- Associated Press - Friday, March 3, 2017

GREEN RIVER, Utah (AP) - It’s a happy time for Ken and Sarita Sah, who have just returned to Utah after 10 years of exile in their native India. But the homecoming comes with a bitter flavor and loaded with regret.

On July 6, 2006, after 14 years in the United States, they departed willingly after losing an arduous appeal with immigration authorities. They were determined to work within the system, rather than disappearing among an estimated 11 million undocumented residents.

It was costly. They left behind their 12-year-old American-born son, Kunal, so he could continue his education here in hopes of achieving their dream that he become a doctor. At the time, the couple believed they would not be gone long.

“Just leave now and you’ll be back in a year or two,” Ken said Wednesday, his first full day back in Green River. “That’s what everybody told us.”

It didn’t turn out that way. The past decade has been fraught with challenges that almost broke Kunal - who turned 23 in September - and worried his parents to illness half a world away.

Now they are filled with joy and sorrow - and the confusion of emotions and disorientation that comes with long separations. But a magical balm soothes the family’s wounds. His name is Keshav Sah, the fun-loving 3-year-old grandson that Ken and Sarita have just met for the first time.

I first came into contact with the Sahs in 2005. They were a close family, warm, friendly and working together at their two Green River motels.

Kunal was a straight-A student and was about to compete in the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. That coincided with the ruling that they leave their adopted home and everything for which they had worked for years.

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COMING TO AMERICA

Ken originally traveled to the West Coast in 1992 on a student visa to train as an aircraft mechanic. Sarita soon followed. But with a slump in the aircraft industry, the young couple turned their attention elsewhere, working all kinds of low-paying jobs, saving dimes and dollars.

In 1997, they bought a little, run-down motel in Green River - located along Interstate 70, an hour from the famed red rock of Arches and Canyonlands. With their 4-year-old son, they painted and spruced up the place, laboring 24-7 toward their American dream.

After a number of years, they took out a loan and built a second motel, a Ramada Inn, on the eastern edge of the small town, mostly known as a way station for tourists heading elsewhere.

They were, according to many Green River residents, perfect citizens. They worked hard, paid taxes, provided jobs.

In 1995, they applied for asylum. Ken, a Hindu from a Muslim-dominated region of India, feared for his safety there. In hindsight, it may not have been the best legal strategy for residency because later, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, immigration policies tightened.

Despite all that, if the Sahs were not called to an immigration hearing within 10 years of their application, they would be granted legal status. But nine years and nine months after their application, an immigration judge ruled against them in a brief hearing.

It was a crushing blow. Still, they remained hopeful that it could be overcome. They hired lawyers and made repeated attempts under the law to retain residency. No luck. Under immigration rules, they would have to leave the U.S. - and not return, even to visit - for 10 years. Back in India, they tried to gain green cards sooner to no avail.

They left their motels and their son in the charge of Ken’s brother. The strategy didn’t work well for Kunal, who came to despise his uncle.

“No one knows the value of parents like an only child,” Kunal said. “I felt they left me here. I felt like they had a choice.”

The weight of regret is written on Ken’s face. “Kunal did not have parents when unfortunate things happened to him,” Ken said. “He did not have parents to guide him and to give him love.”

The decade has been tumultuous for Kunal. He spent time in juvenile detention. He was saved from his uncle by a loving foster family in Price. And, at 18, he was put in charge of the Ramada and struggled to save the family business. Not least, he became a father.

Sarita pined for her son each day. I remember a phone conversation we had years ago when she and Ken were in Delhi: “We are missing our home and our son,” she said with a strained voice. “We are missing each and every one of his moments, and we won’t get them back.”

Now home in Green River, Sarita can’t talk about those missed moments without weeping. “Why did this happen to us? We did everything right,” she said. “I don’t want to think about what we’ve been through.”

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FROM DREAM TO DETENTION

On a trip to southern Utah in December 2008, I watched Kunal, then 15, play basketball for the Green River High School junior varsity team. He seemed well-adjusted under the circumstances. He was popular with classmates. His principal, Nolan Johnson, gave Kunal favorable marks.

“He’s a good student and gets along with everyone quite well,” Johnson said at the time. “His father calls me every few months to make sure he’s on track.”

What wasn’t so visible was Kunal’s unhappiness in the absence of his parents and the grim reality he faced under his uncle’s oversight.

Less than a year later, Kunal was in juvenile court, pleading guilty to misuse of credit-card information. He owned up to the charges and was sent to juvenile detention.

Some in Green River were judgmental and said Kunal had let them down. “He’s made some bad choices,” several residents told me at the time. Others saw it as a cry for help.

He had to leave school mid-semester, tanking his GPA. The dream of becoming a doctor began to fade.

In the end, some good came from it. After 51 days in detention, Kunal was placed in foster care in the Bettino home in Price. There, he thrived, met new friends and landed a job at Wingers. It was the happiest he had been in years.

When he turned 17, Ken and Sarita petitioned the court to release Kunal to them in India to finish out his probation.

Kunal didn’t want to go. He was enjoying life and feeling the independence of someone his age. He wanted to graduate from high school in Price.

“I wanted to stay there, but I had to go to India,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that.”

His parents insisted. They wanted to ensure their son was going to be all right.

“Our relationship has cost so much,” Ken said Wednesday. “He is saying, ‘I don’t need you anymore.’ That was breaking our heart.”

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LONGING FOR HOME, IN UTAH

When I visited the family in Delhi in January 2011, Kunal had shed his baby fat and looked like a tall, lean Bollywood movie star. There was a bit of guarded happiness in the household. Kunal was finishing high school on the internet and shot hoops at a playground. Bilingual in Hindi, he struck up relationships with other hoopsters and kept in touch with friends in Price and Green River.

Sarita busied herself around their spacious house. But Ken, usually a go-getter, found it difficult to engage in a new life in India, because, he said, home is Green River.

“I didn’t want to do anything,” he said. “I didn’t want to start anything.”

In India, Ken, a man of integrity and bent on getting back legally to the U.S., could focus only on immigration.

One day, we all loaded into the car and drove downtown to the U.S. Consulate. We passed through a series of security checkpoints and sat for a long while waiting to speak to someone in the immigration section. But it was of little use. The agent was polite but direct. The complexities of what he laid out were lost on me, but clearly it was frustrating for Ken. They had been gone 4 1/2 years and their chances of soon returning were dimming.

“There were so many people who said we’d never come back,” Sarita said. “People in India and people here.”

The Sahs had to sell their other operation, the Budget Inn, to meet expenses. And Kunal’s uncle was weary of running the Ramada. He had married an Indian woman and wanted to return there.

At 18, Kunal returned to Green River to save the family business. During the ensuing three years, the stress pushed him to the brink. He grew physically ill and depressed.

When he returned to Green River, Kunal hired some old pals to help. Tethered to the motel, he often would have them over to wolf down pizza and play video games. Some people preyed on Kunal’s naivete and generosity only to disappear when he needed support.

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GLOOM AT THE INN

At perhaps his lowest point, in fall 2012, Cassandra Hawkinson, a girlfriend from Price, came to help. Kunal had been suffering severe headaches accompanied by vomiting.

“When she came here, it stopped me from going insane,” he said then. “I didn’t have anybody for the longest time.”

In a telephone call to Delhi, Sarita told me she was worried. “Kunal’s health is not good, and my health is not good,” she said. “How can a boy run that business? The pressure is making him sick.”

In September that year, the bank called to say the Ramada had not made a mortgage payment since May. The Sahs had to pay $370,000 immediately or lose the property.

“Oh man, those guys took the motel,” Kunal said. He and Cassandra moved in with her mother in Price.

Some 8,000 miles away, Ken feverishly wrestled together financing and reclaimed the motel. By November, Kunal and Cassandra were back in the Ramada.

But things continued to slide. Kunal had hit the wall. He was angry, feeling trapped and discouraged. When Cassandra became pregnant, Kunal threw up his hands.

“I quit,” he recalled. “I was just done, I told my dad on the phone. I’m just dropping this. I’m walking out. Coming back and running the hotel for my dad, it was just too much.”

Cassandra returned to Price, where she lives today, sharing custody of Keshav with Kunal.

During all the turmoil, Ramada removed its franchise. Times were bleak.

Fortunately, through a friend, Ken and Sarita found a young Indian couple who were running a motel in California. Ken asked them to name their price to go to Green River to help Kunal.

Raj and Anjali Panchal proved a godsend, even though Kunal wasn’t thrilled with them in the beginning.

“They came to help me,” he remembered, “and I was just in such a destroyed state.”

Kunal eventually came to respect the couple and hold them dear, especially Anjali, who was warm and caring. They got a new franchise through Americas Best Value Inn and put the place in order.

The Panchals recently returned to California.

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TOGETHER, FOR NOW

Kunal was beaming Wednesday. His parents were home. The weight of the motel was lifted. His happy son tugged at him for attention.

“This reunion, I have visualized for years. It finally happened and I’m just soaking it in,” he said. “This is Day One of a better journey.”

It’s like a dream, a happy ending, Sarita said.

“Right now, I’m not believing it. I will be OK but it will take a few days,” she said. “It’s good to be back. That’s all I can say.”

The emotional time includes one more dynamic. Kunal is ready for a change of scenery, away from Green River. That is jarring for his parents.

“I wish this all hadn’t happened,” Ken said, referring to the lost time with Kunal and a lot of investments that had been spent and lost.

They will settle in for a while, he said, and then look at the future together.

“The past is the past. It’s not fair, but a lot of things aren’t fair,” he said. “At least we have an opportunity to come back and start again. A lot of people don’t get the chance.”

Wherever Kunal and Keshav go, they will be close by, Ken said, even if it means leaving his home in Green River.

“If Kunal doesn’t want to be here - what are we doing here without our child and grandchild?”

They won’t be apart again, Ken swears. They’ve done enough of that already.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, https://www.sltrib.com

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