The Armenian connection

Las Vegas Sun
January 31, 2005

The Armenian connection

Sisters, safely back in Las Vegas, work on permanent status
By Timothy Pratt
<[email protected]>

Mariam Sarkisian, the younger of the two Armenian sisters who were released
from federal custody Friday after two weeks in a Los Angeles holding cell,
was expected to resume her life as a junior at Palo Verde High School today.

Meanwhile, Jeremiah Wolf Stuchiner, one of the lawyers who defended the
Sarkisians, said he would be applying for a permit Tuesday at the Bureau of
Citizenship and Immigration Services that the sisters need to legally return
to work at Tropicana Pizza, the family business their father, Rouben, runs
in Henderson.

Mariam’s first chore today will be studying for final exams she missed while
she and her sister Emma were being held in the headline-grabbing case that
nearly saw them put on a plane to Armenia, their birthplace.

The girls were detained Jan. 14 when immigration authorities acted on a
deportation order dating to 1993.

“I’ve never wanted to go to school so bad,” 17-year-old Mariam said Friday
afternoon amid the hubbub at the pizzeria surrounding their return.

“But it’s going to be hard catching up,” she added.

Mariam’s courses include an elective course in fashion design, which is what
she wants to study at a technical school when she obtains her high school
diploma in 2006. The teenager hopes to become a designer when she is older,
because it is a career where “you can be yourself and do what you want to do
with no limits,” she said.

Emma, 18, said her first order of business on settling back into her life in
Las Vegas was to get permission to work at the pizzeria and then to obtain a
driver’s license.

Work permits are available to both girls as a condition of the so-called
deferred action that immigration authorities took to release the sisters,
Stuchiner said.

That action means the girls still have no legal status in the United States,
but they can remain in the country and are able to work. The work permit
then serves as a means of identification, Stuchiner said, that the girls can
use for such purposes as obtaining a driver’s license.

In the future, Emma wants to go to college, perhaps out of state, she said,
“to have some freedom.”

She said she is “going to take college more seriously than high school.”
Emma graduated from Palo Verde in June and didn’t study very hard, she said.

As for her future, she said she “always wanted to be a singer” when she was
younger, but her experience being detained and threatened with deportation
has made her think of other options.

Now, she said, she is “thinking of being a judge or a lawyer so this doesn’t
happen to anyone else.”

Alternatively, she said, she would like to work in the entertainment

Both girls said they look forward to becoming citizens, in order to resolve
the problem that led to their detention and separation from their family.

That problem became apparent when Rouben Sarkisian took the girls to local
immigration officials seeking paperwork he thought they should be able to
obtain after years of attempts to gain legal status for them. But he found
instead that a series of events — including him marrying a U.S citizen and
becoming a legal resident, the step below citizenship — had not changed
their status.

The sisters still had a deportation order hanging over their heads.

Stuchiner said “the most logical avenue” for the teens to become citizens,
is for their father to become a citizen and then petition for his daughters.

Sarkisian applied for citizenship in July, Stuchiner said, and should
receive a date for his interview and exam in the next few months. That date
is usually three weeks to a month from whenever the notice arrives in the

Emma said one thing she would like to do when she becomes a citizen is
travel around the world — including a trip to Armenia.

Though the sisters were born there, neither has ever been back since they
were brought to the United States as pre-schoolers in 1991. They don’t even
speak its language.

“If I was a citizen, I could visit Armenia. I want to know what it’s like
…(and) keep in touch with my roots — but of my own free will,” she said.

Many Las Vegas residents wrote or called their congressmen or the media
while the case of the Sarkisians was unfolding. Many expressed disbelief
that two teenagers who had spent most of their life in the United States
were not already citizens.

On Friday, Marsha Cook, a Henderson resident who had been following the
case, walked into the pizzeria and said, “Are you Emma?”

“I just wanted to say, ‘Welcome home … and I hope you become a citizen
soon,”‘ she said.

Father Phil Carolin, executive director of the Citizenship Project, a
nonprofit organization that has helped about 1,250 people become citizens,
said “the main hurdle is the language” for most immigrants when it comes to
passing the citizenship interview and exam.

Sarkisian said he “speaks English okay and understands,” but has chosen to
speak through Russian interpreters while in the media spotlight in the last
few weeks.

Carolin’s organization offers classes in English as a second language as
well as in history and government, subjects that are covered in the
citizenship exam.

Another hurdle for many immigrants, Carolin said, is that “many of these
people hold down two or three jobs” and never find time to study.

Sarkisian’s job often requires him to work up to 14 hours a day, Emma said.

Looking back not only on the last two weeks, but on his 56 years, he said,
“My life is like an airplane — I don’t see it.”

“Only work, only work.”

Saturday turned out to be Sarkisian’s birthday and the toasts with vodka
were flowing at Tropicana Pizza.

“I already have my biggest gift,” he said of his daughters’ return.