LINCOLN — An unlikely Christmas gift arrived early in O’Neill, Nebraska, a community shaken by an immigration enforcement raid back in August.

A single mother from Guatemala detained during the raid, Flor Gonzalez-De Paz, was reunited with her family last week.

It meant that her 17-year-old daughter, Stephanie, at least for now, is no longer the acting mother for her two younger brothers, ages 1 and 7.

It also means that the family, separated by a raid and their immigration status, is together for Christmas.

On Thursday, the once-divided family sat together to watch Daniel, 7, perform at the annual Christmas concert at the local elementary school.

“That was just incredible,” said Brian Corkle, an O’Neill High School teacher and wrestling coach. “They went from a prospect of being alone for the holidays to everyone being all there together.”

Stephanie Gonzalez, a U.S. citizen who was born in Grand Island, said she couldn’t believe it when her mother called on Dec. 19 to tell her she was being released from detention, and to come pick her up.

“I tell people it was a Christmas present, honest,” Gonzalez said.

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Just a few days earlier, the mother had pleaded guilty to a felony charge of illegal re-entry after deportation. During her sentencing hearing, U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard held up a copy of The World-Herald and asked if Gonzalez-De Paz was the mother of Stephanie, a high school senior with a 3.75 grade point average whose story was told in the newspaper.

Gonzalez-De Paz was sentenced to the time she had already served in jail since the Aug. 8 raid, a common sentence for someone who is facing transfer to federal immigration authorities and fairly swift deportation.

But instead, the mother was allowed to remain free and rejoin her family, which is rare.

Gonzalez said she didn’t know exactly how that happened, and her mother’s court-appointed public defender did not return phone calls seeking comment.

But an Omaha immigration attorney, Brian Blackford, said there would be at least a couple of ways that an undocumented immigrant caught illegally in the U.S. could be freed, at least for a while.

One way, he said, is if the mother agreed to be a witness against the alleged ringleader of a conspiracy to exploit immigrant workers by skimming off some of their wages in exchange for arranging jobs for them.

Another way, Blackford said, would be if Gonzalez-De Paz is appealing her deportation order in immigration court, or seeking asylum in the U.S. due to fears of domestic abuse if she is returned to Guatemala, where she was born.

In either case, a person is allowed to stay here and remain free until their immigration case is decided, or until after they have testified. In this case, that would mean testifying against the alleged ringleader, Juan Pablo Sanchez Delgado, who ran a restaurant and grocery store in O’Neill and operated what he said was a legal job service.

“I don’t really understand it,” said the daughter. All that counts is that her mom is back in O’Neill for now and the family is together, living with some family friends who took them in after the raid, in which 130 workers, as well as members of Delgado’s family, were detained.

“It’s God’s miracle,” said Gonzalez, a cheerleader and golf team member at O’Neill High School who also works at a local nursing home.

And that’s not all. Gonzalez, who planned to pursue a nursing degree after graduating in May, said she’s been accepted at Clarkson College in Omaha, a private school that specializes in training nurses. And, she said, she was told she would be able to attend “debt-free.”

“It’s a big nursing school and it’s a private school. I never thought I could go there,” she said.

A spokesman for Clarkson College said that while scholarship decisions by the school, including one scholarship for minority students, have not yet been made, it’s pretty clear that Stephanie’s grade-point average and National Honor Society membership would qualify her.

“She definitely would be a good candidate,” said Clarkson spokesman Alex Maltese.

Corkle, who has been involved with a group called O’Neill Cares that has helped feed and clothe immigrant families until their deportation cases are finalized, said there’s “never been a shortage” of people willing to help Gonzalez and her family, as well as others impacted by the raid at the north-central Nebraska community.

While her mother is still facing deportation and the future is unclear for her two brothers (who are also U.S. citizens), it appears certain that Gonzalez will be able to pursue her dream to become a delivery room nurse, he said.

“There’s going to be a silver lining or happy ending in this somewhere,” Corkle said. “Her mom’s situation aside.”

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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