.

In the case of Orantes Cruz, an ex-boyfriend, alcohol, a knife and a small cut on his finger landed her in trouble.

And when she gambled by taking her case to trial in January 2003, she risked far more than her freedom.

The three years she spent in prison and jail have become a life sentence.

"I've made so many mistakes," Orantes Cruz said, crying. "But I didn't ask to come to this country. I know I'm going back. I know it. And I don't know how I'll survive."


Orantes Cruz, her two sisters and two brothers ended up in an orphanage in El Salvador after their mother was stabbed to death in 1978 and their father gave up custody.

Four of the children were adopted by American families. The immigration paperwork at the time of Orantes Cruz's 1981 adoption shows a picture of a young girl -- dark haired, dark eyed -- and looking every bit like the annual school pictures proudly displayed in homes everywhere.

Orantes Cruz came to Twinsburg to live with Gerald and Grace Wrobel, who already were raising four boys and living with the loss five years earlier of a 13-month-old daughter who drowned.

But life was not idyllic: By age 16, Orantes Cruz had run away more than once. The last time -- she lived in a Cleveland youth shelter for several days after the money she'd saved from a job at Mr. Hero ran out -- she never returned home. She says things she told a shelter counselor rankled her family so much they didn't want her back. The Wrobels have declined to comment.

So Orantes Cruz began life on her own -- a life made more difficult with no high school diploma or viable skills. She bounced around -- living with biological sister Morena Sweitzer and her husband, Paul, for a while, and with another biological sister, Gloria.

She found work, first as a bar maid, then as an exotic dancer.

"I hated dancing," she said in one of the many lengthy letters to her attorney. "I had to be drunk to do it. Honestly, I did like the money and with no education I wasn't going to get another job and make that kind of money."

She met her husband -- an Army man -- while dancing. They married, and he's the father of her oldest son, John, whom she calls Nino. But that relationship, like a subsequent one with the father of her second son, Alejandro, was marred by abuse, she said.

During a brief separation from Alejandro's father while they were living in Georgia, Orantes Cruz said she got drunk and had sex with a stranger, an encounter that left her pregnant with her youngest son, Owen.

Afterward, she and Alejandro's father reconciled -- she said he knew the baby she was carrying wasn't his -- but they finally separated for good after a knock-down brawl that Nino walked in on.

"Nino was so little still, and the look on his face . . . was not something I ever wanted to see again," she wrote.

So in July 2001, a pregnant Orantes Cruz returned to Ohio -- with no job, no money and young sons. She sought refuge at the Battered Women's Shelter & The Rape Crisis Center of Summit and Medina Counties, where a program director would later describe her as behaving in a manner consistent with those suffering from battered woman syndrome.

By April 2002, social service agencies had helped her find and furnish an apartment.

But her respite was short- lived: By that September, she was under indictment.

"I was like a kid who suddenly had freedom, and I went kind of wild," she said from the jail where she is being held for deportation.

"I was ashamed of myself. I wasn't talking to my sisters," she said. "I felt I had failed. So I started drinking. I was having a hard time -- I was walking four miles to work and back and trying to make sure we had enough money for food and stuff. I just wished I'd called my sisters."


The cut on David Karl's finger was less than three-quarters of an inch.

The Medina man told police Orantes Cruz threatened him with a knife and held him hostage in his home after they'd both spent the evening drinking. He said he grabbed the knife from her and was injured. Court records say the cut was exactly 1.5 centimeters.

For Orantes Cruz, who admits she has little recollection of the night, the criminal penalty that came along with the charges -- a first-degree felony count of kidnapping, a second-degree felony count of assault -- was far less frightening than the other aspect: deportation.

Her attorney, David Gedrock, took the case to trial -- trying in vain to convince the jury that the case was a date rape.

He didn't put Orantes Cruz on the stand. He said recently he feared she'd convict herself because of her struggle with the English language. And a witness he wanted to testify -- her boyfriend at the time -- didn't show up even though he promised he'd do so without a subpoena.

Gedrock said he talked through the deportation issue with Orantes Cruz. Orantes Cruz said Gedrock didn't -- avoiding the subject by saying immigration law wasn't his area of expertise. Both agree there was a plea offer on the table, but neither can remember the terms.

Gedrock does recall that the deal would not have eliminated the deportation threat.

"I felt bad for her," he said. "I didn't think it was a fair decision."

But an expert on immigration consequences in criminal convictions, Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, said being found guilty of felonious assault and kidnapping wouldn't automatically mean deportation.

The immigration laws are so complicated -- not every aggravated felony under the law falls into the deportation category -- that he encourages criminal defense lawyers to seek help from an immigration specialist when they handle such cases.

The organization provides advice, referrals and lists of possible pleas that don't trigger deportation.

"With no prior criminal history, if she could have pled to felonious assault and gotten 364 days in prison, she wouldn't be deportable at all," Kesselbrenner said.

Medina County Prosecutor Dean Holman said he is willing to take whatever steps are needed to allow Orantes Cruz to stay in the country.

"She's been punished," the prosecutor said. "She served her prison sentence, and I think it would be unfair for her to have to leave the country that she has lived in since she was 6."

He went to bat for another Medina County resident, Joao Herbert, who was deported to Brazil in 2000 after a drug conviction. Herbert, who was adopted by a Wadsworth couple as a child, was murdered in Brazil by gang members in June 2004.

"I didn't think Joao should have been deported," Holman said. "He'd lived his whole life here. But for some paperwork, he was an American citizen."


When Orantes Cruz landed in prison, she became another statistic of the 1996 law that erased nearly all the leeway immigration judges previously had when deciding a deportation case.

The immediate fallout was that many of those adopted from foreign countries who found themselves tangling with American justice learned the hard way that adoption papers weren't enough.

A new law that took effect in 2001 gives adoptees automatic citizenship, but it applies only to new adoptions and to those younger than 18 -- leaving Orantes Cruz, who didn't apply for citizenship, unprotected when she found herself in handcuffs.

Lee Gelernt, senior staff counsel for the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, said Orantes Cruz is just one of many facing the loss of life as they know it as a result of a criminal conviction.

"People daily are being forced to leave behind the country they've called home and oftentimes are doing it while leaving their family behind," Gelernt said. "I'd like to say it's a rare situation, but it happens every day."

Before the immigration laws were stiffened in 1996, a judge could take other factors -- such as life history and children -- into consideration.

Chin, Orantes Cruz's current attorney, who has focused on immigration law for 25 years, said he would like to have seen Orantes Cruz's difficult history presented to the jury for consideration. She talked at length in her letter about her fear of being pinned down -- something he said may have prompted her actions that night and might have swayed the jury.

"It's a very sad story," said Chin, who wasn't allowed to present any of that history to the immigration judge before the deportation order. "She's had all kinds of problem with men . . . a long history of abuse. But the judges don't have any discretion. They look at the conviction, and where there's an aggravated felony, there's nothing to assert."

Even so, Chin filed a notice of appeal -- a motion he hopes will delay deportation for at least a few months. He's also searching for a criminal lawyer for post-conviction relief -- to fight, in essence, to erase the conviction.

He admits it's a long shot, and he's racing against the clock: The deportation order, which the appeal should stay, called for her to be shipped out by Sunday, according to her sister, Morena Sweitzer. But that has not happened yet.

Sweitzer, whose own blended family includes four boys, has taken her sister's three sons -- now 10, 5 and 3 -- into her Akron home. She and her husband fear for her sister's fate. Orantes Cruz no longer speaks Spanish, the language of El Salvador, and they have no contacts there.

She said the immigration service said the boys could join her sister, but that's something neither she nor her sister wants. The sisters don't have good memories of El Salvador -- their mother's murder coupled with the civil war during which they recall seeing bodies being dumped in cemeteries.

"She loves her boys," Sweitzer said. "If she does get deported, she's not going to make it without her boys. But her boys will never make it there. They are American."

Orantes Cruz's voice brightens when she is asked about her sons -- Nino, the smart, responsible one; Alejandro (also known as Ali), the introspective one; and Owen, her baby whom she acknowledges she doesn't really know since she went to prison when he was 11 months old.

She said she tried during a prison visit to explain to Nino what might happen to her. She said she couldn't help but begin crying when he responded.

"He told me, 'I don't want to hear about it.' He said, 'Just pray.' "


1) Morena Sweitzer (center) is caring for her own family and her imprisoned sister's three children. From left, Alejandro, 5; Joshua, 9 (Sweitzer's son); Owen, 3; and John Jr., 10.

2) Sandra Orantes Cruz's three sons Owen (left), Alejandro and John Jr. (standing) pose for a picture during a jail visit this summer. An immigrants' rights advocate says proper representation might have helped Orantes Cruz avoid deportation.


Julie Wallace can be reached at 330-996-3542 or jwallace@thebeaconjournal.com

2005 Oct 4