November 22, 2019
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She stole her sister’s identity, married an American and settled in Maine. Now her citizenship could be at risk.

Stock photo | BDN
Stock photo | BDN

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, Maine — Emilita Arindela assumed her sister’s identity, faked her own death in her native Philippines and married four times, with the marriages overlapping.

Now living on Mount Desert Island, Arindela, 43, was sentenced last week in federal court for using her sister’s date of birth in applying for a U.S. passport. With the conviction, she faces the possibility of having her citizenship revoked and being sent back to the country she was trying to escape due to an abusive marriage, according to her attorney, Terence Harrigan of Bangor.

Arindela’s sentencing comes at a time when immigration once again is flaring up as a political issue days before the midterm elections, as the Trump administration has stepped up deportation arrests and as the president has suggested that those born in the U.S. should no longer be automatically granted citizenship.

It’s uncertain where this political environment leaves Arindela. After her sentencing, she’s left to wonder if federal authorities will pursue action to revoke her citizenship and, if they do, how aggressively they’ll act.

Divorce is not permitted in the Philippines and, as part of an effort to leave her first husband, Arindela married an American citizen in the Philippines in 2000. She moved with him to the U.S. in 2002, and became a naturalized citizen seven years later.

But she married the American and moved to the U.S. while using her sister’s name, Esperanza, and date of birth, according to documents filed in federal court. She had her name changed from her sister’s name to her real name in Hancock County Probate Court in 2009, after gaining citizenship.

About a year later, she applied in Ellsworth for a U.S. passport using her “new” name and her sister’s date of birth. She divorced her American husband in 2011.

Despite Arindela’s prolonged deception about her identity, she received a sentence of only 10 days in jail, which she already has served, and one year of supervised release for making a false statement on her passport application, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Maine. She had faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Harrigan said the lenient sentence reflects Arindela’s motivation to escape an abusive marriage in the Philippines, and that she otherwise has led a law-abiding life in Maine. He said he is not sure how federal officials found out about his client’s false statement on her passport application.

“She was in a troubled and awful situation,” Harrigan said of her first marriage.

Arindela has two daughters who also live in the area. One was born in the Philippines, graduated from MDI High School in 2013 and now has a baby of her own. The other was born in Ellsworth in 2009 at what is now Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital.

[See all Hancock County coverage here]

“I think charging her with [only] the passport thing is a reflection of the good life she’s led since she’s been here,” Harrigan said. “Nobody wanted to jam her up too much.”

Andrew McCormack, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said federal prosecutors could have pursued more charges against Arindela, but that making a bigger case against her likely would have gotten more complicated — and costly — quickly.

The apparent identity theft of adopting her sister’s name and birthday originated in the Philippines, he said, and so likely would have been more difficult to prove had Arindela’s case gone to trial. Plus, he added, she was willing to plead guilty to passport fraud.

“We thought that [fraud charge] was the most appropriate for this case,” McCormack said. “It could have been a situation in which you have to bring in people from the Philippines [to testify].”

McCormack said that the federal agency that investigated Arindela’s case, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, is expected to notify immigration officials of Arindela’s situation. The service is tasked with ensuring the integrity of U.S. travel documents and safeguarding U.S diplomats, and does not enforce immigration laws.

In a brief conversation last week, Arindela said she is a hard worker who sends money she earns back home to the Philippines to support relatives. She said she spoke no English when she moved to the U.S. and that she works several jobs in the summer during the island’s busy tourist season — when many seasonal Maine employers have difficulty filling job s.

“I work every day,” she said with a smile.

She did not say why she used her sister’s name and date of birth to get married in 2000 or why she continued to do so while getting naturalized and then applying for a U.S. passport.

Arindela declined further comment.

The complications in Arindela’s life date back to the 1990s in the Philippines, according to federal court documents. She married a man there in 1993, when she was 18, under her real name, but then used her older sister’s name to marry an American man in her home country in 2000.

She moved to the U.S. with her American husband in 2002 but, while on a visit back to her home country in 2007, she married another man using her real name without obtaining a Filipino marriage license, according to court documents. At the time, she was still married both to her first husband and to her American husband.

After becoming a naturalized citizen in the U.S. under her sister’s name, then changing her first name to Emily, she traveled back to the Philippines in 2014 and remarried her third husband under her new name. Prior to this marriage, her third husband had submitted a certificate of death for her given name to Filipino authorities, ostensibly so she could remarry him under her American identity.

A few months later, she submitted a petition to U.S. immigration authorities — using her new name but her sister’s date of birth — asking for approval to have her third husband move to the U.S. It is not clear whether he ever did.

The effect this history might have on Arindela’s status as a U.S. citizen, if any, has yet to play out.

Anna Welch, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law who oversees the school’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, said Monday that any immigrant who becomes naturalized as a citizen is entitled to due process in federal district court. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is the Department of Homeland Security agency that pursues such citizenship revocation efforts.

Welch declined to comment specifically on Arindela’s case but said that even someone accused of committing fraud in order to become a citizen cannot have his or her citizenship automatically revoked. USCIS has to make a referral to the Justice Department, which then would have to pursue a revocation ruling in federal district court, she said.

“You can lose your citizenship, but it is not automatic,” Welch said. “There are due-process protections.”

Petitioning for asylum is an option for someone who loses citizenship, she said, including for someone who faces the prospect of domestic violence in his or her home country.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who heads the Justice Department, has made it harder to obtain asylum status, Welch noted. She said being found to have committed fraud does not automatically bar a petitioner from seeking asylum, “but it is an uphill battle.”

For Harrigan, the bigger penalty his client faces as a result of the passport fraud conviction is not the jail time she served. It is the uncertainty of what could happen to Arindela now, at any moment, a decade and a half after moving to Maine to start a new life.

“She never knows if Homeland Security is about to knock on her door,” Harrigan said. “That’s her punishment. It’s a hard way to live your life.”

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