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November 20, 2014

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How immigration inaction could separate families

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Mona Shield Payne

Jorge Espinosa stands beside Maria, his wife of 30 years, who has received her deportation orders to return to Mexico, on Monday, April 15, 2014. The couple are living in their daughter’s home in North Las Vegas. The Espinosas have U.S. citizen children, have lived in the United States for more than two decades and continue to fight for their U.S. citizenship.

Jorge and Maria Espinosa say they have worked hard to always “do the right thing” but lately have wondered if they are being punished for their efforts.

Married and living in Las Vegas for more than two decades, neither has legal residency due to poor or unscrupulous legal advice.

They came on tourist visas and tried to adjust for residency status. Jorge, 50, got a temporary work permit and a Social Security number, paid his taxes and sent his U.S. and Mexican-born children to school. When two of them qualified for the Millennium Scholarship, Jorge refused to let them take it, since the family still was trying to adjust their status and always has refused government assistance.

“I came here with no intention of leaving,” he said. “I came to work and raise my family. This is my country, and I love it. I’m American. I don’t root for the Mexican soccer team. I root for the U.S.”

Obama’s options

• Broaden DACA — The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program offers temporary work permits to young immigrants who were brought to the country by family, are noncriminals and have served in the military or met education requirements. Obama could extend the policy to noncriminal adults with family ties in the United States. Note: Being in the country without legal residency is a civil violation.

• End secure communities — Immigration reform advocates recommend ending federal partnerships with local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people who are pulled over by police. Such stops have led to deportation hearings for nonviolent individuals.

• Use parole — In 2013, the administration offered “parole in place” to family members of U.S. military personnel to remain in the country. Parole also may be granted to allow an immigrant to enter the U.S. for urgent humanitarian reasons. Advocates propose expanding the use to include parents separated from children and other circumstances.

• Expand the Morton Memos — John Morton, former Immigration and Customs Enforcement director, issued a series of directives on how to prioritize the prosecution and deportation of immigrants. Critics argue the directives were never truly implemented. They included guidelines for prosecutors to exercise discretion on whether to pursue deportation based on such factors as longtime residence, military service, criminal history and education.

Over the past two years, Jorge and Maria have lost their jobs, their home and more than a few nights’ sleep as the possibility of the family being separated loomed. Jorge has been given a stay of deportation for a year, while Maria could be deported at any moment.

Between executive actions and tweaks to current procedure and policy, the federal immigration system is creating more and more classes of immigrants. Some are eligible for deportation relief, while others — often within the same family — aren’t.

The Senate more than a year ago introduced sweeping reform of the immigration system, from guest worker and high-skilled worker visas to programs for legalizing those without status. While immigrants hope for reform, advocates are asking President Barack Obama to wade into the tricky waters of executive mandates to help people like the Espinosas while Congress musters the willpower to tackle a complicated, controversial and politically treacherous topic.

• • •

Immigration lawyers, immigrant advocates and organizations promoting reform say it’s time for Obama to provide relief to some deportation-eligible immigrants, particularly those who may gain legal status through proposed legislative reforms. In March, the President met with a coalition of groups who have championed reform, such as the AFL-CIO, PICO, Service Employees Union International and National Council of La Raza, and they pressed him to use his powers to ease deportations.

Eliseo Medina, who was an organizer of a fast on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in November in support of reform, said the groups felt it was time to go back to the president because of mounting frustration with GOP inaction.

“What became clear is that the president wants to give some time for the legislative process to play out,” Medina said. “At the end of the day, if the GOP refuses to act, then he’ll take some executive action. … I left that meeting with the sense that there was a recommitment from the president to do something, because he knows the status quo is unacceptable.”

In March, Obama asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review deportation policies but reiterated that his preference is for Congress to take the initiative.

Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill have argued that Obama’s executive actions on immigration show that he can’t be trusted to enforce the law. They say they cannot implement reform while he is in the Oval Office.

“(F)rankly one of the biggest obstacles we face is trust,” House Speaker John Boehner said in February. “The American people, including many of my members, don’t trust that the reform we’re talking about will be implemented as it was intended to be.”

Advocates like Medina point to record deportation rates under Obama and say the GOP is making excuses to avoid taking the reform bill to the House floor, where many observers say it would pass.

“House Republicans have blocked a vote on a bipartisan immigration reform solution for nearly a year, and it is not fair that those most harmed by political games in D.C. are people living in our communities — hardworking immigrants and their families who have already sacrificed so much for a chance at the American dream,” said Danny Thompson, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO. “We know that President Obama supports comprehensive immigration reform legislation, but administrative action is required to prevent any more unnecessary deportations and tragic family separations while legislation works its way through Congress.”

• • •

Jorge first came to the United States on a tourist visa in 1986, and Maria followed soon after. They brought over their two Mexican-born children and after a stint in Southern California, they settled in Las Vegas, where they had a third child.

They knew they wanted to become residents and approached a Las Vegas lawyer in 1996. At first, there was progress. Jorge got his work permit and found steady employment in construction. The lawyer, however, applied for asylum for the family, even though the Espinosas had no viable claim to asylum. Their petition was denied. They stayed and continued to work, hoping to find another remedy.

Fifteen years later, on Aug. 29, 2011, ICE agents met Jorge at his house as he left for work and detained him. Maria later was ordered to present herself at the Las Vegas ICE office.

After being held for 23 days, Jorge was released with an order to check in with the ICE office. Maria also was given an order to check in routinely.

In 2012, Obama announced the deferred action program, and both of the Espinosas’ Mexican-born children were granted work permits. Their third child is a U.S. citizen by birth.

“As long as Congress won’t act, we will have these patches and Band-Aids that are temporary fixes and create mixed-status families,” said Nanci Palacios, immigration campaign coordinator for a PICO affiliate in Florida.

Palacios received deferred action, while her parents remain without legal residency.

“We hear stories constantly of families being separated by unjust deportations,” she said. “There are parents who have been here for decades being sent away from their children, people who have businesses, paid their taxes and never committed a crime in their lives except for some minor traffic violation.”

In February, Jorge was given a one-year stay of deportation and is waiting on a new work permit. ICE decided that Maria, who had flown home to Mexico for her father’s funeral in 2000, self-deported and therefore had illegally re-entered.

Maria flew back to Las Vegas and entered through customs and immigration at McCarran International Airport, but ICE said because she was a repeat offender, she would not receive the same stay as Jorge. On May 28, she is scheduled to return to the ICE office, not knowing if she will be given extra time or deported on the spot.

After Jorge was detained in 2011, he lost his work permit and did not work anymore. The couple could not keep up with their mortgage payments and lost their house. They now live with their adult daughter.

“My family is the most important thing to me, and I just want to keep my family together,” Jorge said. “They see us as just pieces of paper, but we are human beings who have lives here. We are important to this country, and what good does it do them to kick us out so my daughter has no one to support her and she goes on welfare?”

Maria, who has been an active participant in protests and campaigns for immigration reform, feels left behind while others find the relief they fought for years to win.

“I’m scared,” Maria said. “I don’t have any place to go back to. My cousin was recently killed in Mexico. The people in Mexico think the ones who lived in the United States have money, so they kidnap them when they return. We tried to follow the rules and do the right thing. I agree the criminals should be deported, but I don’t understand why this is happening to us. All I can do is keep fighting.”

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