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Homeowner's Illegal Status Exposed After Aborted Sale

Like all illegal immigrants, Lorenzo Jimenez knew the knock on the door from immigration agents could come at any time.

Still, he had enough faith in the American dream to buy a house in this Atlanta suburb, even though signing the papers meant raising the risk: He put his 2-year-old, American-born daughter's name and Social Security number on the title.

And it worked, for a while. Jimenez and his family lived happily enough for several years alongside "regular" citizens.

Nicole Griffin's mom lived a few doors away, and when Griffin visited, she said, her kids played with the Jimenez children. When Jimenez put his four-bedroom, two-bathroom home up for sale last spring, wanting more space, Griffin was immediately interested.

A contract was negotiated but when the sale appeared to go sour, Griffin raised a new issue: that she was a citizen and Jimenez wasn't. She told local media, immigration officials, his boss and others that he was here illegally. She even put signs in the yard of the house exposing his residency status.

As a result, agents came knocking last month, and now Jimenez is fighting to keep from being deported. He also lost his job.

"I'm very sad and very worried," said Jimenez, 32. "I can't sleep because I'm thinking about my family. What's going to happen? I don't know."

Griffin insists her intent was to buy the house, nothing else. The 28-year-old single mother of two maintains she was wronged first, so she acted to protect her interests. She has no regrets.

"At the end, do I feel bad the family got in trouble? No, not at all," she said.

Those who enter the U.S. illegally often say they're just striving for the same things that most American citizens want out of life — a good job, home ownership, maybe a chance to get a little bit ahead. But the ambitions of citizens and non-citizens can collide and, as the painful entanglement between Jimenez and Griffin shows, both sides can wind up feeling like victims.

Jimenez, who is Mexican, has been in the U.S. for about a decade. When he bought the house four years ago, the real estate agent handling the sale told him he could get a better interest rate using his daughter's information on the closing documents than he could using the federal tax identification number he uses to pay income tax here.

Jimenez later filed papers to have his own name added to the title, and that's how it stayed until Griffin spotted the "for sale" sign and $164,500 list price this spring.

With both sides enthusiastic about the sale, a deal was reached and the closing was set for May 15.

Griffin, a payroll clerk and first-time homebuyer, asked to postpone the closing until June 1 because she had problems locking in her interest rate. Jimenez agreed but asked that she move into the house as planned and pay rent until the closing.

Shortly after Griffin moved in, her attorney said there was a problem with the title on the house, namely that Jimenez's young daughter's name was on the title but her signature wasn't on the sale documents. Attorneys said some extra paperwork — establishing a conservatorship to watch out for the child's interest, the first step in getting the title transferred solely to her father — would clear the title, and everyone agreed to postpone again.

Griffin didn't pay the rent, however, claiming she was promised three months free since the delay was Jimenez's fault. She has an e-mail from his real estate agent, Alina Carbonell, saying he'd made the offer.

Jimenez's lawyer, Erik Meder, told her that offer was never firm and insisted she pay rent or vacate the house.

Locked in a letter war with Meder, Griffin escalated her actions. She contacted the FBI, the Roswell Police Department, local media, the state attorney general's office and the governor's office, among others. She asked her congressman, U.S. Rep. Tom Price, for help, saying she felt Jimenez and Meder had deceived her. Price's office, in turn, contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Brendan Buck, a Price spokesman.

"I am a law-abiding American merely trying to purchase a home," Griffin wrote in mid-July in a letter to American Homebuyers, a nonprofit that helps low- to moderate-income families buy homes. "An illegal family fraudulently obtained a mortgage using a 1 yr old SSN, and appear to have all the rights in this situation — How can this be when they shouldn't even be in America?"

She said she contacted anyone she could think of who might be able to help the sale go through.

Jimenez said she started making his life a nightmare. He claims she caused cosmetic damage to the house and intentionally clogged the plumbing, both of which she denies.

Griffin also went after Carbonell, the real estate agent. She contacted the Georgia State Real Estate Commission to try to get her license revoked. Carbonell said the threat to her reputation and to her career caused her so much stress she had to take a leave of absence.

Griffin said she reported Carbonell because the agent knew Jimenez's daughter's name was on the title from the beginning but didn't tell her right away. (Carbonell was not the real estate agent who originally advised Jimenez to use his daughter's name.)

In September, Meder got a judge to order Griffin to pay retroactive rent and get out of the house within a week.

Griffin then went to the upscale Atlanta restaurant where Jimenez worked as a cook and told his boss he was undocumented, which Jimenez said resulted in his firing.

"It was my last resort," Griffin said, "but once I realized my family had seven days to get out of a house that a family's not even legally supposed to own, I did go to his employer and I did let his employer know."

She also put bright red signs in the yard reading, "This house is owned by an illegal alien." When Jimenez tore them down, she put up new ones.

Griffin said she wanted the neighbors to share her outrage over what was happening.

"I don't feel bad for anything that happens to the Jimenez family at this point," Griffin said recently, "because no one feels bad that all I tried to do was buy a house, and I ended up living back with my mother."

In early October, plainclothes ICE agents showed up at Jimenez's apartment. They asked him about his residency status and his purchase of the house, then handcuffed him and took him away. He was released a few hours later and is due before a judge in January and could face eventual deportation.

His lawyers plan to apply to keep Jimenez in the country permanently, a process that could last several years. While it's pending, he will be eligible for a work permit. But even if he gets one, Jimenez will be living in limbo. His application to stay could be rejected, which means he still could be ordered to leave the country.

Jimenez has taken the house off the market but doesn't want to move his family back in amid the uncertainty, so they're still in the apartment that was supposed to be a transitional stop until they bought a bigger place.

Griffin hasn't tried to buy another home, in part because she can't afford to, so she and her kids are still staying with her mother.

Down the street, the Jimenez house sits empty.