Paradise Lost

Tim Hogan is fighting to get his family out of a bureaucratic no-man's land

Six years ago Tim Hogan thought he had it made. Living on a sailboat off the coast of Honduras, the native St. Louisan became a dive master and spent his days helping out his father, who had a contract rewiring cigar factories.

"About two months after being there, I meet a beautiful woman selling jewelry to my father's house maid," recalls the 34-year-old Hogan. "Eventually that woman became my wife."

The couple couldn't have been happier. They soon had a baby girl, whom they named Brittney. Hogan took over the management of a sawmill in Olancho, about 45 minutes north of the Mosquito Coast, and bought seven acres of land in the southwestern mountainous region of El Paraiso.

"Truthfully, we did not have plans to come back to the United States," says Hogan. "We were thinking about opening up a smaller mill of our own."

Those plans came to an abrupt halt when the couple's second child, Ryan, was born with a life-threatening birth defect. The family has now been thrown into a bureaucratic no-man's land, with Hogan's wife and daughter stranded in Honduras while Hogan labors in residential construction in the St. Louis area to provide his son with needed medical care.

Ryan, now six months old, was born with gastroschisis, a birth defect in which the stomach and intestines form outside the body cavity. The infant's life was in danger, and doctors performed emergency surgery, putting the baby's intestinal tract back into his abdomen.

The corrective procedure for gastroschisis normally involves days of stretching out an infant's torso to accommodate the intestinal tract. In Ryan's case, "they literally just shoved everything back in," says Hogan. "What I did not know is that the very next day he had another operation. They had left a sponge in him."

During the surgery, Ryan's intestine became blocked. The infant was chronically dehydrated. His stomach bloated every few days and he was in constant pain, forcing Hogan to return to the hospital five times a week so doctors could drain the child's stomach.

Hogan remembers his plea to United States Embassy officials in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa: "It's a medical emergency. Give me the visa for my wife and children. You know, give me the passports, and we're out of here.

"At that point the U.S. Embassy tells me: 'Well, we won't give you a tourist visa, because we know she won't come back.'"

Hogan and his wife, Mirian, never imagined they'd be in this situation. In the early days of their marriage, they planned to settle in Honduras, so Mirian did not apply for legal residency in America, a process that can take anywhere from six months to two years. As the wife of a U.S. citizen, Mirian Hogan is ineligible for a tourist visa.

In other words: Although her husband and two children are U.S. citizens, there is no legal way for Mirian to enter the country without going through a prolonged immigration process. The family had to split up. Hogan and Ryan went to Hogan's parents' Collinsville home, while Mirian and Brittney remained in Honduras.

Upon returning to Collinsville in July, Hogan found a job. His mother, Lauren Martins, looked after Ryan. The situation was manageable until Martins -- who suffers from carpal-tunnel syndrome, diabetes and arthritis -- broke her foot. Ryan had to go into daycare, further stretching Hogan's scant resources.

As a last-ditch effort, the couple petitioned United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in August to allow Mirian to enter the United States on humanitarian parole.

In a letter dated September 23, Kenneth Leutbecker of the USCIS rejected Hogan's petition, writing in part: "[Humanitarian] parole is not used to circumvent normal visa-issuing procedures or other remedies available within the law. Although the facts as presented are certainly unfortunate, it has been determined after careful review that a favorable exercise of the Secretary's discretionary authority is not warranted."

"It was really insulting," says Hogan. "They need to open up a dictionary and look up the definition of 'humanitarian.' I mean, what is more humanitarian than reuniting a family that has been separated because of a medical emergency?"

If only it were that simple, says Bill Strassburger, spokesman for the USCIS. "Humanitarian parole is basically something that is used in a situation where the applicant has no other route available. In this case, because she's married to a U.S. citizen, she obviously does have the immigrant visa route available.

"If he had started this a year ago, or at least when he'd returned to the U.S., by now it would have been approved," Strassburger continues. "But applying for it now, hoping to get it through as soon as possible -- boy. It's going to be several months, regardless."

In the meantime Hogan is working with St. Louis attorney Andrea Crumpler in hopes of expediting Mirian's residency application. They've appealed to numerous politicians for help in the matter, including Illinois senators Peter Fitzgerald and Dick Durbin.

So far Crumpler's efforts have not borne fruit.

"Citizenship and Immigration Services requests that Senatorial offices do not inquire or seek expedites on Humanitarian Parole cases," writes Senator Fitzgerald in a letter dated September 16. "I am sorry I can be of no further assistance."

Durbin's office was more helpful. "I think it's a humanitarian issue," says Kappy Scapes, a spokeswoman for the senator. "Senator Durbin wants to help in any way that he can -- that doesn't mean that he can help, but he wants to help."

Hogan and his wife shouldn't hold their breath, says the USCIS's Strassburger. "Given the fact that they have been married and just didn't get around to [applying for an immigrant visa] until now probably doesn't weigh too heavily in their favor," says Strassburger, who adds that the Nebraska visa-processing center that will handle their application is currently processing applications submitted in October 2003. "The real problem is that they should have filed an immigrant visa as soon as they were married."

Though Ryan is healthy, Hogan says his own financial situation is untenable. Earning just $300 a week, Hogan says his income is tightly stretched between paying for daycare and sending money to his wife and daughter. On November 5, he says, he plans to board a plane to Honduras, drop off his son so his wife can care for him, then return to United States.

It's not the best plan in the world, but he says it's the only option available to him. "I can't help but blame this on my government," Hogan says. "I feel as though my government is robbing me of my wife and my family. Protecting the country is one thing. Separating me and my family is another."

Animosity toward the federal government aside, Hogan says he now has no plans of settling in Honduras.

"I was more or less told: 'You better be damn grateful he's alive and not allow that situation to occur again,'" Hogan says. "The only way I know how to do that is to stay in the United States, find a good job and raise my family here."

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