- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2010

SAUGERTIES, N.Y. | There was a time, just a few years ago, when Emilio and Analia Maya’s lives brimmed with possibility, when their little Main Street cafe thrived and their hard-fought dream of life in America seemed enticingly within reach.

They had emigrated from Argentina in the late 1990s and settled in this picturesque village at the foot of the Catskills, working in restaurants and gas stations, becoming respected members of the community. Emilio Maya joined the volunteer fire department. His sister volunteered as a translator for the local police.

Life was hard, but happy, and they had big plans. They were saving to open a restaurant where Emilio Maya, now 34, would whip up Argentinian specialties like chicken empanadas and chimichurri steak, while Analia, 30, served customers.

But that was before the Mayas struck their deal.

Like so many other immigrant workers in the Hudson Valley, the Mayas had overstayed their visitor visas years earlier. Their days were haunted by the fact that they could be deported at any time.

One day, feeling particularly homesick, she turned to her friend, police Officer Sidney Mills, who regularly recruited Analia to help with cases involving Hispanics. He estimates that Analia, and later Emilio, worked on as many as a hundred cases.

“Can you help us get legal papers?” she asked him.

Officer Mills didn’t hesitate.

“They were doing right by the community,” he says. “I thought I should do right by them.”

So in March 2005, Officer Mills arranged a meeting at the station between Analia and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Kelly McManus and Morgan Langer.

According to Officer Mills, the deal was straightforward: In exchange for working as informants, ICE would help the brother and sister get coveted S visas, which, in rare instances, are awarded to immigrants who help law enforcement.

“It was very clear,” Officer Mills says. “That was the deal they thought they had made.”

Five years later, the Mayas say they have only questions and a burning sense of betrayal. They insist they held up their end of the bargain, risking their lives in hours of undercover work, wearing wires and using fake names. But for reasons they do not understand, ICE and the agents who were their handlers abruptly turned against them — and they now face imminent deportation in early March.

The agents were looking for information on people involved with drugs, gangs, human smuggling operations, prostitution and selling false papers. They made it clear that they couldn’t pay for information, and that the Mayas would have to sign forms stating that they would never talk about their undercover work, not even with their immediate family.

And so the Mayas were inducted into the murky world of “CIs” — confidential informants — a world filled with suspicion and deceit and danger, a world in which, undercover, they were no longer Analia and Emilio Maya, but Ana and Edwin Martinez.

At first, the work seemed simple enough. At soccer practice, in the restaurant, even grocery shopping, the Mayas would initiate conversations about information the agents were seeking. They would meet Ms. McManus and Mr. Langer in supermarket or church parking lots and inspect photographs of suspects. ICE wasn’t interested in regular people working illegally, Analia says. “They were looking for the big fish. The really bad ones.”

Emilio wasn’t so sure. On the street, the S visa is known as the “snitch” visa. What if word got out that the Mayas were informing on immigrants like themselves?

And yet the promised reward was dazzling. The Mayas were about to open their restaurant, Tango cafe. Their parents had followed from Argentina and were helping them. What illegal immigrant wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to secure legal status and end the daily dread of deportation?

Months passed before agents decided to take the next step. In February 2006, they wired Emilio and sent him to a Main Street house that operated a prostitution ring.

The agents were pleased. The night’s work brought a big reward: Later that month the two agents drove the Mayas to the ICE office in New York, where they were photographed, fingerprinted and handed work permits — small white cards stamped with the authorization to work for a year. As long as they were working for ICE, the permits would be renewed every year.

Analia and Emilio were ecstatic. Finally, they were legal.

The Mayas also worked on cases involving false documents, illegal hiring, gangs and smuggling operations.

But things changed in 2008, when, they say, the agents began demanding information on terrorism and guns — information the Mayas simply couldn’t provide. The brother and sister continued offering tips about local activities, but they were no longer sent on undercover jobs.

In many ways, it was a relief. They were busy running the restaurant. Emilio had married his girlfriend, Kseniya, a 22-year-old student from Belarus, and they had a baby girl, Valentina. Analia was pregnant with her son, Santiago. They had little time for information gathering, though the question was never far from their minds: Where did they stand with ICE?

The answer came in a May 2009, Emilio says, when agents bluntly told him that unless he delivered information on weapons and terrorism, his work permit would not be renewed and he would be deported.

“They said the information I gave them wasn’t good enough,” Emilio says.

Analia was frantic. Where could they turn for help? They had promised not to tell anyone about their work. They had no written proof of their deal with ICE. What would happen to them?

In desperation, she confided in a customer at Tango — Rep. Maurice Hinchey, New York Democrat, who had stopped by for Saturday lunch with his daughter. Sobbing, Analia told him everything. The congressman listened in disbelief. “Calm down,” Mr. Hinchey said. “The government doesn’t use people and throw them away.”

That next week, Mr. Hinchey’s office began researching their case — and, the Mayas say, ICE stopped taking their calls.

Months passed. Mr. Hinchey’s office pressed unsuccessfully for information from ICE. The Mayas’ permits were valid until 2010; now that a congressman was involved, they assumed, they would somehow be allowed to stay.

No one foresaw what happened next.

On Nov. 17, as he left his house for work, Emilio was surrounded by nine agents wearing ICE flak jackets and pointing guns. Among them were the agents who had coached him and wired him. “We are deactivating you,” they said, slapping him in handcuffs and shackles, as a horrified Analia begged Ms. McManus for answers: “Why are you doing this? Where are you taking him?”

Emilio was “out of status” and would be deported, Ms. McManus said.

She acted, Analia recalls, as if she was dealing with strangers.

Emilio was locked up for 15 days, given no explanation and charged with no crime.

Analia was inconsolable. She called Mr. Hinchey and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, as well as immigration lawyers and Officer Mills. He listened, shocked. There must be some explanation, he thought.

The only explanation Mr. Hinchey’s staff received was that none of the information the Mayas provided had led to arrests or prosecutions.

Emilio was released on a 90-day stay on the eve of his deportation in December after Mr. Hinchey personally called ICE field agent Thomas Decker, who signed the release. The order for deportation was signed by James Mooney — the same agent who met regularly with the Mayas and oversaw their undercover work. It was dated Dec. 27, 2005. ICE won’t explain why it waited four years, and used Emilio as an operative before serving it.

When the 90 days are up, Emilio must leave the country voluntarily or face deportation. The clock runs out on March 2. Analia faces her own hearing in immigration court on March 5.

ICE spokesman Brian Hale said the agency was in the difficult situation of being unable to verify details about any case involving informants, or even to confirm a deal was made. In general, he said, ICE uses “alien informants” in what he termed a “significant public benefit parole” program, which may eventually lead to S visas. “There has to be a significant benefit to the government,” Mr. Hale said. “That is the standard they have to adhere to.”

Critics say it is not unusual for ICE to treat informants poorly.

“They use the most vulnerable people to do dangerous work, make them all sorts of promises and then just abandon them,” says New York immigration lawyer Claudia Slovinsky. In more than 25 years of practice, Ms. Slovinsky says, she doesn’t know of a single case of someone receiving an S visa.

“These kind of shocking things happen with ICE all the time,” she says. “And we need to shine a light on it because most Americans have no clue.”

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