ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- A Mexican national said he has been barred from entering the United States to bury his 10-year-old son, a U.S. citizen who died Tuesday in a house fire in northeastern Pennsylvania that killed three other people.
Attorneys for Fidelmar "Fidel" Merlos-Lopez are trying to win humanitarian parole so he can attend the funeral, but say U.S. Customs and Border Protection has rebuffed their efforts.
Damien Lopez died in a Shenandoah row house along with his cousin, aunt and 7-month-old half-brother. The funeral is set for Monday, with burial the next day.
"I told the customs officer that all I want is a permit to see my boy for one last time. They treat me as if I am a criminal," Lopez, 34, a bus driver, said in an interview Saturday. "Right now, I need their support, and they are refusing to help me."
Lopez has been waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border near Laredo, Texas, since the fire.
"He's out of his mind. Can you imagine? Your son is dead in a fire and you can't even get across. It's clear they are giving us the runaround," said Elizabeth Surin, his Philadelphia-based immigration lawyer.
A spokeswoman for the border agency did not return a phone message left at her office Saturday.
Lopez was a teenager when he entered the United States illegally in 1995 and wound up in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town with a large Hispanic population. He married a U.S. citizen who gave birth to Damien in 2002. He later divorced Damien's mother and married his current wife, Danielle Lopez, who's also a U.S. citizen.
In 2007, police in nearby Frackville stopped Lopez for running a red light and turned him over to immigration authorities. He agreed to leave the U.S. voluntarily and began the process of applying for legal permanent residence.
Surin, his immigration lawyer, said he was well on his way to getting his green card and rejoining his family in Shenandoah when tragedy struck.
"He's trying to comply, trying to follow the rules of U.S. immigration law, but they are using that against him now. This whole thing is really heart-wrenching," she said.
Humanitarian parole is granted to immigrants who have a compelling emergency that requires temporary entry into the United States. It is used sparingly: The government approves only about 25 percent of the 1,200 applications it gets each year.
Surin said Lopez qualifies. In fact, the Mexican husband of Tiffany Sanchez, the 29-year-old woman who died in the fire, was granted humanitarian parole to attend the funeral, she said.
Surin said border officials told her that Lopez was denied entry because he didn't have a relationship with Damien. She said it's just the opposite: Lopez shared partial custody of Damien and paid his ex-wife child support before leaving the United States.
Lopez, who worked as a mechanic in Shenandoah, said he was very close to his son.
"I have a video of him. I watch it often. Of when he graduated from kindergarten, you know how they do those parties. He was wearing his cap, a shirt and a tie," Lopez said.
Though he hadn't seen Damien in more than three years, they spoke over the phone twice a week.
"He used to tell me, `Come back, come back,'" he said. "I have been thinking that maybe it's my fault because there may have been a reason he asked me that."
His current wife said Lopez, who lives in Naucalpan de Juarez, a suburb of Mexico City, had been looking forward to returning to the United States. Now he's desperate to get back, if only for a few days. But time is running out.
"I don't think it's fair," said Danielle Lopez, 28, a hairdresser who was born and raised in Shenandoah. "It's his child, his flesh and blood, his firstborn son. It's horrible."
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico City contributed to this report.
Also on HuffPost:
California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.
The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. The law was widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It required state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there was "reasonable suspicion" that the individual was undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believed was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010, immediately generating a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. In July 2010 and February 2012, federal judges blocked different provisions of SB 1070, setting the stage for the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/sb1070-ruling-supreme-court_n_1614119.html" target="_hplink">the Supreme Court decision of June 25, 2012</a> which struck down multiple provisions but upheld the controversial "papers please" provision, a centerpiece of the law which critics say will lead to racial profiling
The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17
This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>
Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)
Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010
The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>