Chicago woman survived drug addiction and made a life for herself; Now, she might get deported

Alejandra Cano has been sober for five years, but old shoplifting cases have come back to haunt her.

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Alejandra Cano and her family wait to find out if she will be deported to Chile because she was caught shoplifting more than five years ago.

Alejandra Cano and her family wait to find out if she will be deported to Chile because she was caught shoplifting more than five years ago.

Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

How long is five years, really? For Alejandra Cano, it’s been a lifetime.

The 45-year-old has been sober since 2014 after nearly three decades of drug use.

After getting clean, Cano landed a full-time job and found a new apartment in North Lawndale where she lives with her two sons.

“I turned my life around. I feel like a human again,” Cano said.

But for immigration authorities, Cano’s redemption story seems irrelevant.

In August, Customs and Border Protection agents detained Cano at O’Hare Airport after coming back from visiting her father in their native Chile.

Cano has a green card and is free to travel out of the country. But her rap sheet — made up of nearly a dozen misdemeanors, mostly for shoplifting at the height of her addiction — makes her liable to being detained and stripped of her legal status despite having stayed clear of the law since 2013.

CBP agents told Cano to appear at their Loop offices on Nov. 14. She showed up with dozens of supporters but was told to come back Dec. 19.

Her lawyer, Kate Ramos, thinks there’s a good chance of keeping Cano in the country but worries immigration authorities will put Cano behind bars until her case goes before an immigration judge.

“That could take anywhere from six to eight months,” Ramos said. “She’s essentially at risk of being jailed for crimes she already paid for.”

Alejandra Cano with her two sons Nico, center, and Emilio. The family waits to find out if Cano will be deported to Chile.

Alejandra Cano with her two sons Nico, center, and Emilio. The family waits to find out if Cano will be deported to Chile. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Immigration authorities are by law able to detain any immigrant convicted of certain crimes that cross their path — even if the crimes occurred years ago.

The enforcement of the law waned under President Barack Obama, particularly for non-violent offenders,but has spiked under the Trump administration.

Ramos, a staff attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, said Cano “is not my first client that’s in this situation, and she certainly won’t be my last.”

On Tuesday, Cano joined Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and other members of Congress as they introduced the New Way Forward Act, which would protect immigrants from detention and deportation for criminal convictions they racked up more than five years ago.

The law would also prohibit local law enforcement from collaborating with ICE, decriminalize irregular border crossings, and phase out the use of private prisons and county jails to detain immigrants facing deportation.

“Our country’s immigration laws leave no room for second chances,” Cano said at a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C. “I am here today because those laws are not in line with the values this country and its people hold true.”

Alejandra Cano, center, speaks at a news conference in support of the “New Way Forward Act” introduced Tuesday by Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill.

Alejandra Cano, center, speaks at a news conference in support of the “New Way Forward Act” introduced Tuesday by Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill

National Immigrant Justice Center

Cano was born in Chile but has lived in the U.S. since she was a toddler. Her family was granted political asylum in 1976 to escape the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. They settled in Cicero.

At 14, Cano started using drugs. She got clean on June 3, 2014 — the day she checked into A Safe Haven, a homeless shelter on the West Side

“That’s when I surrendered,” she said. “I was finally somewhere I could rest my head and feel safe. I never looked back.”

Cano now works full time at an Evanston-based media company and volunteers at A Safe Haven to help others on their road to recovery.

In her free time, Cano is at home with her sons.

“We’re always hanging out, watching a movie in the living room, you know, living a normal life,” said her youngest son, Nico, 14.

Alejandra Cano with her son Nico.

Alejandra Cano with her son Nico.

Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times

Cano is worried what being separated from her sons will do to their well-being.

“Growing up, I was separated from my parents so many times. I know what that feels like. Having no structure did something to me, and I’m afraid it’ll happen to my kids,” she said.

Cano’s spirits are high despite facing months behind bars at an ICE detention center.

“I feel so fortunate to be standing here today. It could’ve easily gone the other way,” she said. “I’m fighting for all the immigrants who are unjustly incarcerated. I feel like I was born for this moment.”

Alejandra Cano and her attorney, Kate Ramos,  hold a news conference outside Customs and Border Protection’s offices in the Loop on Nov. 14, 2019.

Alejandra Cano and her attorney, Kate Ramos, hold a news conference outside Customs and Border Protection’s offices in the Loop on Nov. 14, 2019.

National Immigrant Justice Center

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps members of Report for America,a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

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