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Family gets caught in immigration red tape

SUWANEE - Lisa Coursey has always known she had to take care of her brother.

Since the day she was found wandering the streets as a toddler and the two were placed in a British orphanage, she has been one of the few family members the developmentally disabled boy could count on.

Now, Ian Button is a man - 38 years old, although after two incorrect guesses at his age he had to be prompted and eventually ask for the answer - but he still needs his sister.

The problem is, Coursey has a new life in the United States, where she has lived for more than two decades, and Button, a citizen of England who lived with the pair's aunt in Trinidad until she died three years ago, has long out-stayed his visa.

"We're basically on a 12-year waiting list for his status to be adjusted to legal," said Coursey, who filed for Button to obtain a green card based on a sibling relationship in 2005, knowing her aunt would soon no longer be able to care for him.

The sibling relationship application process is a low priority for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a spokeswoman said, but Coursey said he has tried to get the government to acknowledge this special case, where Coursey is more of a parent than a sister.

The Lawrenceville woman has legal guardianship of Button, who she said has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, and while her mother is still living, she still suffers from the schizophrenia and mental issues that caused her to lose custody of her children decades ago.

When the family left Trinidad after the aunt's funeral in 2006, Coursey was assured by an embassy official that the matter could be solved back in the United States, so she put Button on a plane and brought him home.

But instead of a matter of applying for a new status, Coursey said the only answer she was offered was her brother should never have come to the country in the first place.

While she and her husband Ricardo e-mailed and wrote letters and sought the government's help, Button's visa expired.

"The threat of deportation is there," she said. "We don't know what we would do."

Ivan Ortiz-Delgado, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said his agency has a mandate to enforce laws, so deportation isn't out of the question.

"While ICE prioritizes our efforts by targeting those who have demonstrated a threat to national security or public safety, we have a clear mandate to pursue all immigration violators and fugitives - even those with no documented criminal history in the United States," he said.

After taking the situation to the agency's legal affairs department, Ortiz said there was little that could be done for the family.

"As a law enforcement agency, we are not authorized to provide advice in immigration matters; however, there are community-based organizations as well as attorneys who provide legal assistance on a pro bono basis," he said.

Coursey said she has contacted attorneys and even her congressman, but after three years, nothing has been solved.

Button's application, she hopes, has inched up the list, but attorneys have told the family there is nothing that can be done.

So the family settled in, updating the county each year on Button's status and Coursey's position as guardian.

Little Ella, Lisa and Ricardo Coursey's baby daughter, has joined the clan.

Coursey and her husband enrolled Button in a program for developmentally disabled adults, where he attends classes three days a week. There, he has found a girlfriend and received an orange belt in karate.

He would like to go to more classes, but without the benefits of state aid, that is all the family can afford.

Button also wants to participate in Special Olympics, but because of his immigration status, he isn't allowed, even though Coursey said she would pay for any liabilities that would be a concern.

"We want his status adjusted so we can give him the best possible life," Coursey said, adding that she and her husband do not want to get a government handout, but they would like to be able to buy health insurance for her brother instead of having to pay huge amounts out of pocket when expenses such as glasses arise.

"As an immigrant to this country, I live to the best of my potential. I want that for my brother," said Coursey, who became a citizen during her early 20s. "No matter your limitations, you should be able to hit the ceiling."

Immigration reform and sweeps of illegals have hit the news with regularity during the past few years, especially since the election of President Barack Obama.

Coursey understands the frustration more than anybody.

"We didn't walk across a border. We're documented," she said, gesturing toward a stack of paperwork, forms and correspondence with the government. "We've done everything we can to abide by the rules. ... You just kind of fall through the cracks."

But Ana Santiago, spokeswoman for USCIS agreed that there is little to be done to help.

She also sent information on the situation - although she was not permitted to talk specifically about a certain case - to others in her agency to see if the situation could be remedied. After a couple of weeks, though, she referred the newspaper to ICE.

"We sympathize complicated situations involving loved ones in special conditions," she said. "However, because of the illegal nature of some individuals, USCIS is not the agency that deals with them."

Last week, a Florida jury ruled that a hospital acted "reasonably," when it flew an illegal immigrant day laborer, who was left a paraplegic with brain damage after being struck by a drunk driver, back to his native Guatemala.

Coursey said the news brought her sadness and made her wonder if her guardianship could help her brother.

"The truly horrible thing about that (waiting list) is that it will be a decade before we can buy him health insurance, which means that he'll be approaching 50 years of age by the time we try to, and he won't be able to join Special Olympics or learn a trade or work or travel outside of the U.S.," she said in an e-mail. "All because I was proactive in filing the form. ... It's outrageous."