LOS ANGELES – All of her life, Zoila Meyer believed she was an American. She even won election to the City Council of Adelanto.
But now she is facing a threat of deportation for illegally voting, because she never became a citizen after being brought to this country from Cuba when she was 1 year old.
"To be honest with you, I'm scared. How can they just pluck me out of my family, my kids?" the 40-year-old mother of four said in a telephone interview Friday.
"If they can do this to me, they can do it to anybody," she said.
After Meyer was elected to the council in Adelanto in 2004, someone told officials that she was born in Cuba, prompting an investigation.
Eventually, "the police came to me and said, 'Zoila, you're not a citizen. You're a legal resident but you're not a citizen,"' said Meyer, who now lives in the San Bernardino County desert town of Apple Valley, near Adelanto.
She resigned after 10 weeks in office in Adelanto, a town of about 23,000.
Meyer, whose story was first reported in the Victorville Daily Press, applied to become a naturalized citizen and continued with her life: raising her children and attending two local colleges to earn degrees toward her goal of working in the justice system as a forensic nurse.
However, because she was not a citizen, Meyer faced a felony charge of illegally voting in the 2004 election.
In April 2006, she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of fraudulent voting and was placed on probation, fined and ordered to pay restitution.
What Meyer didn't realize is that fraudulently voting is a deportable offense.
On June 18, Meyer said, immigration officials showed up at her home and told her to appear at their San Bernardino office.
Her husband drove her to the office on Tuesday, "and they handcuffed me," Meyer said. "They put me in jail and they frisked me and processed me."
"I said 'You're doing this because I voted?"'
The case is unusual but immigration officials were just doing their job when they arrested Meyer, said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"People are arrested on immigration charges from all walks of life," she said. "She can plead her case before an immigration judge, if she feels that she has reason to seek release for removal. ... Everybody has due process when they're arrested."
Meyer was released pending a July 18 appearance before an immigration judge who will determine whether she will be deported to Canada, the last point of entry into the U.S. recorded in her immigration record.
Meyer said she and her parents had visited Canada and she had gone many times to Mexico without anyone ever asking her to prove her citizenship.
Meyer said she does not support illegal immigration but she thinks immigration procedures should be changed to prevent misunderstandings.
"It makes me feel like we're all just numbers," she said of her case. "I see people writing 'this is my country.' It really isn't. It belongs to the government and they decide who stays and who goes .... You think you're free; you're really not."