Lakewood Family Caught In A Green Card Nightmare


chen-familyLehman Weichselbaum of The Jewish Week reports: To any visitor to their Lakewood, N.J., home, Abraham and Zvia Chen display all the signs of loving and generous parents. Since they and their six kids moved from Midwood, Brooklyn, last year, their attractive, modest house has become comfortably settled in. On a typical weekday evening, the children surround their father with news and questions as he walks in from a day’s work, and Zvia puts the finishing touches on dinner. After being playfully hoisted by Abraham, boys Naore, 7, and Maoz, 2, join Eldar, their 6-year-old brother who has Down’s Syndrome, to flock to their guest with a barrage of conversation.Eldar repeatedly asks the visitor his name until, murmuring it out loud, he finally gets it right. While the
oldest child, Shlomo, 17, typically stays out late with his job or his studies, the remaining kids tend dutifully to their homework, chores and bedtime duties with the lightest of parental nudges.

Except for all the yarmulkes on all the small bobbing heads, the scene is as stereotypically American as Hollywood or the Saturday Evening Post could portray it.

Next week, the Chens will find out if they will be able to replay this scene in just this way and in just this place for very much longer. Their long-awaited moment of reckoning will happen in a hearing room of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Lower Manhattan, under the gavel of Judge Steven Abrams.

Though hopeful, the Chens, parents of a deeply affected special-needs child, know they are battling dauntingly long odds in their fight to win permanent residency status on the basis of their hardship plea. For them, immigration court has come to feel more like a wild-card casino than a dispassionate hall of justice.

Abraham and Zvia Chen, both 42, grew up in Israel, while their children, including Eldar, the center of their case, were all born in the United States. According to the elder Chens, their lawyer and other experts familiar with their plight, their status should have been resolved in their favor long ago.
Instead, their case has been suspended in legal limbo for five years.

“We’re having all these difficulties,” says Abraham Chen. “And I can’t find a good reason for them.”
If they lose their case on June 16, Abraham and Zvia Chens will undergo deportation to Israel and be compelled to take their American citizen children with them. The Chens and the experts they have consulted believe the entire family – most of all Down’s-affected Eldar – will face a painfully uncertain future.

From a casual glance the Chens are unexceptional, just eight more anonymous bodies passing through downtown Manhattan’s always- bustling Federal Plaza, home to immigration courts, in zealous search of an officially stamped tenure inside the United States. Last year alone over 20,000 immigrants won or lost legal American residency there.

Nevertheless, the case of the Chens is one more reminder to American Jews that the ever-roiling immigration controversy touches people much like themselves.

In addition, the Chens’ plight highlights the cracks in the naturalization system carved by blind chance. Unlike trial-based criminal and civil courts, which rely heavily on citizen juries to decide cases, immigration courts, falling under administrative procedures, entrust their rulings to lone judges. Assignment of judges to cases are random, and they can make a lifetime of difference to a person or, in the case of the Chens, an entire family.

“In immigration proceedings the judges have a lot of discretion, in some cases too much discretion, especially in hardship pleas,” contends Irina Matiychenko, director of the Immigration Protection Unit of the New York Legal Assistance Group. “It can lead to some outrageous decisions. You’re lucky to get a good judge.”

The Chens’ attorney, David Frenkel, is stunned by the case thus far. “In 30 years of practice I’ve represented thousands of immigrant clients,” he says, “and this case stands out.”

A spokeswoman for the federal immigration service said that Judge Abrams is barred from commenting on pending cases.

Abraham – “Avi” to friends – and Zvia Chen made their way from Israel to New York City in 1991. For several years Abraham rode a series of renewable work visas, ultimately finding his way to his present niche of contracting and plumbing work, running a staff of three or four employees out of a single pickup truck. In the meantime Zvia resigned herself to her undocumented immigrant status.

Though the religiously Orthodox Chens went well past the legal 10-year threshold for green-card eligibility, they paid their taxes and stayed out of legal trouble. Eventually, they were compelled to apply for permanent residency status. After a series of bureaucratic bumps, that day came in 2004, when their case fell under the review of Judge Abrams.

The judge, unpersuaded by the parents’ long strife-free history or by Eldar’s special needs, or by the more conventional vulnerabilities of their other children, all of which he said could be adequately served in Israel, denied the Chens’ bid for a green card. The famly then appealed the decision to the immigration service’s review panel in Washington, which returned the case to Judge Abrams for additional fact finding, and then they hired Frenkel, their new lawyer.

The case has so far cost the single-paycheck Chens a comparatively modest but still ill-affordable $7,000.

“Next year,” says Avi Chen, “my wife and me will be living in this country longer than we lived in Israel.”
Attorney Frenkel admits he is as baffled as his clients by the government’s actions so far. “Everyone who has seen this case says it should have been a slam dunk,” he says. “I can’t remember a single case anywhere where residency status wasn’t granted to parents of a child with a severe incapacity. A Down’s Syndrome child of Eldar’s age would be faced with the prospect of learning a whole new language, which is quite simply beyond his means.”

Other government panels in recent years have ruled in favor of green card-seeking immigrant families who had appealed for hardship exceptions for their own special-needs children. Frenkel cites three such precedents – two in California, one in Texas – that he hopes will guide Judge Abrams’ hand.
Eldar, at the core of the Chens’ case, exhibits extremely limited speech and a tenuously developing intelligence that wholly depends, in his father’s words, on “what you put into it.” Moreover, say the Chens and their advocates, in their new life in Israel Abraham will face big obstacles in securing steady work, especially in today’s blighted economy.

For the normally developing Chen children, relocation to Israel could prove dire. But for Eldar, the move, those around him fear, would prove devastating.

Dr. Vivian Wachsman, former director of the Center for Child Development at Queens Hospital Center, submitted expert reports to the court on the Chens’ behalf. “Eldar has made enormous progress under his school programs so far,” she says. “Aside from the dislocation factor, it’s hard to make the case that the systems here and in Israel are equal. Here a child like Eldar will get the therapy he needs five times a week. In Israel the norm is closer to once a week.”

More broadly, she says that deportation is always hardest of all on the children, especially on those with disabilities.

“All children crave routine,” she observes. “When you yank them away from their familiar surroundings, they will with certainty suffer deep hardship, even more so in the case of special ed kids.”

Lawyer Frenkel agrees. “We believe the government is missing the point,” he says. “It’s less about the comparative value of schools in Israel versus the U.S. It’s most importantly about Eldar and his unique condition. He’s not a normal child. He doesn’t acclimate at all well to big changes.

“I am optimistic we will win our case,” Frenkel continues. “You’ve got a major differentiation between educational and therapy systems in two countries. You’ve got a kid who very possibly will find the move to such a radically new environment too difficult to handle.”

For Abraham Chen, the country he and his wife have adopted is the only place for their family.
“This is the leading country,” he says, “for teaching other countries how to give people what they need.”

{The Jewish Week/Noam Newscenter}


  1. “Though the religiously Orthodox Chens went well past the legal 10-year threshold for green-card eligibility, they paid their taxes and stayed out of legal trouble. Eventually, they were compelled to apply for permanent residency status. After a series of bureaucratic bumps, that day came in 2004, when their case fell under the review of Judge Abrams.”

    Well, why didn’t they apply like they were supposed to? The fact is that they broke the law. We complain when Mexicans come over the border illegally and have kids here, why should this be different?

  2. This case is different. The difference is the Downs Syndrome child. The “We complain … Mexicans” comment is inappropriate.

    This is not a “run of the mill case” and the five years of American courtroom resources the article mentions shows that there’s plenty wrong to be fixed. It should not cost this child his life. Tfilos is the best answer.