SANTA FE (AP) - "Feliz Navidad y Ano Nuevo Papi. Te Queremos Mucho."
Last December, 10-year-old Erica Lira wrote a message to her father wishing him a happy Christmas and telling him how much the family loved him.
Her mother, Margarita Arellano, took a picture of Erica holding the handwritten sign — illustrated with a Christmas tree — and sent it to her husband, who is being held at an immigration processing facility in Chaparral in southern New Mexico.
In Santa Fe, Arellano and the couple's four U.S.-born children spent the holidays without him. There was no money for presents or even a Christmas dinner. A family friend bought them small gifts and a pizza.
Now they face a more uncertain future. Jorge Hugo Lira Garcia, who has lived and worked steadily in Santa Fe for 16 years, does not have documents and could be deported to Mexico.
On Dec. 13, the 37-year-old printer was stopped by a Santa Fe police officer for a traffic violation and booked into the county jail. He did not have a driver's license or car insurance. According to online court records, he had three outstanding warrants for failure to appear, all related to unpaid traffic tickets issued in 2008 and 2009. Fees totaled $1,413.
Two days after his arrest, Lira Garcia was released to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and sent to the Otero County Detention Center. A judge set his bond for release at $15,000. His attorney, Amara Aaron, plans to appeal.
Lira Garcia, who has a hearing set March 8, is charged with entering the country without proper permission and for being a Mexican national who entered without proper inspection, Aaron said.
"It was an oversight on my part, I admit it. I made a mistake," said Lira Garcia during a telephone conversation from the detention center. He said he did not pay the traffic fines because he never had enough money and because he was afraid of showing up in court.
"I heard stories of people being deported, and that scared me," Lira Garcia said.
A report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General indicates that between 1998 and 2007, 2.1 million "alien removals" involving 108,434 parents of U.S.-citizen children occurred.
The deportation of a parent is especially tough on children, according to local school counselors. They say they often hear stories about kids being afraid to attend school once ICE has detained a family member.
"Their grades start dropping, and emotionally, they start exhibiting different types of emotions by crying or by fighting. It's one extreme to another," said Frances Maestas, a school counselor at Agua Fria Elementary School. "It's a big problem for us, and I feel bad for them."
Elizabeth Bunker, counselor at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, said in December alone, eight of the families she works with had a family member taken into ICE custody. She talks with parents about having a plan B in case they are caught by immigration officials while their children are in school.
Lira Garcia's wife and children are struggling to get along without his income and guidance.
Carlos Lira, 11, a sixth-grader at Agua Fria, said, "I have a lot of friends here, and mostly we were born here, so we don't want to leave."
Not having his father around is distressing for Javier, 13.
"For the first few days, I sat here. My dad would always come through that door," he said pointing to the entrance to the family's uncluttered three-bedroom apartment.
On the surface, their days are routine. Arellano, a stay-at-home mom, gets up to make breakfast for the children, then drops them off at their schools. Carlos has guitar lessons on Thursdays, and Erica and Javier have dance practice on Fridays or Saturdays. Jorge, 14, spends his time studying. He's a freshman at Capital High School.
While the children are in school, Arellano assembles documents for her husband's case: copies of income tax returns, bills, contact information for acquaintances who can provide letters of support. The children wrote letters asking the immigration judge to let their father stay in the U.S.
Albuquerque immigration attorney Amara Aaron thinks Lira Garcia might be eligible for a waiver under immigration law that would allow him to remain in this country. She will need to show deporting him would cause the family "extreme and extraordinary hardship," that he has resided in the U.S. for 10 straight years and is of "good moral character," she said.
Traffic violations should not be enough to deport him, Aaron argues.
Besides the traffic violations, court records show Lira Garcia was sued twice by the same landlord for not paying rent on time. He said he and his wife planned to use this year's income tax refund to pay off the nearly $3,000 owed in late fees and past-due rent.
"It's true that maybe we've had trouble managing our money, but another part of it is that we simply don't have enough to pay everything," Arellano said.
She and Lira Garcia married in Guadalajara, Mexico, 16 years ago and emigrated to