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Las Vegas family presents ‘perfect example’ of need for immigration reform, advocates say

Senate’s Gang of Eight unveils bipartisan reform package

Immigration Reform Demonstration

Christopher DeVargas

Martin Martinez, who is fighting for a petition for residency in the United States, stands with a large group of protesters in front of a local ICE office demanding action on immigration reform, Wednesday April 10, 2013.

Martin Martinez does not sleep much, if at all, these days.

On Thursday, in part thanks to the intervention of politicians and immigrant advocates, Martinez was released from immigration detention. He has been offered a chance to reopen his deportation case from 2006, when he failed to appear for a hearing, and a second opportunity at staying in Las Vegas with his family, including a U.S. citizen wife.

If the case is not reopened, Martinez most likely will be deported. An immigration reform proposal introduced Tuesday in the U.S. Senate, however, may offer a second chance to Martinez and others whose sole transgressions have been violating U.S. immigration laws.

Martinez’s hearing in Las Vegas is April 24, and until then, his restless nights are sure to continue.

“I’m so happy to be back with my family and to have this chance to be with them,” said Martinez, who raises his wife’s son as his own. “But I just lay awake thinking at night about what if we are separated. When I was detained, the boy didn’t want to eat, did not want to go to school or do his homework. He said he would go with me if I were deported. I just wish I’d done things differently.”

If immigration reform moves forward quickly, it could save Martinez from having to separate from his family, and if he is deported, he could still benefit from provisions in the Senate proposal.

Details of the proposal have trickled out, and the full release of the bill was temporarily delayed because of the attack Monday at the Boston Marathon, but politicians, immigrant advocates, unions, business leaders and immigration attorneys are already applauding the effort by the four Democratic and four Republican senators to tackle all aspects of reform.

“It’s exciting,” said Peter Ashman, a Las Vegas immigration lawyer and spokesman for the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “I know Congress gets a rap of not getting it together to do the right thing, but I’m impressed with what they‘ve done. There’s no concession one side or another. This is not amnesty. People will have work hard and show a great deal of interest in becoming a U.S. citizen.”

Decisions and deportation

Martinez was also restless in 2006, before he made the 16-day journey from his native El Salvador to Texas because of the freedom from endemic extortion the United States offered.

He did not necessarily want to leave his small town of San Pedro Masahuat. His family was there, and he had a decent job working for the department of health’s epidemiology section. He felt he had to leave to escape the payments.

The Mara Salvatrucha, the notorious transnational gang, demanded money for everything, he said. They collected fees to walk down a certain street, to live in a certain neighborhood or to open or operate a business.

But “La Mara” did not just want Martinez’s money; they wanted him.

“The gangs want money for everything,” Martinez said in Spanish. “They want you to pay them just for the right to live or for your family to live. They asked me to be in their group; they wanted me to join. I could not live in peace there, so I decided to leave.”

Later, gang members murdered Martinez’s cousin and aunt, he said.

Once Martinez got to the U.S. border in April 2006, unaware of policies that could have helped him, he made a series of poor decisions that eventually landed him in immigration detention last week in Las Vegas.

First, he crossed the border illegally, and soon after, he was caught by immigration authorities in Texas. He was released and given paperwork in English, informing him of a date for his deportation hearing. Those in deportation proceedings have no guarantee to legal counsel.

“I didn’t understand English, and they didn’t tell me I could have the hearing moved to another state,” he said. “I went to Los Angeles, where I had family, and then never heard anything.”

Once Martinez failed to show for the hearing or hire a lawyer to help him, he was an immigration fugitive. Unbeknown to Martinez, a deportation order against him was issued in absentia.

On a trip to Las Vegas, Martinez met Blanca Canales. They fell in love, he moved to Las Vegas in 2008, and they married in 2011.

Canales also had fled El Salvador, coming to California in 1988 to get away from the widespread violence caused by the Salvadoran civil war. She qualified for temporary protected status, which the United States has granted for more than 20 years to people from countries where war or disaster have made their return dangerous. Temporary protected status currently covers limited groups of immigrants from eight countries: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

To qualify for protected status, an El Salvadoran must have entered the United States by February 2001; Martinez does not qualify.

Canales earned her U.S. citizenship in October 2012 and then started to make plans to appeal for Martinez to receive legal residency as her husband.

Reform takes one step forward

Martinez entered the United States in 2006; that year, on May 1, thousands of protesters demanding immigration reform shut down the Las Vegas Strip.

Several politicians have tried to be a catalyst for reform in the past few years, but none has succeeded amid the deep divisions over what “comprehensive immigration reform” means.

On Tuesday, details of the bipartisan U.S. Senate “Gang of 8” proposal were released.

Vigorous debate is almost assured as the various aspects of the legislation, which covers everything from visas for high-skilled workers to a pathway to citizenship for those in the country without legal residency, are vetted.

A news conference scheduled for Tuesday to unveil the details of the bill was pushed back due to the bombings Monday in Boston. Most in Washington commended the effort by the eight senators to cover all areas of immigration reform and find compromises.

“I look at it favorably that they’re making progress, and I’ll take a look at it when I get a chance,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. “It was just introduced to me yesterday for the first time, but I still think the progress of the Gang of 8 is positive.”

The bill’s provisions, outlined in a release to reporters, cover four key areas: border security, legalization and legal immigration, employment verification, and visas for temporary workers.

“It solves the problems that have been unsolved for the last two decades,” Ashman said. “It deals effectively with border control. It deals effectively with future flow. It deals with the 11 million undocumented. It makes it easier for families to be reunited. … It fixes a lot of problems.”

Advocates for immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for immigrants without legal residency status said Martinez’s case exemplifies why such reform is needed.

“Mr. Martinez is one of those cases where he received an order of deportation because of lack of information. He got it for not going to a court date,” said Astrid Silva of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “He wasn’t being being malicious; he just lacked information. There are so many case like his, where someone took the wrong step or maybe were scammed by a bad attorney and end up worse off. Those families will be covered by this law.”

A look at some of the provisions:

• The majority of the estimated 11 million people residing in the country illegally would be able to apply for a green card after 10 years, and citizenship three years after that. They must have entered the country prior to Dec. 31, 2011, and have to pay a $500 fine, pay back taxes, learn English, maintain employment and undergo a criminal background check. Dreamers — young immigrants who are pursuing their education or military service — can obtain green cards in five years and citizenship immediately after.

• The bill appropriates $3 billion to improve border security through surveillance drones, 3,500 additional customs agents and other measures. An additional $1.5 billion is set aside for fencing. There are several goals set for border security based on apprehension and surveillance coverage. If those standards are not met after five years, a border commission of governors and attorneys general from border states would have five more years to work on security.

• U.S. companies must begin using the E-verify computer tracking system, starting with larger employers with the provision gradually being enforced on all employers after five years. All noncitizen job applicants would be required to show a "biometric work authorization card" or "biometric green card." The government would be required to install an exit/entry tracking system at ports of entry to better track visa holders.

• Visas for high-skilled workers would be bumped up from 65,000 to 110,000 annually. The cap could rise as high as 180,000. Employers who hire a large number of high-skilled workers would be required to pay higher salaries and fees.

• A new “W-visa” program would be put in place for 20,000 foreigners in low-skilled jobs beginning in 2015, with the number of visas increasing to 75,000 by 2019. A new federal bureau would analyze employment data and make recommendations for annual guest-worker visa caps beginning in 2020. A “safety valve” would allow additional visas above the yearly cap, as long as employers pay workers higher wages. Agricultural worker visas are limited to 337,000 over three years, and wages will be based on a survey of the labor market.

• The proposal allows for an unlimited number of visas per year for the foreign spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents. After the law is enacted, visas reserved for foreign brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens and married children over 30 years of age would be eliminated after 18 months. The visa diversity program, also know as the lottery, would end and a new, merit-based visa category with a point system based on family connections and work skills would be installed.

Another chance

Early this year, Martinez and his wife decided to get his paperwork together for an appeal for residency.

Before they ever talked to an attorney, they went on March 27 to Metro Police headquarters to ask for a copy of Martinez’s record to make sure there was nothing that would preclude his petition. His record was clean, except for the deportation order from 2006. Metro contacted local agents for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to ICE officials, and Martinez was detained as Canales and her son watched, confused and distraught.

Canales, who works three days a week as a hotel housekeeper, borrowed money from a friend to make April rent on their manufactured home in east Las Vegas. She went from daydreaming of a better life with Martinez as a permanent resident, earning a better income, to worrying about where she would live if May 1 arrived with Martinez still in detention.

Immigrant advocacy groups, including the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and politicians, including U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., argued Martinez was the perfect example of someone worthy of prosecutorial discretion.

“Martin Martinez's case highlights why comprehensive immigration reform is so important. He is a longtime member of our community, rearing his family and working in the U.S. for many years,” Titus said in a statement.

“I am still waiting to see the full details of the Gang of Eight's proposal, but Congress is taking significant steps toward the comprehensive reform that we so desperately need. I look forward to supporting a bill that unites families and enables people like Martin to come out of the shadows, giving them the chance to gain legal status and, eventually, citizenship,” the congresswoman said.

After 15 days, Martinez was released.

According to ICE officials, after the case was reviewed, Martinez was released April 10 on his own recognizance and granted a 180-day stay of removal to afford him further time to pursue his legal options.

“I do see this as a second chance,” Martinez said. “I could have asked for asylum when I first came, but I didn’t know. I was ignorant of the laws and what I could do to make my situation better and not worse. If I had known just some of what I know now, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Under provisions of the Senate proposal, someone who was deported for immigration reasons but has no criminal record may return to the United States if he or she has a spouse or child who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.

“I hope they do pass the reform because I don’t know if the judge will reopen my case,” Martinez said. “I want to stay with my family, of course, but also study and get a better job. I want to move forward, and there are so many more just like me.”

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