- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) - You don’t break a deathbed promise.

That’s the mantra Michelle Bosak used every time a new obstacle sprang up, blocking her adopted daughter’s path to becoming a legal immigrant.

The realization that her beautiful, smart and kind daughter — a girl who dreamed of going to college and traveling the world — might not get to do that? Well, that wasn’t acceptable to Bosak.

“I was not stopping until I got her a green card,” Michelle said. “She needs to have the same privileges and everything else my other kids have.”

So, the Bosaks did what they had done so many times since Alejandra Lara first joined their dinner table. They found a way.

A family grows by 1

Teachers often joke they want to adopt a student.

Bosak, an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Bethlehem, actually did it.

Years later, Michelle and her husband Jeff don’t find it remarkable that they didn’t hesitate to take in a fourth child after having three of their own.

“What am I going to say? No. Just ship her back?,” Jeff said, shaking his head to show that wasn’t an option. “We just did it.”

In fact, Michelle didn’t even consult Jeff before offering to care for Alejandra nine years ago. She was just drawn to this shy, sweet, well-behaved little girl whose mother was dying of a rare cancer.

“I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t even ask my husband about it,” Michelle said. “(At first), it was mostly to not have her away from her mom.”

Alejandra was born in Honduras to Samira Cardenas, a gutsy nurse who thought nothing of strapping a backpack of medicine on her back and riding to mountain villages to deliver a baby or care for the sick.

Alejandra’s father Marvin Lara went to the U.S. when she was a baby, leaving Samira to care for Alejandra and two other children.

Samira, who had briefly studied in Tuscon, Arizona, dreamed of a better life for her children in America. She applied for a visa but her application was rejected.

That was when Samira decided she’d have to immigrate illegally, a decision that meant leaving her elder children behind.

She arranged for smugglers to get her across the Mexican border into Texas by crossing the Rio Grande. And she made the difficult choice to give 5-year-old Alejandra to a truck driver, who pretended to be her father to get her across the border.

After Houston, they first went to Miami. But Erlan Fuentes, a man with whom Samira crossed the border, told her about Bethlehem and they headed north.

All three of them liked the former steel town. Samira found work at Texas Roadhouse, where she often pulled 12-hour shifts. It was frustrating to Samira she couldn’t work as a nurse in the U.S., Michelle said.

Samira loved the Bethlehem Area School District’s Lincoln Elementary School so much she chose to open-enroll her daughter there, rather than her neighborhood elementary school. She thought education was so important, Michelle Bosak said.

“She was a really good person,” said Alejandra, now 18. “She tried really hard to be there for me.”

When Alejandra began first grade, she knew no English, so she was put in the so-called ESOL program, which would lead her to the Bosaks. Although, Michelle didn’t teach Alejandra until third grade, Alejandra was in the same class with Michelle’s son Brett.

Meanwhile, Samira thought her life was coming together. She fell in love with Erlan and they married. She dreamed of reuniting with her elder kids in Honduras.

But when Alejandra was in third grade, Samira got a shocking diagnosis of adrenal carcinoma — a cancer so rare that only about 200 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society.

During parent-teacher conferences that November, fellow teacher Craig Downey stopped Michelle in the hallway and asked her to translate for Samira, who was in his class upset. The story of the cancer poured out.

Samira feared she was going to have to send Alejandra to her father’s home in Maryland.

“She felt she wasn’t going to able to care for Alejandra,” Michelle recalled.

Neither teacher wanted to lose Alejandra as a student, so they offered to give Alejandra rides to and from school.

Soon, Alejandra was spending most of her time with the Bosaks, who live within the boundaries of Lincoln Elementary. Michelle watched the girl come out of her shell each day, climbing trees in the yard and making a best friend.

At home, the hits kept coming. Samira learned she was pregnant despite being on birth control, which was rendered ineffective by the cancer.

A devout Catholic, she refused to consider abortion, delaying treatment until baby Victoria was born. (Today Victoria lives with her father Erlan, Alejandra’s stepdad).

When she became too weak to care for Alejandra, Samira asked the Bosaks for Alejandra to move in with them. They quickly agreed.

“She had baggage but she was just so easygoing and good,” Michelle said. “Her mom just wanted the best for Alejandra and she just knew she couldn’t do it.”

By 2008, it was clear Samira did not have long. Samira didn’t want to send Alejandra back to Honduras or to live with her undocumented father.

She begged the Bosaks: Become Alejandra’s legal guardians. Adopt her.

And that’s when Michelle made that deathbed promise.

Alejandra’s mother died the last day of her fifth-grade school year. Michelle became her legal guardian a few weeks later.

The Bosaks’ other three children, Jared, Brett and Carly, weren’t fazed.

“Over time, she just became like another sister,” said Brett, 18. “It just felt she was already part of the family, but adopting her was just putting a label on it.”

Carly, now 12, didn’t mind she had to share a room.

“I was happy to get a sister because living with boys was getting on my nerves,” Carly said.

Four years later, Michelle is able to deliver on part of her promise to Samira.

On Valentine’s Day, they adopted Alejandra, an honor roll student who speaks English now like she was born here. Her biological father agreed to give up his parental rights, but Alejandra remains close with him. He helps provide for her financially.

The citizenship part proves more daunting.

“It wasn’t a choice I made”

Michelle did not initially realize that Alejandra was undocumented. Alejandra didn’t know herself; Samira didn’t emphasize it.

“I had no idea when I was younger,” said Alejandra, now a senior at Liberty High School.

And neither fully understood the implications until Alejandra got older and wanted to drive, to go to college. They turned to attorneys and Robert Hessel, an enthusiastic volunteer immigration advocate at Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley, formerly the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations.

Hessel has known Alejandra since she was a small girl, when Samira sought help from the center.

Alejandra qualified for President Barack Obama’s executive order for undocumented children, which allows her to legally work and live in the U.S. But it affords no immigration rights.

The next president could rescind the order — something Michelle and Jeff said they feared.

“DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is only a Band-Aid,” Hessel said. “You’re sort of eking out an existence. It is a deferral of action on prosecution for two years. And then you renew it again and again until some president comes along and tries to reverse it. They can do it with a flick of a pen. That can come real quick. It is not a safe place to be.”

Alejandra told few people she was undocumented, preferring instead to say she was adopted.

“I didn’t want people to know because I felt like they would look at me differently,” she said. “It wasn’t a choice I made.”

Uncertainty abounds for the undocumented immigrants of America. Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate for president, wants to build a wall at the border. And his portrayal of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals have kept immigration at the center of debates.

Alejandra is acutely aware that some paint a broad, ugly brush across the undocumented.

“I’m not any of that,” Alejandra said. “I just kind of ended up here.”

The loophole

Michelle dove into immigration research and soon found a way for Alejandra to apply for a green card. She needed a legal entry into the United States, just one stamp in her Honduran passport.

“Because we have been so long denied, we got creative across the country and found there’s a loophole,” said Hessel, who took in an undocumented Mexican boy himself.

Deferred action kids can apply to the government for a temporary leave for work, educational or humanitarian reasons, and then re-enter the country, Michelle said.

Just before her 18th birthday, Alejandra applied to take a course in Spain over the summer. The request was granted. So, Michelle and Alejandra packed their bags and headed to Madrid against the advice of their attorney.

Hessel felt confident it would work.

Michelle tried to put their return trip out of her mind and enjoy their time abroad as Alejandra soaked in a new culture. But it was a struggle. She knew if something went awry, Alejandra could be sent back to Honduras.

“I was a nervous wreck coming back in,” Michelle said.

Alejandra remained calm. She felt confident she would raise no red flags. She was an honor roll student who took pains to stay out of trouble.

And she was right. After a few questions and answers, Alejandra got the stamp on the passport that changed her life forever.

That stamp meant she had a legal entry into the United States and she could apply for her green card. Hessel accompanied the Bosaks for Alejandra’s green card interview in Philadelphia, expecting a fight. The interview lasted five minutes.

“We met the standard by doing a bait-and-switch,” Hessel said. “I’m one of the first to try it around here. I don’t know anybody else that pulled this off yet. We were the first.”

The green card finally arrived Feb. 9, making Alejandra a legal permanent resident 13 years after she was smuggled across the border. In five years, she can apply to become a U.S. citizen.

“She’s a fully documented person who will go on to college and contribute to this country,” Hessel said.

In the meantime, it means Alejandra can qualify for financial aid and go to any college she chooses. She can study abroad and maybe even join the Peace Corps, an idea with which she flirts.

Alejandra was shocked to learn as she began her college search that she wasn’t considered a Pennsylvania resident and she couldn’t qualify for state aid. The green card changed that.

“My choices were kind of limited,” Alejandra said.

She has kept her college applications confined to the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia areas. Moravian College is at the top of her list. She’s applied for the full scholarship Moravian is offering to one Liberty and one Freedom High School graduate.

“I like being around my family,” Alejandra said.

Sister Carly is happy she won’t be going too far. She already gets lonely when Alejandra visits her dad in Maryland.

“I’m really going to miss her,” Carly said.

In so many ways, Alejandra is a typical American teenager.

She’s an honor student with a job as a hostess. She loves driving the car her biological father bought her to go hike at Glen Onoko Falls with friends. She dances, but sports are not her thing. She plans to minor in Spanish in college and is still undecided on a major.

But she’s also been through a tremendous amount in her short life. She lost her mother and her home. She has a homeland she can’t recall and siblings scattered.

It’s all made her a believer in the adage, “Everything happens for a reason.” And she’s grateful for the risk her mother took to smuggle her into the U.S.

“Now, I’m kind of glad she made that choice for me because it led to this life I’m living now,” Alejandra said, sitting at her adoptive grandmother’s kitchen table as her family makes a ruckus in the kitchen. “This was the best thing that could have happened to me after losing my mother.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1PmtQVm

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Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com

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