NEW YORK – An Argentine restaurant owner who worked for years as an undercover informant for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a deal to gain citizenship, only to face deportation, is fighting for a reprieve once again.
Emilio Maya won a one-year stay a year ago, after U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., introduced a rare private bill requesting that the 35-year-old immigrant, who runs a restaurant in Saugerties, be granted legal status immediately.
At the time, Hinchey said he was hopeful that the year would give ICE enough time to properly review Maya's case and reach a fair decision.
Instead, despite renewed efforts by Hinchey, Maya says he has been ordered to report on Feb. 7, apparently for deportation.
"When someone puts their life on the line to protect the lives of those in this community from the scourge of drugs and gang violence they should be rewarded, not punished," Hinchey said in a prepared statement after reintroducing the bill earlier this month.
In a letter to ICE director John Morton, Hinchey also detailed Maya's years of undercover work, and described a constant stream of letters, e-mails and petitions by hundreds of area residents on Maya's behalf.
Morton has not responded to the letter. ICE refused to comment on the case.
Maya, who entered the U.S. with his sister, Analia, as visitors in the 1990s and stayed illegally, quickly became mainstays of the Hudson River town, which is in Hinchey's district. They ran a small cafe, Tango. Emilio was a volunteer firefighter, and Analia, 31, served as a Spanish-language interpreter for the local police — a contact that, in 2005, led them to ICE.
For four years, the Mayas said, they wore wires, infiltrating a prostitution ring, working in a factory that hired undocumented workers and providing information on human smuggling operations and gangs. However, instead of receiving the promised "S'' visa which could lead to permanent legal status, ICE informed them in 2009 that their information was no longer useful and they could be deported, they said.
"Emilio put his life in great danger in support of our nation and he was rewarded for this service by being arrested at gun point by one of the same ICE officers that wiretapped him as a confidential informant," Hinchey wrote in his letter to Morton.
Maya was jailed for 15 days, though he was charged with no crime and was given no explanation other than he was "being deactivated." He was released only after Hinchey phoned ICE directly. Since then, he has had to report every few months to ICE in New York City.
Analia's status has changed since she married an American and she has applied for a green card.
The Mayas story drew international attention after an Associated Press article last year.
Although they had promised ICE never to talk publicly about their work, the siblings said they turned to Hinchey, who occasionally has lunch at their cafe, out of desperation and fear.
That desperation was evident again this week, as Maya struggled with an uncertain future and mounting legal bills.
"We kept our part of the deal," Maya said. "So why should we be made to suffer like this?"
"Clearly this in one of those cases in which ICE has to take a long look and do the right thing," said the Maya's latest lawyer, Steven Goldstein, a former ICE attorney who planned to filed an appeal with the agency. "ICE has the authority and power to grant some form of relief."
ICE has given no explanation for its handling of the Maya case. ICE spokesman Brian Hale said in an e-mail "at this time ICE has nothing additional to offer on the Maya matter."
He previously said the agency couldn't discuss any case involving informants, though he explained that in general, "there has to be a significant benefit to the government" in order for informants to receive legal papers.
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