Years in detention takes toll on immigrant family
Lui Kit Wong / The News Tribune
Tara Ammons Cohen reads with her son, Gavin, about a family friend in the local newspaper on Dec. 17. Ammons Cohen was arrested in October 2008 on a drug charge and spent nearly three years locked up at the federal immigration detention center in Tacoma. She can't apply for a job or education without U.S. citizenship, and authorities still are reviewing her case. The woman who's lived in the U.S. since she was an infant still could be deported to her native Mexico because her adopted parents never got her naturalized and she didn't bother to do so once she became an adult.
Once, she had a husband who lay beside her at night and two little boys who mostly followed her rules. She worked as a teacher's assistant and bus driver and had cash and friends.
Then she got arrested and spent nearly three years locked up at the federal immigration detention center in Tacoma, 250 miles from her home in Omak.
The 39-year-old woman was conditionally released in August, but home isn't the same refuge it once was. She sometimes feels like an outsider.
"I'm still not adjusted," Ammons Cohen said recently. "Everything is unsure right now."
These days, her marriage to Jay Cohen is shaky at best. They love each other, but they've drifted apart and aren't ready to reconcile.
Her boys aren't so little now, and they've developed their own routines in her absence. They have sports, friends and lives outside the home.
She can't apply for a job or education without U.S. citizenship, and authorities still are reviewing her case. The woman who's lived in the United States since she was an infant still could be deported to her native Mexico because her adopted parents never got her naturalized and she didn't bother to do so once she became an adult.
She was arrested in October 2008 on a drug charge. Under immigration law, she was detained and has been fighting deportation ever since.
Ammons Cohen has never been to Mexico. She doesn't speak Spanish. She knows no one down there. She says her place is in Omak, with her family.
She's working to stay in the United States, but until her case is resolved, she waits in fear and tries to rebuild her life, bit by bit.
The distance between Ammons Cohen and her husband is obvious. They no longer wear wedding bands. They sit at opposite sides of the table and exchange few words. They both forgot their anniversary.
The emotional hurt caused by the time Ammons Cohen slapped Jay, which eventually led to a domestic-violence conviction for her, has yet to heal.
Yet, warmth and longing fill their voices when they reminisce about the past. They've been together for 16 years and are on their second marriage to each other.
Jay, 41, chuckles as he recounts stories from when they first started dating. Ammons Cohen smiles as she flips through their wedding album. They say they want to find their way back to a happier time but need to get to know each other again after being apart so long.
"It's been tough on us as a married couple because I've been focusing on the boys and neglecting him," Ammons Cohen said. "And I've been working, trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dime and neglecting her," Jay said. "I'm miles and miles away from her."
Their eyes lock for an instant - it's the first spoken acknowledgement that their marriage is in trouble. Then they look away. Someone changes the subject.
They first met nearly two decades ago when a friend introduced them. They immediately hit it off. They walked down the aisle in 1999 when their firstborn was 3. It wasn't long before Ammons Cohen began abusing drugs and alcohol. Six years later, they were divorced.
They missed each other and wanted to be a family, so she sobered up and they got hitched a second time in 2007. Barely a year later Ammons Cohen landed behind bars and launched her battle to remain in the United States.
"If I can keep her around, that'd be pretty cool," Jay said. "It's pretty tough right now. We just got to keep working at it."
Jay is a logger who leaves for work at 2:45 a.m. and gets home after dinner. Within an hour of walking in the door, he's snoozing on the couch. His spare time is spent watching his sons' sports games, hunting and chopping wood to sell for extra cash.
Ammons Cohen wishes he would spend more time with her. She spends her days and nights cleaning the house, visiting with friends and catching up with her boys. She's afraid to get close to her husband again.
"Why should we make things work when we don't know if I'm going to be here tomorrow?" she asked. "That's why I want to spend every second with the kids."
Ammons Cohen was released from the Northwest Detention Center in August, her family greeted her in the parking lot. Her sons -- Troy, 14, and Gavin, 11 -- rushed to hug their mother, eager to have their family whole again.
Their first request was for Ammons Cohen to cook their favorite foods: deviled eggs, spaghetti with cheese, chili dogs. She spent the next day cleaning their mobile home, breaking down in tears halfway through because it was so messy.
"When she wasn't here, it was more of a bachelor pad," Troy said. "It was good for her to come back, but, with her back, it's different."
Gavin said he missed his mom a lot, but it is "different" now that she's home. Not better or worse, just different.
Cussing is no longer allowed. The house is cleaner. Dinners are more varied and tasty. The boys are inundated with hugs and requests to pick up their stuff. Their dad has more help, but their parents argue often.
Life changes daily as the family readjusts to living under the same roof, but the bond between the brothers remains the same. Gavin looks up to Troy, and Troy enjoys caring for his younger brother, taking him along to a friend's house or a sports game.
Gavin has become Troy's "chick magnet," more effective than a puppy.
Ammons Cohen still struggles with how much of her sons' childhoods she missed. Troy is taller than her now. Gavin is nearly eye to eye. She's missed championship games, girlfriends and report cards.
When Jay mailed a formal photograph of the boys to the detention center on May 2, Ammons Cohen nearly squealed in shock and excitement and picked up her tattered blue journal.
"My boys are so very handsome," she wrote. "They are so big, and I'm watching them grow up in pictures."
She saw them just four times in 34 months. It cost too much to drive the 250 miles from Omak to Tacoma, especially after Jay was laid off for nearly a year.
Ammons Cohen revels in every minute with the boys, though she wishes they would obey her without putting up a fight.
As Troy dressed for a basketball game, he brought out three ties from his bedroom and asked his mom which one he should wear. She reached for a purple striped one and slipped it over her head to tie the knot. He told her it was tied wrong. She tried again.
"Mom, you're messing it up," Gavin said.
"You tied it the wrong way," Troy said. "Have Dad do it," Gavin suggested to his brother.
Ammons Cohen sighed with a tinge of frustration."Dad's not here," she said.
Ammons Cohen is still catching up on what she missed with her sons. A friend's mom informs her that Troy loves Hot Pockets with ham and cheese - the same thing she craved when pregnant with him.
"I had to grow up faster than I thought I had to because I had to take on more responsibilities," Troy said. "I'm not her baby boy anymore."
Now that Ammons Cohen is settled back home, she's focused on trying to secure citizenship and overcoming her personal struggles.
She is attending anger management classes as required by the domestic-violence conviction. She checks in monthly with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Yakima. She's trying to drum up ways to pay for her attorney, Manuel Rios.
The Mexican Consulate once paid the bill, but, now that she's been released, the financial responsibility falls on her.
Ammons Cohen has two cases under appeal, one of which concerns her chance to remain in America under what's known as a "U visa," which is granted to crime victims who cooperate with police. She did that after being attacked when she was 17. The second case is being reviewed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
She is seeking the willpower to stay away from whiskey, taking up caffeine and crocheting in its place.Her husband is a stranger, but she is encouraged that they've both acknowledged their problems.
She has hung dozens of family pictures around the living room and finds comfort in gazing at the smiling faces, past and present."Looking at these reminds me what I'm fighting for," Ammons Cohen said.
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