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Salem woman gets reprieve from deportation

Mariola Perez and her son, Ernesto, 3, at a rally in front of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Burlington.
Mariola Perez and her son, Ernesto, 3, at a rally in front of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Burlington.Handout

Supporters of a woman living in Salem who was set to be returned to her native Guatemala — including renowned scholars and activists Noam Chomsky and his daughter, Aviva Chomsky — have expressed relief after federal immigration officials issued a stay of her deportation from the United States.

Mariola Perez, who entered the country illegally while pregnant in 2010 and now has a son, Ernesto, 3, had been ordered by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Sept. 17 to depart within 60 days. The order came after Perez’s arrest in Salem during a traffic stop brought her to the attention of ICE authorities.

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In a statement, ICE said that after conducting a comprehensive review of Perez’s case, the agency “has chosen to exercise prosecutorial discretion in this matter and has granted her a stay of removal.”

Perez’s attorney, Matt Cameron, said the stay is for one year.

The ICE statement was issued several days after about 60 Perez supporters rallied in front of the bureau’s Burlington office. Noam and Aviva Chomsky were among the speakers at the rally, which was held the day Perez was issued the deportation order. Perez, 26, and her son have been living in Salem with Aviva Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky (left) and Aviva Chomsky (right) with Mariola Perez and her son Ernesto, 3, at the Sept. 17 rally.
Noam Chomsky (left) and Aviva Chomsky (right) with Mariola Perez and her son Ernesto, 3, at the Sept. 17 rally. Handout

Noam Chomsky, 84, said he looks forward to Ernesto’s weekend visits to his Lexington home, where the boy can play with toys and share walks in the woods with the linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and author.

“On a personal level, she and her 3-year-old son are by now essentially members of my family,” Chomsky said in a telephone interview from his office at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is professor emeritus. “For me, she’s kind of like another granddaughter, and her son, who I have known since he was born, is like a great-grandson. I think he perceives the relationship the way I do . . . it’s a close personal relationship.”

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Aviva Chomsky grew up in Lexington and is a 1975 graduate of Lexington High School. She is currently a Salem State University professor and coordinator of the college’s Latin American Studies program.

“We are thrilled,” she said of the reprieve. “ICE made clearly what was the right humanitarian decision in this case.”

Perez, a Mayan, is from an indigenous village in western Guatemala. She decided to flee after she was a victim of domestic violence, said Aviva Chomsky, who also cited the poverty and lack of opportunity in Perez’s village.

Being “indigenous and pregnant outside of marriage turns you into an outcast” in that region, she said.

Deporting Perez would be wrong because it would “destroy the life of a fragile struggling family, and her son is a US citizen,” Aviva Chomsky said. “She poses no danger or threat to her society or her community. She has developed a lot of community ties.”

Perez said she felt great relief at the ICE decision.

“I’m just so happy that a lot of people are supporting me to stay here. I will be able to accomplish my goals of finishing college and for my son to have a better education,” said Perez, who also is pleased Ernesto will continue such activities as museum visits, music classes, soccer, and swimming.

Alexandra Piñeros-Shields, organizing director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the stay will allow Perez to remain in the country while Congress debates immigration reform. If a bill is enacted, “individuals like Mariola would have a mechanism to request legal status,” she said.

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Perez made several failed attempts to cross the border from Mexico — she was apprehended each time and sent back — before she succeeded in 2010.

She came first to Lynn, which has a large Guatemalan community that includes friends and relatives. Seeking a place to live, she was referred to Aviva Chomsky, who has worked with students who are not legal immigrants. Chomsky agreed to provide her a temporary place to stay.

“After a few weeks, I was just very moved with her story and her determination to make a better life for herself and her son, and I ended up saying if she wanted to stay longer she could,” Chomsky said.

Perez has cleaned houses and delivered newspapers while also taking classes to learn English. Most recently, she was accepted into an intensive college readiness program in Lynn. Her son attends preschool at Salem State.

With the stay of deportation, Perez will be able to apply to the immigration service for authorization to work, which, if granted, would also enable her to seek a driver’s license, according to Cameron.

In requesting a stay, Cameron cited Perez’s concern that her son, who has asthma, would not be able to obtain the medical care he needs if they were deported. But he said the “incredible outpouring of community support” played a key role in the stay being issued.

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On Aug. 25, Perez was arrested by Salem State University Police and then booked by Salem Police for driving without a license after a motor vehicle stop.

Aviva Chomsky said that she was initially under the impression that Perez was stopped for turning right on a yellow light, but that she was told last week by a Salem State University Police official that the officer had pulled her over after running a random check and finding that the car was registered to someone who did not have a driver’s license.

The car was registered to another person not legally in the country, said Chomsky, who added that insurance companies commonly offer coverage to undocumented people that is used to register cars. She said she knows about 1,000 undocumented people, and that 90 percent of them have their cars registered and insured but don’t have a driver’s license.

Two days later, Perez rode her bike with her son to Salem District Court for a hearing on the traffic offense. As she was locking up her bike, she was approached by two immigration agents who advised her she would have to appear at the ICE office. The agency had learned of her arrest through the Secure Communities program, a database that tracks arrests nationwide.

After she spoke to them, she went into the courthouse for the traffic hearing. The charge of driving without a license was dismissed with a $140 fine.

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Cameron said that Perez’s case had been identified as a priority by ICE since she was considered a repeat immigration violator because of illegally crossing the border more than once, which prompted a standing deportation order.

In announcing the stay, ICE said that it “exercises discretion on a case-by-case basis, as necessary to focus resources on our stated priorities. Decisions are based on the merits of each case, the factual information provided to the agency, and the totality of the circumstances.”

“Mariola is a young woman who showed enormous courage and commitment to come to the United States, escaping from misery and repression,” Noam Chomsky said. “She has [led] a model life in her work, her care for her child, and in advancing herself, and the child will grow here to become a productive, happy citizen of the United States.”

Aviva Chomsky said that apart from Perez’s personal circumstances, there is a broader moral argument against deporting her, contending that the decades-long flight of indigenous people from Guatemala is due to the brutal repression they have endured from regimes favoring the interests of US corporations operating in the country.

The North Shore Labor Council helped organize the rally in Burlington, and its president, Jeff Crosby, spoke.

Crosby later said that Perez typified the many Guatemalan immigrants who work long hours to try to climb out of poverty.

“She was an example of that, working two jobs, going to school to learn English, doing all the things that immigrants are supposed to do,” he said.


John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.