When the Chaparro family celebrates Thanksgiving on Thursday, there will be a special thanks said by the Turlock family for the presence of their matriarch Maria Isabel Chaparro’s presence at the table.
This will be the first Thanksgiving the wife and mother has spent with her family after living apart for four years. The separation was not by choice. Isabel, the name she prefers, had been living a quiet life as an active church and community member that came to a sudden end when she was unceremoniously arrested and deported to Honduras.
“It was a heartbreaking time, but I always had trust in the Lord that He would bring me back,” Isabel said.
Isabel spent her childhood and teens in an impoverished region of Honduras. At age 19 she found herself pregnant and in an abusive relationship. Hoping for a life that presented her and her unborn child with possibilities for a better future, Isabel made her way to the United States, albeit illegally.
“I came here because I wanted the freedom that was here,” Isabel said. “I wish I could have done it differently, but at the time it seemed like the best choice.”
She settled in Turlock and gave birth to her son Dalman. She earned money through menial jobs while taking English language classes. She also became a Christian at that time and started attending church on a regular basis.
It was through the English language classes that Isabel, with her engaging smile and bright eyes, caught the attention of a young man by the name of Cesar Chaparro. He was a legal resident from Mexico and though he was in the advanced classes, he transferred to the basic courses for an opportunity to meet the woman who had made a strong first impression on him. The transfer was to no avail because Isabel had to stop attending the classes, but fate would have the two cross paths again before long. It was a relative of Cesar’s who told him to call a young single mother, who it turned out was Isabel. Cesar recognized her as the captivating woman from the language courses and a courtship soon developed between the two. In 1997 Cesar and Isabel wed and soon welcomed son Alex and daughter Kaylee to the family.
The family began attending Turlock Covenant Church and the Church of the Cross/Iglesia de la Cruz and Isabel quickly became an active member. She sang in the choir, visited hospice patients, translated for chaplains, led Bible studies, and volunteered her time at nursing facilities.
Isabel was a wife, a mother, a church parishioner, and a volunteer, but there was one title that eluded her and one she wanted to fill: A citizen of the United States.
Before she ever walked down the aisle with Cesar, Isabel had walked the halls of bureaucracy. She had taken the initial steps to gain her citizenship, but the task was daunting and confusing, so she hired an attorney to guide her through the process. She hired a man by the name of Noel Rowe, who claimed on Spanish radio station advertisements to be an attorney specializing in immigration issues. He told Isabel he would guide her through the process, but in reality he never filed the paperwork for her to gain residency.
“I thought he was taking care of it, but he wasn’t doing anything to help me,” Isabel said. “I kept waiting for a letter, but nothing ever came.”
Rowe filed for asylum, but never told Isabel of the court dates, which caused a deportation order to be issued in her name.
The Chaparros went to his office, but it was vacated and they never heard from Rowe again.
In the end, Rowe fled without ever helping Isabel. He was eventually caught and prosecuted on federal charges.
The experience with Rowe was a setback for the Chaparros but they did not give up. They hired other attorneys and spent thousands of dollars to try and have the deportation order reversed, but they were always met with the same message: It was too late for Isabel and one day she would be deported back to Honduras.
The day came on Nov. 4, 2010.
Isabel had dropped off Alex and Kaylee at school and was returning home to retrieve some clothing she was donating to a local family. She returned home to find three officials from Homeland Security waiting on her front lawn.
One official asked Isabel her name and the other two put her in handcuffs. Through sobs, Isabel implored them as to where they were taking her, but she said she got no answer. He cries did awaken her son Dalman, who made a quick call to Cesar to apprise him of the situation.
Isabel was handcuffed and shackled and driven to Fresno, where she was able to contact her husband. He drove to see her and bring her a few personal items.
“It was horrible,” Isabel said. "I wasn’t able to hug him or even tell my children goodbye.”
The Chaparros were told she would be sent to Arizona, where she would have a hearing, but that never happened, Isabel said. Twelve days later, without any explanation or any chance to appeal the decree, Isabel was boarded onto a plane and headed for Honduras.
Honduras may have been Isabel’s home at one time, but it was completely foreign to her now. It had been 25 years since Isabel had last been in Honduras and nothing was familiar to her. The landmarks she could remember had been torn down or were so changed they were unrecognizable to her. She didn’t know where any of her family lived or even how to reach them. It was just by chance that while riding in a taxi down a particular neighborhood that Isabel saw a woman she recognized. She eventually found some family members still living in the area.
“They welcomed me into their home, but it was very difficult,” Isabel said. “I cried all the time because I missed my husband and children. I was also very scared all the time because there was so much crime and violence going on there. I prayed every day for God to ease the suffering in my heart."
More than 2,000 miles away in Turlock, Cesar and the children were feeling like a hole had been left in their hearts. There was a three-year waiting list for a deportation hearing and immigration services usually stipulates a person subject to deportation must wait at least 10 years before applying for residency.
Disheartened as they were, the family and the church were determined to bring Isabel back home. They wrote letters to immigration and government officials on Isabel’s behalf, raised funds to send the children to Honduras for the summer months, and even hired a private investigator to look into the details of the con artist, hoping it would lead to information that would help Isabel. And most of all they prayed.
“This was someone we all knew and loved,” said Turlock Covenant Church Pastor Steve Carlson. “She had a heart for helping people in need. Every week the congregation was praying for her safety and return.”
Isabel also relied on her faith. She got involved with a church and spent her days ministering to people in the community. She kept herself busy, but always there was the pain at being separated from the ones she held close to her heart.
“It was very hard, but I tried to keep my hope growing each day,” Isabel said. “I believed God was going to do something in this case and that He would reunite my family. People were saying prayers for me all over the world and that gave me strength.”
Striving to get his wife home, Cesar hired another attorney, Ramiro Castro of San Francisco, who believed there was enough cause to have Isabel’s case reopened. Cesar also filed his own paperwork to bring his wife to the United States.
“He told me not to get my hopes too high, but I had to keep my faith that I would see her home again,” Cesar said.
In December of last year an unexpected blessing came to the Chaparro family. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to allow Isabel to return to the country for one year, during which time she could apply for permanent residency.
“I was so happy when the plane landed in Los Angeles and I got to see my family,” Isabel said. “I cried and cried and hugged them all. It was wonderful.”
“It was like a dream,” Cesar said. “We had been waiting and praying for her return and it seemed like we were never making any progress and then suddenly it happened.”
In May of this year Isabel went for an interview with immigration officials and one week later she had her legal residency card in hand.
“There are no words to describe how I felt,” Isabel said. “It was the most marvelous feeling, like I was walking on air.”