Only a few years ago the lives of Emilio and Analia Maya brimmed with possibility, their little cafe thrived, and their hard-fought dream of life in America seemed enticingly within reach.
They had emigrated from Argentina in the late 1990s and settled in this picturesque village near the Catskills, working in restaurants, becoming respected members of the community. Emilio joined the volunteer fire department. Analia, his sister, volunteered as a translator for the local police.
Life was hard, but happy, and they had big plans. They were saving to open a restaurant where Emilio, now 34, would whip up Argentine specialties while Analia, 30, served customers.
But that was before the siblings struck their deal.
Like so many other immigrant workers, the Mayas had overstayed their visitor visas years earlier. They were haunted by the fact they could be deported at any time.
Though she loved life in America, Analia yearned to be able to travel freely, to once again see friends and relatives in Argentina, to glimpse the familiar, snowcapped peaks of the Andes.
One day she turned to her friend, police officer Sidney Mills, who regularly recruited the Mayas to help with cases involving Hispanics. Mills didn't hesitate.
"They were doing right by the community," he says. "I thought I should do right by them."
So in March 2005 Mills arranged a meeting at the station between Analia and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Kelly McManus and Morgan Langer. They peppered her with questions about the kind of information she could provide, about why she wanted to stay in the U.S. "I want to finish college and become a translator," she said.
According to Mills the deal was straightforward: In exchange for working as informants, ICE would help the Mayas get coveted S visas, which, in rare instances, are awarded to immigrants who help law enforcement.
"It was very clear," Mills says. "That was the deal they thought they had made."
Five years later, the Mayas insist they held up their end of the bargain, risking their lives in hours of undercover work, wearing wires and using fake names. But for reasons they do not understand, ICE agents abruptly turned against them — and they now face imminent deportation.
Analia was elated the day they sealed the deal. Emilio was more wary. How could they trust the very people charged with deporting them?
But the agents were friendly and professional. They were looking for information on people involved with drugs, gangs, human smuggling operations, prostitution and selling false papers. They made it clear they couldn't pay for information, and the couple would have to sign forms stating that they would never talk about their undercover work, not even to their immediate family.
And so the Mayas were inducted into the murky world of "CIs" — confidential informants — a world filled with suspicion and deceit and danger, a world in which, undercover, they were no longer Analia and Emilio Maya, but Ana and Edwin Martinez.
At first, the work seemed simple enough. At soccer practice, in the restaurant, even grocery shopping, the Mayas would initiate conversations about information the agents were seeking. They would meet McManus and Langer in supermarket parking lots and inspect photographs of suspects. ICE wasn't interested in regular people working illegally, Analia says. "They were looking for the big fish. The really bad ones."
Emilio wasn't so sure. On the street the S visa is known as the "snitch" visa. What if word got out that the Mayas were informing on immigrants like themselves?
And yet the promised reward was dazzling. The Mayas were about to open their restaurant, Tango cafe. Their parents had followed from Argentina and were helping them. What undocumented immigrant wouldn't leap at the opportunity to become legal?
In February 2006, the agents decided to take the next step. They wired Emilio and sent him to a Main Street house that operated a prostitution ring.
Mills remembers the night clearly — how he, McManus, Langer and Analia sat in an unmarked car, listening as Emilio asked about the girls, where they came from, who brought them, the cost. Analia was shaking. What if they discovered the recorder? What if they turned on her brother?
The agents were pleased. Later that month they drove the Mayas to the ICE office in New York, where they were handed work permits valid for one year. As long as they were with ICE, the permits would be renewed every year.
Analia and Emilio were ecstatic. This was the first step, they thought. The S visa would surely follow.
Wearing a wire
That September, agents sent Analia on an undercover job in a cosmetic factory in Port Jervis 70 miles away, where she pretended to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico. She was to get information on hiring practices, on who provided the false papers, and on the managers.
For five weeks, Analia lived in a hotel near Port Jervis, working the 7:30 am to 3:30 p.m. shift at the factory. Agents would pick her up at 4:30 in the morning, slip on the wire — a small device she wore in her jeans pocket — drive her to a parking lot where a van picked up the workers. When her shift ended, they would pick her up, debrief her, and drive her back to the hotel.
Standing for hours on the assembly line was exhausting, and trying to pry information from managers even harder. Nights were miserable, alone in the hotel. And there was the constant fear of being exposed.
In the end, an old injury — a broken collar bone that hadn't healed properly — landed Analia in the emergency room. Doctors said she couldn't work in the factory anymore.
For the most part, Analia said she never felt in serious danger, though Emilio described several close calls.
On one occasion, Emilio said, he was wired and sent to a run-down neighborhood in Newburgh to buy a false papers from a woman named Maria. But Maria drove to another location and agents lost track of him. Terrified that he would be discovered, Emilio walked for miles before agents caught up with him.
By the summer of 2007, Emilio's nerves were frayed. "We had given them information on a gang, on a smuggling operation, on drugs, and still we had nothing," he said.
But when he demanded an explanation from ICE, the response was chilling, Emilio recalled: If the Mayas stopped informing, they risked immediate deportation.
Wanting more information
Analia dismissed it as an idle threat. After all, they had made a deal with an agency of the U.S. government.
But things were changing. In 2008, the Mayas say, agents began demanding information on terrorism and guns — information the Mayas couldn't provide. The couple continued offering tips about local activities, but they were no longer sent on undercover jobs.
In many ways, it was a relief. They were busy running the restaurant. Emilio had married his girlfriend and they had a baby girl. Analia was pregnant with her son. They had little time for information gathering, though the question was never far from their minds: Where did they stand with ICE?
The answer came in May 2009, when, according to Emilio agents bluntly said that unless he delivered information on weapons and terrorism, he would be deported.
What about the promised visas? What about their deal?
"They said the information I gave them wasn't good enough," Emilio says.
Seeking congressman's help
Analia was frantic. Where could they turn for help? They had no written proof of their deal. What would happen to them?
In desperation, she confided in a customer at Tango — U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, who had stopped for lunch with his daughter. Sobbing, Analia told him everything. "Calm down," the congressman said. "The government doesn't use people and throw them away."
The next week, Hinchey's office began researching their case — and, the Mayas say, ICE stopped taking their calls.
No one foresaw what happened next.
On Nov. 17, as he left his house for work, Emilio was surrounded by ICE agents pointing guns. "We are deactivating you," they said, slapping him in handcuffs and shackles, as Analia begged McManus for answers: "Where are you taking him?"
Emilio was "out of status" and would be deported, McManus said.
Emilio was locked up in Pike County jail in Hawley, Pa., for 15 days, though he was given no explanation and charged with no crime. Distraught, Analia called Mills, who listened in shock. A 10-year veteran of the police department, Mills had long worked undercover narcotics operations, sometimes with the FBI. And though he had never dealt with ICE before, he assumed "the rules would be the same."
"You protect your sources," Mills says. "And you never renege on a deal."
Now Mills is torn between the belief that the Mayas deserve to be rewarded for their work, and the nagging feeling that, "there must be something I don't know."
If there is, ICE hasn't revealed it. The only explanation Hinchey's staff received was that none of the information the Mayas provided had led to arrests or prosecutions.
Emilio was released on a 90-day stay on the eve of his deportation in December after Hinchey personally called ICE. When the 90 days are up — March 2 — Emilio must leave the country voluntarily or face deportation. Analia faces her own hearing in immigration court on March 5.
ICE spokesman Brian Hale said the agency couldn't discuss any case involving informants. In general, he said, ICE uses "alien informants" in a "significant public benefit parole" program, which may eventually lead to visas. "There has to be a significant benefit to the government," Hale said. "That is the standard."
Suspicion from Latinos
Critics of ICE say it is not unusual for the agency to treat informants poorly.
"They use the most vulnerable people to do dangerous work, make them all sorts of promises and then just abandon them," says New York immigration lawyer Claudia Slovinsky, who doesn't know of anyone who has received an S visa.
The plight of the Mayas has divided this historic village on the Hudson. Weekenders have flocked to their aid, signing petitions, holding fundraisers, bombarding Hinchey and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's offices with letters of support. Gillibrand's staff has asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano review the case. And Hinchey submitted a rare private bill requesting the Mayas be granted legal status. But there are complex rules governing private bills and they are extremely difficult to pass.
Meanwhile, the reaction from the Latino community has been suspicion and fear.
Latinos don't come to Tango anymore. They shun Emilio and Analia at the bank and the supermarket. Emilio has been dropped by his local soccer team. Analia's friends won't return calls because they fear her phone is tapped.
The Mayas understand. Even if they avoid deportation, they wonder about their prospects in Saugerties. "What kind of a life can we have here," Analia says, "when so many people are enemies?"
For now, the clock is ticking and the strain shows. Emilio is on the verge of leaving for Argentina, knowing he will not be able to return. Analia says she cannot run the restaurant on their own, and besides, she wouldn't want to stay in the country without him.
Tango still opens at 7 every morning. Customers breeze in and coo at the babies, and Analia greets them with a smile. In the kitchen, Emilio distracts himself with cooking. But as the deadline looms and the family awaits its fate, nothing in the cozy little cafe feels the same.