Throughout the region, the final school bells are ringing, marking the end of the 2009-10 academic year.
For children, summer vacation is that homework-free time of the year when they can finally focus all of their attention on having fun. Building sand castles at Wright Park beach, splashing around in the water. Sprinting up and down the soccer fields on the SUNY Fredonia campus. Painting rocks and singing silly songs at Camp Gross.
But that will not the case for four children from Fredonia Elementary School. At the end of the school year, it's expected that Cristian, Jackie, Rosie and Brandon Perez-Lopez - four American citizens who were born in this country - and their parents will be deported to Mexico.
Candido Perez and Angelica Lopez with their children, from left, Jackie, Brandon, Rosie and Cristian. All four children were born in the United States but are being sent to Mexico.
"They are very sad. They don't want to go," said Angelica Lopez, the mother of the four children. "My children have never been to Mexico, so they have no idea about the way of life in Mexico. It's a struggle. It's a much better life here. There are no jobs to do there."
Angelica Lopez lives in this country illegally. Her mother, Guillermina Rojas, and her late father, Isidro Lopez, brought Angelica to the United States when she was 10 years old. Now at age 31, she has spent more than two decades working as a migrant worker here.
"To me, it's not hard work," Lopez said succinctly about the long, grueling hours she spends harvesting fruits and vegetables on local farms.
Some years ago, she met a man named Candido Perez, also an illegal immigrant, and they had four children together. Cristian, Jackie, Rosie and Brandon - ages 11, 9, 7 and 6, respectively - have grown up as typical American kids in the village of Fredonia.
Barring some miraculous intervention, after school concludes, the family will be deported, Lopez said. Disheartened, she is well-aware there is little anyone can do to change their fate.
Lopez took a break from her back-breaking work at a local farm to speak about her family and their imminent deportation.
Still wearing her work clothes - a baseball cap and an old T-shirt - beads of sweat gathered on Lopez's forehead. Clearly concerned about her children's future, Lopez chose to stand as she spoke.
"It's difficult to get kids education there, and they are U.S. citizens," Lopez said. "My children will have to walk a long way to go to school, so now we're going to have U.S. citizens uneducated in Mexico."
NEIGHBORS BECOME FAMILY
Ed and Heather Wicks, Fredonia residents and Lopez's down-the-street neighbors, have become significant influences in the children's lives. They've basically accepted the kids as part of their own family, as if they were nieces and nephews.
Mr. and Mrs. Wicks are different in their politics. Mrs. Wicks described herself as "a bleeding-heart liberal." Mr. Wicks said he largely agrees with Arizona's controversial new illegal immigration law - which authorizes police officers to demand proof of citizenship from anyone whom they may suspect to be illegal.
However, the Wicks are united in their commitment to Lopez and her children. Mr. Wicks called the government's decision to deport four young American citizens and their mother "a tremendous injustice."
A woman whose only commitments are to her family and work should be granted permanent residence, Mr. Wicks said. Granting her that would provide her kids with the same opportunities enjoyed by their fellow American citizens, he added.
Mrs. Wicks explained why the family faces deportation now, after years of quietly living in the United States.
A few months back, a police roadblock was set up in the street. It was a routine traffic stop, Mrs. Wicks said, retelling the story. Candido Perez, the children's father, drove toward the police officers. The entire family was in the car.
"They were in a vehicle that had out-of-state plates, and I don't know why but the police pulled him over with the family in the car," Mrs. Wicks said. "They wanted to see his driver's license, and he didn't have one."
The police then realized Perez was illegal, and they contacted immigration authorities.
Perez was taken into custody. He is currently in prison, awaiting deportation. The family will be sent to Mexico together, according to the Wicks.
Lopez was allowed to stay with her kids, so that they could finish up the school year. However, immigration officials strapped a bulky, black tracking bracelet around her ankle.
"The reason that Angelica has the ankle bracelet on is because they deemed that she could be a flight risk," Mrs. Wicks said.
Lopez has been deported before. After she was deported approximately 6 years ago, she returned to the United States.
"It wasn't really explained to me," Lopez said, about where she is permitted to go wearing the ankle bracelet. "I can go all around Chautauqua County and into Erie County, but I can't go to Pennsylvania."
Mr. Wicks has been having a difficult time trying to make sense out of the decision to deport the family.
"See, I look at it like a scale," Wicks said. "Let's weigh this."
He held out his arms and turned his palms toward the ceiling.
"We've got four children that are American citizens in this hand," Wicks said, lifting his left hand. He then lifted his right, "We've got one mother that's illegal in the other. What has the most weight: the mother taking the four children out of the country, or the children bringing the mother in and giving her a green card, giving her citizenship?"
He elevated his right hand - the one that had been holding the illegal mother - as he lowered his left. He raised his voice in a passionate plea, questioning the authorities that had made the decision.
"One illegal outweighs four American children citizens?" Wicks asked, frustrated and bewildered.
In Wicks's mind, it's just a political game.
"To me, it's just a show," Wicks said. "We've got to show the public that we're deporting people, so we'll deport a few here, a few here, one there."
The government is picking on the wrong people, he said firmly. Never has he ever met somebody who works harder.
"She hasn't done anything wrong," Mrs. Wicks added. "She has raised such wonderful little kids. They come down to our house, and they always want to do work, to help us out."
GOOD HARD WORKING KIDS
A neighbor described Lopez's four children as "typical American kids." Like most children, they occasionally get into mischief. However, Mrs. Wicks said, these kids are constantly willing to lend a hand.
After SUNY Fredonia's end-of-the-semester celebration, Fred Fest, the kids chipped in to help clean up the village.
"There were beer cans all over the place. These little kids went around on their bicycles with a bag, picking up beer cans," Mrs. Wicks said. "I went with them to some of the houses of the college kids, and we asked if we could clean up their yards."
After gathering up the cans and redeeming the deposits, the kids were a few dollars richer.
"They took that money, and I took them to Aldi's," Mrs. Wicks said. Her voice quivered, as she began to choke up. "And they bought flowers for their mother for Mother's Day."
For elementary school children, their generosity amazes Mrs. Wicks.
"They are always thinking not of themselves, but of their mother, of each other, of me," Mrs. Wicks said.
After immigration officials took his father into custody, 11-year-old Cristian Perez-Lopez became the man of the house.
"It's hard to be the oldest," Cristian said. "Sometimes I have to watch my brothers and sisters, and I don't get to be like my brother, playing around and screaming all in the house. He mostly gets more fun than me because I need to do more chores."
Listing all of his chores, Cristian said he has to make the bed, vacuum the living room, help wash and fold the clothes and clean his room, among other things.
"Once in a while, I do the dishes," Cristian said, "but I don't like to do them."
Cristian is nervous about the upcoming move away from Fredonia.
"It's kind of scary to move," he said, before releasing a heavy sigh.
With eloquence rarely demonstrated by others his age, Cristian expressed his dismay.
"I was born in the United States, and they're taking my rights from me because I'm a United States citizen. And now, I need to go to this other country that I'm not familiar with," he said. "It's like torture, I tell you, torture."
As he mulled over the inevitable deportation, Cristian added, "It makes me feel bad, completely bad."
A boy whose dream is to be the first in his family to graduate college, Christian wants to be a doctor when he grows up. He wants "to help poor people and help kids get an education." He understands that this move to Mexico may force him to alter his plans.
"I'll have to change plans. I guess I will help others in Mexico then," Cristian said. He will continue to work hard to become educated, walking to school if he has to. "I'll have to work hard just to get food."
ONGOING IMMIGRATION DEBATE
Throughout the region and the nation, immigrant workers - some legal, others illegal - help fuel the agricultural economy.
"A lot of other people have no idea the work that I do. It's 10-12 hours of hard work, working the farms," Lopez said. "I'm used to it, and I have no problem doing it. I'd do it for the rest of my life."
Working long hours for little pay, Wicks argued, Lopez and other migrant workers have unquestionably been a benefit to the local economy.
When being paid by the hour, Lopez said she usually earns wages at an hourly rate of about $7. Now that strawberries are being harvested, Lopez is paid by the volume she picks. She said she gets paid approximately $2.50 for picking eight quarts.
"Deporting this hard worker is directly going to affect you because if she can't pick the strawberries, the strawberries are going to be $20 a quart," Wicks said. "Then, the farmer won't have a job."
Lopez has resided in the United States for more 20 years. She and her children have lived a relatively normal life, despite her illegal status.
"My father applied for citizenship for us, but because he didn't make enough money; he couldn't get us citizenship," Lopez said.
With four children in school at Fredonia, she was afraid to re-apply for citizenship or permanent-resident status.
"Because I was already illegal, for me to begin the process of becoming legal, you need papers, and I didn't have them," Lopez said. "I would have been sent back, and I would have to start applying over there to come back to the states."
The Wicks feel the government and American citizens are to blame for letting illegal immigration grow to become such a large problem. If we had been working more diligently on this issue, they said, then this honest, hard-working family would not be getting deported.
Angelica Lopez and Candido Perez would have already found a path toward citizenship or permanent-resident status.
"We've allowed this to happen," Mrs. Wicks said, accepting part of the blame. "We've allowed these people to come here. We've allowed them to have children that are citizens of this country. We've worked off their backs by having our produce and everything at such a ridiculous price, and they can't do anything now. It just seems so wrong to me."
Preparing to dispose of most of her possessions, Lopez said she just wants to give her kids what they deserve - the American dream. It will be very difficult, she admitted, to return to the Mexican way of life - a lifestyle she has been separated from for 21 years, a lifestyle her kids have never known.
"I'm very sad. The kids do not want to go. They talk about their friends and their school. They speak English. It's just a whole new beginning of," Lopez paused, "nothing, a beginning of nothing."
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