Immigration woes surprise Minnesota family

It was a lousy Thanksgiving for the Miechkota family in International Falls. Rather than enjoying their time together, the family was thinking of their daughter and sister, Peggy Miechkota, who has been held -- first in the Sherburne County Jail,...

It was a lousy Thanksgiving for the Miechkota family in International Falls.

Rather than enjoying their time together, the family was thinking of their daughter and sister, Peggy Miechkota, who has been held -- first in the Sherburne County Jail, then in the Grand Forks County Correctional Center in North Dakota -- since Oct. 17 for being an illegal immigrant from Canada, an allegation that was a shock to her family.

"It's been pure hell," said Peggy's mother, Betty Miechkota, who is originally from Duluth.

Peggy Miechkota's family is wondering why the government would want to deport a 40-year-old working woman who has lived half her life in the U.S. and the other half in a friendly country.

"Come on, Canada?" said Kim Haldorson of Duluth, Peggy's sister.


Miechkota and her two sisters were born in Canada and moved to Minnesota in 1977 with their mother, an American citizen. Peggy Miechkota's lawyer, David Chapman of Fargo, N.D., is arguing that a 1986 amendment to the country's immigration laws should have granted her U.S. citizenship long ago. Chapman is requesting that her immigrant status be reopened by a federal court.

For now, she remains in Grand Forks. Since arrested, she has lost her full-time job at a Twin Cities hospital, said her sister, Brenda Hamilton of International Falls.

Peggy Miechkota's family thinks the case is "ridiculous," but a spokesman for the country's immigration enforcement agency said they have little flexibility in enforcing the nation's laws.

About 700 Canadian citizens were deported back to Canada during 2006, said Tim Counts, public affairs officer for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Bloomington, Minn. The office assumed a portion of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's duties after that office was dissolved in 2003.

Counts said his office performs two primary functions: investigating and arresting people who are in the U.S. illegally, and carrying out deportation orders executed by the federal courts.

Miechkota's immigration status probably came to light after she moved to Canada in the 1990s, Chapman said. Miechkota apparently failed to notify immigration officials that she would be out of the U.S. for more than 180 days but planned to keep her green card, which grants permission to live and work in the U.S.

In 2006, a federal judge ordered her to attend a deportation hearing in Bloomington, but she failed to appear. If she had, Counts said, she would have had the right to appeal the deportation order.

Miechkota's sister, Brenda Hamilton of International Falls, said Peggy had moved and didn't receive notice of the hearing until just before it was to take place. Peggy then failed to follow up.


After that, a federal judge in Bloomington ordered her to be removed "in absentia." ICE officials arrested Miechkota near her home in mid-October, and she has been incarcerated ever since.

Miechkota has been scheduled to be deported to Canada twice since her arrest, a prospect that her mother, Betty Miechkota, finds dismaying. She had plans to meet her daughter in Canada because, she said, Peggy "would be dropped off in her street clothes, no jacket, no money, nothing."

Betty Miechkota and her other two daughters, Haldorson and Hamilton, have tried to piece together how Peggy Miechkota wound up facing deportation, after graduating from Falls High School in 1985 and living and working in Minnesota for the past 11 years.

Betty Miechkota was born in Duluth and in 1963 moved to Canada after she married a Canadian man. She divorced and moved with her three daughters to the Falls in 1977. Peggy would have been about 10.

"I went through all the channels to get them legally entered into the United States," Betty Miechkota said. Her daughters all had green cards, and Miechkota remembers going to the post office every year to refresh their forms. One year, Betty Miechkota said, "I was told it no longer needed to be done."

Because her mother had always been a U.S. citizen, Haldorson believed she was as well. She held on to her green card. Upon returning from a trip to Mexico in 1987, though, Haldorson was told her green card had expired, and she was delayed at the Miami airport while things were sorted out. The experience prompted her to become a naturalized citizen, and Hamilton later did the same. It's unclear why Peggy Miechkota did not.

The 1986 amendment was intended to give amnesty to resident illegal aliens in the U.S., in response to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants. The 1986 amendment was partially undone by another amendment in 1988, but Chapman said a small population of immigrants was automatically granted U.S. citizenship during those two years.

Peggy Miechkota "was in that two-year window," Chapman said.


If Chapman's request to reopen the case is denied, it would be up to Miechkota to decide what to do next. Though her family is upset at how long she has been incarcerated, some contested immigration cases take many months or even years to resolve, Counts said.

Chapman said he believes the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office is "treating this case very carefully."

And while he believes ICE officials exercise their power judiciously, "they have been very concerned about the possibility of detaining someone who has U.S. citizenship," he said.

Counts said his office doe not have any discretion in carrying out a federal judge's orders.

"Many people have the perception that we roam the streets, looking for illegal aliens," Counts said. And though the agency monitors county jail registers and other lists for suspected illegal immigrants, it doesn't randomly demand to see citizenship papers.

"We focus on community safety," Counts said. "Anyone who has a criminal record is a priority for us."

Anoka County court records show several minor criminal charges against Peggy Miechkota, one in 1997 and another in 2005.

But her family doesn't think of Miechkota as a criminal who deserves to be locked up for six weeks, Hamilton said.


"Hopefully, Peggy will be home for Christmas," Hamilton said.

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