Hospitals & Asylums    






Deportation Case Riles Colorado Town. New York Times HA-13-12-04



RIDGWAY, Colo., Dec. 8 - The Sargsyan family came from Armenia in the 1990's already primed with many of the attributes that small-town rural America respects. They worked hard, paid their bills on time, learned English rapidly, excelled in school and were good-looking as well, people here say.


In this mostly white ranching and retirement town of about 700 people near the Telluride ski resort, the Sargsyans also brought a tincture of foreign exoticism that many residents found bracing.


"These are the kind of people you want as immigrants, the kind that made this country great," said Dr. Richard Engdahl, pastor of the United Church of the San Juans, which meets in the local community center.


But what happened next says as much about the town as it does about the family. After the Sargsyans were threatened with deportation earlier this year - they had entered the country on student visas and gotten jobs instead, the government said - a kind of collective howl went up here over what was perceived as a terrible injustice.


The anger filtered through the tiny Ridgway School, where Hayk Sargsyan (pronounced sarg-SEE-yan) is a senior in the 17-member class of 2005. And it erupted from Dr. Engdahl's church, where Hayk's sister, Meri, is a pianist.


The Sargsyans were in trouble - Hayk, Meri and two other family members were placed in detention in early November - and many people said that was all they needed to know. Dr. Engdahl offered at least half a dozen sermons on the subject.


Heidi Comstock, an assistant office manager at a medical clinic up the road from Ridgway's one traffic light, said, "This was an opportunity to make a difference at a time when there's a feeling of helplessness on a lot of other levels about the world."


A fund-raiser with Armenian food and a silent auction raised $15,000 for legal bills. Students began a letter-writing campaign to anyone who might be able to help, from the county commission to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau.


A seven-hour bus trip was organized to visit the four family members who were being held at the immigration detention center near Denver, and about a third of the town's 150 middle and high school students went. The student body president, Rachel Overton, 17, said the experience taught her how to properly organize a protest rally.


[On Thursday, the family members in detention were released; they are still awaiting the outcome of their case. A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said officials had decided that the Sargsyans presented neither a risk of flight nor a threat to national security. On Saturday, the town held a welcome-home reception at a park.]


But the effort to save one family has also exposed the town, people here say, to some thorny questions and consequences. The family patriarch, Ruben Sargsyan, 62, who had been a scientist in Armenia working on optics for the Soviet space program, lost his job frying doughnuts on the night shift at a local bakery after the furor erupted, residents say.


The uncertainty about the family's permanent status has led some people to say they fear a loss of innocence as a small town accustomed to participatory democracy bumps up against a vast and faceless bureaucracy. If a local official in Ridgway makes a boneheaded decision, a resident can step up and say so the next time they bump into each other at the True Grit Café, which is the closest thing to a town nerve center. The Department of Homeland Security, with its tens of thousands of employees of somber mandate to protect the nation, does not lend itself to hands-on folksiness.


"People here still have this faith and belief that if we write the right letter and reach the right politician, we can make a difference," said Susan Lacy, the secondary school principal at Ridgway School. "I worry about the students becoming cynical too soon," she added.


Students like Rachel Plavidal, a 17-year-old classmate of Hayk, say the government is simply wrong in prosecuting the Sargsyans.


"It's definitely giving me a negative impression of the government, that they could do this," she said. "It just seems like the laws are being compromised."

Other people say the effort illuminates how little attention is paid to other immigrants in the community, especially those from Mexico. And most people admit that the support probably would not be so universal if the family were Muslim. The Sargsyans are loved, many people say, because they fit in so well, and they fit in because they personified the shared values and ideals of the town.

"These people stood up and took part in this community, and let's face it, they have more in common, culturally, with this community than a lot of the Hispanics," said Rodney Fitzhugh, a lawyer who practices in Ridgway and nearby Montrose and who represented a member of the Sargsyan family, Nvart Idinyan, 30, in a divorce case a few years ago.

Mr. Fitzhugh said that he supported the campaign for the family, but that he also hoped it made people think about immigrants not as well loved as the Sargsyans.

"I champion it in part because it might shed light on these other cases," he said.

The Ouray County sheriff, Dominic Mattivi Jr., said he thought the Sargsyan case revealed the uneven enforcement of immigration law by the government in small communities like Ridgway, where Hispanic immigrants have become economic mainstays, especially in the construction and tourism industries.

"Unless a Mexican commits a felony, they don't want to hear about it," Sheriff Mattivi said of the immigration service.

And the rules are tough to enforce, he said, given the proximity and porousness of the United States' border with Mexico. One Mexican resident who was recently convicted on a drug charge was deported, Sheriff Mattivi said, but was back in town and at work just two weeks later.

The family's visa troubles began after Ms. Idinyan's divorce, when her ex-husband turned in the family to the authorities. Family members say the ex-husband, a United States citizen who has since left the country, was also the person who arranged the family's immigration, defrauding them in the process. He took money from the Sargsyans and other Armenians, they say, for arranging student visas that he falsely promised did not require enrollment in school.

The family's lawyer, Jeff Joseph, has filed an application under a visa program for victims of immigrant trafficking. Mr. Joseph said the two boys, Hayk and Gevorg, who is a sophomore in chemical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, were legally adopted before their 16th birthdays by Ms. Idinyan's new husband, Max Noland, who is a United States citizen, and that they should be protected from deportation by that shield as well.

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Carl Rusnok, said he could not comment on the outlook for the family's case. He said he thought the matter would be concluded within the next few months.

Dr. Engdahl at the Church of the San Juans said the Sargsyan case was bigger than one town or one family because of the questions it raised about how security fears after Sept. 11 were changing the nation.

"The country once welcomed people like them, but if we're not that country any more, because we're so concerned about being violated, what does that do to the United States?" he said. "That's the question we should be asking."