Posted by StreetWise in Magazine Articles
by Doug Scofield
For most of 13-year-old Izaithia Martinez’s life, an unexpected visitor to her house wasn’t a reason to anticipate meeting a new neighbor or receiving a special delivery from the mailman.
“For a long time, every time we would hear a hard knock on the door, we would run away and hide. Sometimes we would get in the closet. I was always afraid that someone was coming to take my mom or my brother away,” Izaithia said.
She had a good reason to be concerned. Izaithia – her friends call her Izzy – knew that at any day could be the day that immigration officials could show up to deport her mother, Dana, or her 15-year-old brother, Brandon.
Izaithia’s mother is one of millions of undocumented residents of the U.S. who is the parent of a U.S. citizen child. Izzy was born here in the U.S. The Martinez family lives, pays taxes and attends school in Berwyn.
But Dana traveled a long road to Berwyn. She and Brandon are both undocumented residents of the U.S. Born in Honduras, she left 15 years ago to escape the extreme poverty of her native country.
“I was hungry. There was nothing for me in Honduras and we didn’t have much to eat,” Dana said.
By bus, car and on foot, Dana traveled with her 5-month-old son Brandon through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico – a trip of about 1,500 miles — to make it to the Rio Grande, where she crossed the river into the U.S. only to be captured by the border patrol.
“It was daytime, and they saw me, and I really couldn’t go on any more. I was tired and hungry,” she said.
She was detained and questioned at the border. Border officials didn’t believe Brandon was actually her son, so a doctor was brought in to determine if she was telling the truth about carrying a 5-month-old on a trek across three countries. For reasons she still does not completely understand – perhaps a paperwork mix-up — the border patrol released her. So, she continued her journey north, heading toward a distant relative who lived outside of Chicago.
Dana has lived in Cicero for 15 years. In that time, she has put down deep roots. She met her husband, an immigrant from Mexico here, got married, and had her daughter Izaithia here. Today, she volunteers with a wide variety of community and social service organizations, helping at her children’s schools and the immigrants’ rights organization Centro Sin Fronteras. For Dana, surrounded by children who work hard in school and a supportive husband, the long journey from Honduras was worth it.
Despite what Dana feels is her good fortune to live in a decent home in the U.S., she and her children face the very real worry that they could be separated at any time. For Dana, no matter how long she has lived in the U.S., how deep her family ties to her neighborhood or how long she has been a contributing, law-abiding resident of her community, she has always faced the danger of being detained, arrested or deported. She is without legal documentation that would allow her to stay.
“You can never be sure. You live your life, but you’re always worried,” Dana said.
Last fall, after years of following the debate about immigration policy and enforcement in Washington, D.C., Dana finally heard the news she had most hoped for from President Obama.
At the White House on November 20, the President announced a dramatic change in immigration policy. He introduced DAPA – Deferred Action for Parents of Americans – which changes the rules to allow undocumented parents of children who are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents and who have been in the U.S. at least five years to be granted “deferred action,” allowing them to stay in the U.S. legally.
The initiative was designed for children like Izzy and parents like Dana.
Obama’s executive action also expanded the DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – program. Initiated in 2012, DACA allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. when they were younger than 16 — like Brandon — to qualify for deferred action.
With one bold announcement, Obama took steps to allow about four million undocumented residents to remain in the U.S. legally. In Cook County, about 120,000 people were made eligible for relief through President Obama’s actions.
But for Dana, the statistics aren’t what matters – the ability to stay with her family is what matters.
“We heard the news and we celebrated. That was a really good day. We felt like we could finally live our lives and come out of the shadows. It felt like a solution. It finally felt like we wouldn’t be deported,” Dana said.
President Obama joined in promoting and celebrating his new policy, traveling the country to raise awareness of his executive order. He joined Congressman Luis Gutierrez – a longtime champion of immigration reform and an early advocate for programs like DACA and DAPA – and other immigration activists and families in Chicago on November 25 to discuss the impact on moms like Dana. At the meeting, President Obama emphasized the economic benefits of protecting immigrants.
“Being a nation of immigrants gives us a huge entrepreneurial advantage over other nations,” he said in his Chicago speech at the Copernicus Center on the Northwest side.
But as anyone who has closely observed the battles in Washington between the Republican-led Congress and President Obama knows, nothing ends simply and victories aren’t always permanent.
The federal government was scheduled to begin receiving applications for deferred action on February 18, allowing millions of people in situations similar to Dana to end their fear of being separated from their families.
But while immigrants like Dana were collecting their paperwork to demonstrate that they had been living in the U.S. for at least five years, and that they were the parents of children who are citizens or permanent residents, the Republican governors of 26 states were working to stop the President’s action.
Less than 48 hours before the journey out of the shadows for Dana and millions like her could begin, a federal court in Texas ruled that President Obama had overstepped his authority in issuing the DAPA and expanded DACA executive order. The court ruled on a lawsuit brought by 26 states with Republican governors arguing that President Obama was exceeding his rulemaking authority and complaining of the financial hardship to states that would come from allowing undocumented immigrants to receive deferred action under the program.
In response to the ruling, President Obama’s administration announced that the program would have to be put on hold, and that they would not accept the applications for deferred action until the legal issues were resolved.
For Dana, the court ruling was another low in the ongoing roller-coaster ride of constant worry about whether she can work, support her family and stay in the U.S.
“For me, it is all so confusing,” Dana said. “It seems like nothing in this country is permanent. The politicians are always fighting. It makes you feel so hopeless.”
While individuals affected by the original DACA – like Brandon — can still apply, the four million undocumented residents – and 120,000 residents of Cook County – affected by the executive order are now back to waiting and wondering.
The Justice Department immediately took steps to appeal the ruling, and President Obama has said that he is confident that eventually the decision will be overturned by the Appeals Court.
“The law is on our side, and history is on our side,” Obama said in response. “We should not be tearing a mom away from her child when the child has been born here and that mom has been living here the last 10 years minding her own business and being an important part of the community.”
Immigrant advocacy organizations like the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) continue to advocate and are encouraging people to continue to gather paperwork and to be ready to apply if the Appeals Court rules in favor of the President.
ICIRR continues to sponsor the “Illinois is Ready” campaign to help educate immigrants about DACA and DAPA and to help people prepare for the eventual application process. They also have a family support hotline, 855-HELP-MY-FAMILY (855-435-7693) that immigrants can call for information and assistance.
ICIRR Policy Director and spokesperson Fred Tsao emphasized that most immigrant families have remained resilient and continue to prepare despite the court ruling.
“Our communities have had to put up with a lot,” Tsao said. “They’ve toughed it out, and are very patient. But we believe the setback is temporary and will eventually be resolved in a favorable way. We’re moving forward and keeping people informed and engaged.”
For Izzy, the excitement of the President’s action, and the disappointment of the court ruling, has just become part of the story of her young life.
“One day you are happy, the next day you are sad. You don’t really have any choice except to keep fighting,” Izzy said.
Still, no matter how hard she fights, it’s hard not to worry about her mom.
“Sometimes I overthink it. I start to worry at the end of the school day. My mom picks me up from school, and on days when she isn’t there or she is late, I wonder if something bad has happened,” Izzy said.
Thousands of families in Illinois like Dana’s are in the middle of more than just a legal struggle. They are front and center in the political struggle about whether undocumented immigrants are good or bad for our country, our communities and our economy. The alleged expense to states was a key element in the lawsuit filed in Texas, as states argued that Obama’s action would be a burden to taxpayers because of heightened costs such as issuing driver’s licenses.
Immigration advocates strongly believe those arguments are nonsense, and point to studies demonstrating the economic benefits of immigrants.
A January study by the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA looked specifically at the positive economic benefits to states of President Obama’s executive action.
It found that if every immigrant eligible for DACA or DAPA enrolled, the collective wages of these immigrants would grow by $281 million in Chicago, $543 million in Cook County and $980 million in Illinois. The increased wages would generate more than $193 million in total new income, sales and business tax revenue. The increased wages would also help to support the creation of more than 6,600 jobs in Chicago, 12,700 jobs in Cook County and 23,000 jobs statewide.
Dana is just one example of the connection between immigration status and employment, as she says her lack of documents makes her nervous about trying to get a job.
“My husband works very hard and I want to contribute more. It makes me feel bad. If I had my papers, I would get a job right away,” Dana said.
Until then, immigrants wait. And while leaders and advocates are optimistic about an eventual court ruling in their favor, even that victory might not end their roller coaster ride.
While the DAPA executive order could end up being one of President Obama’s key domestic policy achievements, for immigrants it’s hard to ignore a calendar that shows only about 18 months left in his Presidency. Many on the ever-growing roster of Republican candidates for President have made one policy very clear: they are vehemently opposed to the DAPA and expanded DACA executive order.
A collection of Republicans who desire to sit in the Oval Office, including Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, former governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum, have blasted the President’s immigration policy, and many have pledged to rescind it.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz said the President’s immigration action was like “counterfeiting immigration papers, because there’s no legal authority to do what he’s doing.”
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee called the President’s plan “wholly unconstitutional” and an “insult to the American people.”
This constant barrage from Presidential candidates, Republican governors and members of Congress makes people like Dana wonder why so many powerful people seem determined to prevent her from adjusting her immigration status.
On the second Sunday in June, Dana and her family sat in their church in the Pilsen community, and listened to their pastor, the Rev. Walter “Slim” Coleman, a longtime leader in the fight for immigrants’ rights, talk about their challenges, and those of families like them, in his sermon.
“This group of men, who’ve seized powerful positions, continue to inflict suffering on our families, separating what God has put together. Why do they plot against the harmony of the people?” Coleman asked his congregation.
“This long struggle that we’ve been through – which is still not over – shows that we have a destiny, which is to heal. To show us the way to a higher ground,” Coleman said to the nodding heads and raised hands of many in his congregation.
For Dana and Brandon and Izzy, their hope is simple – that politicians would understand that they want nothing more than to be together like any other family in Chicago, or Berwyn, or across the U.S.
“They don’t know the experience we’ve been through. If they could know, they would change their minds. I feel like if they understood us, they would support us,” Izzy said.