SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A longtime illegal immigrant facing deportation claimed separation from her U.S.-born children would be a hardship, but immigration authorities said her decision to leave her children was a ``personal choice.''

The authorities were wrong, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a federal immigration board to reconsider the case of Tomasa Salcido-Salcido and take into account ``the hardship that will result from family separation.''

Salcido, 33, lives in the San Francisco Bay area and entered the United States illegally from Mexico about 15 years ago, said her lawyer, J. Hernando Prado.

He said her entire family lives in this country, she has never been on welfare, and she is the mother of two young children, both U.S. citizens. She married a U.S. citizen before giving birth to her second child, a daughter who was a year old at the time of the deportation hearing.

After a notice of deportation, she sought legal residency under a law that then allowed illegal immigrants to legalize their status if they had been in the United States at least seven years, had good moral character and no criminal record and could show extreme hardship to themselves or their families upon deportation. The law was recently changed to increase the time requirement to 10 years and narrow the hardship grounds, but the earlier law applied to Salcido's case, Prado said.

The Board of Immigration Appeals found that Salcido met the other requirements but could not show extreme hardship. Her ``decision to separate from her children is a personal choice,'' the board said.

The appeals court disagreed in a 3-0 ruling, saying family separation may be the most important single hardship factor in such cases.