The plastic cards that changed Maria Sanchezâ€™s life came inconspicuously in the mail one after the other. Each one was like a key to a future in which she could work, drive and go to college without the fear of deportation.
â€œIt was just a huge relief,â€ Maria said. “It was like I could breathe.â€
By mid-October, the 17-year-old had already received her work permit, I.D., driverâ€™s license and social security cardâ€” all the legal documents available to youth like her in Illinois under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
But even before the application process opened, Maria changed. After President Barack Obama first announced the policy in June, she came out of the shadows and began volunteering with the West Suburban Action Project [Proyecto de Accion de Los Suburbios del Oeste], a faith-based coalition, and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), helping with activities ranging from voter registration to speaking on panels. Over the summer, she created the only Latino student group at Glenbard West High School, where she is a senior.
She met others like her – undocumented youth-turned-activistsÂ -Â waiting to find a relief that seemed closer than ever. When that day finally came on August 15, she chose to volunteer at Navy Pier to help others apply for deferred action, and sent in her own application a few days later.
Maria would drive from her home in Glendale Heights, a town 30 miles west of Chicago, to volunteer in the city. Her parents would worry and sometimes only let her go after considerable pleading. Police cars were a scary sight. She didnâ€™t want to think about could happen if she got pulled over. But now with her license, Maria drives all the time.
Buoyed by Obamaâ€™s promise of deferred action, she came out about her status to friends and acquaintances who were so surprised they thought she was joking, and was surprised herself when she learned of other undocumented students at her school.
â€œI started figuring out that it wasnâ€™t just me,â€ Maria said. â€œPeople from my school that you wouldnâ€™t have thought are undocumented are. Even for me, they were like â€˜what, you canâ€™t be undocumented; youâ€™ve been here all your lifeâ€™.â€
A dream incomplete
I first met Maria and her parents at a rally for immigration reform outside of the Obama election night party in Chicago. She was a speaker at a â€œKeeping Our Families Togetherâ€ event. It was organized by ICIRR, and similar rallies were held in 16 cities across the country, including outside of Mitt Romneyâ€™s Presidential election night party in Boston.
Organizers told me that while members of the immigrant community were happy with the deferred action initiative, parents were still getting deported and needed the relief their children had been offered. As those gathered waited under a cold drizzle to find out who would become president, Maria spoke about receiving deferred action and urged the crowd of about 100 people to continue pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.
It struck me that unlike most of the other participants her age, Maria had come with her parents. They marched alongside her from Chinatown to the McCormick Place convention center, and watched as she spoke to the huddled group in front of many cameras and lights.
I told her I wanted to write a story on the challenges families like hers faced after a member received deferred action, and she agreed to let me interview her and her parents in their home. [Click here for an explanation of what a mixed-status family is.]
Despite their joy at Mariaâ€™s new prospects, her parents and siblings are still undocumented and waiting for relief. Her parents have been in the U.S. for almost twenty years, about half of which theyâ€™ve spent here illegally since their tourist visa expired almost a decade ago.
Sitting with them in their kitchen, I interviewed Maria in English and her parents in Spanish, which probably put them more at ease with speaking to a reporter for the first time.
Mariaâ€™s mother, Consuelo, agreed to let me use her name and photo because her employer and co-workers already know she is undocumented, so she doesnâ€™t fear being fired or referred to immigration enforcement by people from work. She has worked for almost 20 years at a large electronics manufacturerâ€™s local warehouse in a low-paying position she didnâ€™t want to specify. Consuelo has had to pass up promotions that required proof she was in the country legally, which led others at her job to assume she was undocumented, she said.
Mariaâ€™s father is a cargo driver for a large clothing store chain. Initially, Mr. Sanchez had agreed to be photographed and named for this story along with his wife. I had told the three of them it would be published on Immigrant Connectâ€™s website and possibly in other publications, and he had seemed eager to talk about his experiences.
But a few days later, Mr. Sanchez had a change of heart, and asked me not to publish his name and photo for fear of losing his job and facing deportation.
[audio:https://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/El-temor-no-desaparece-…-es-muy-feo.mp3] Listen to Mr. Sanchez describe in Spanish his fear of deportation.
In their time in the U.S., Mariaâ€™s parents have never had any problems with law enforcement, and they donâ€™t know anyone whoâ€™s been deported. This tenuous stability, along with their daughterâ€™s new relief and activism, emboldened them to let me tell their familyâ€™s story.
â€œIt was very important she take advantage of [deferred action],â€ Mr. Sanchez said. â€œIf I feel scared, I cut off that [feeling].â€
Maria was born in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was about a month old, a decision her mother, Consuelo, often laments, as she would have liked her daughter to be a U.S. citizen by birthright.
Mariaâ€™s parents owned a wholesale clothing business and lived comfortablyÂ in Guanajuato, but people they had sold to on credit failed to pay them back and they had to close. It was then they decided to try their luck in the U.S.
They immigrated with Mariaâ€™s sister on a tourist visa a few years before Maria was born, but Consuelo decided to go back to Mexico to give birth to her because she was afraid of complications that could arise due to her age (she was 40).
All three of Mariaâ€™s siblings are too old to qualify for deferred action. Instead, five of her nieces and nephews have applied, and three have already obtained deferred action status.
Consuelo and her husband are delighted that Maria, a straight-A student with a long list of extracurricular activities and awards, plans to go to college next year and possibly pursue a career in law.
Her list of universities has expanded since receiving deferred action, and she hopes to work soon to help her parents offset the costs of college. She also plans to apply for an Illinois DREAM Fund scholarship, which became available for the first time in October.
â€œTwo universities have already accepted her, and I tell her â€˜look, now you will have to chooseâ€™,â€ Consuelo said with a laugh.
[audio:https://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Es-la-nina-mas-feliz-de-mundo…-ya-dos-universidades-la-han-acceptado.mp3] Listen to the pride in the voices of Maria’s parents.
Despite years without legal trouble and the great joy Mariaâ€™s relief has brought them, the Sanchez family is haunted by the possibility of being broken up.
â€œWeâ€™re scared â€¦ to know that my parents are in a situation where they arenâ€™t protected. I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™d do [if they were deported],â€ Maria said.
Her parents fear that at any moment immigration agents could come knocking on their door or pay them a visit at work. And that their older children, who all have families, could be deported.
â€œYou never know when immigration agents will come to your workplace,â€ Mr. Sanchez said. â€œAnd they take you and grab you. Itâ€™s a very ugly feeling to have.â€
By their own account, Mariaâ€™s parents have been working and paying taxes since they first moved to Illinois from Mexico.
â€œI think weâ€™ve contributed a lot to this country,â€ Consuelo said. â€œ[My family] is healthy, studious, and I think we have the right to be here legally.â€
Many Latino leaders and immigrant groups have taken note that while some immigrant youth like Maria have found relief under the Obama administration, their parents have not, and have made curbing deportations an important part of their agenda during the presidentâ€™s second term in office.
â€œThe separation of families has been the main thing that has been devastating our community,â€ said Alaa Mukahhal, one of the election night rallyâ€™s main organizers. â€œWhen the father or mother is deported and the family is left behind, sometimes children are left with no one to support them â€¦ We need to see reform and we need to see it quickly and we need to keep our families together.â€
Obama has come under fire for the record number of deportations – about 400,000 a year – that have occurred during his presidency. He tried to lower deportations last year with a prosecutorial discretion initiative that was supposed to halt the removal of some low-priority immigrants, especially breadwinners in mixed-status families. But the measure had little effect, as fewer than two percent of cases reviewed were closed as of late May, according to statistics provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the first six months of 2011, almost 47,000 immigrants deported by the agency claimed to be the parent of at least one U.S. citizen child, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This number is a record high.
Initially, Maria was scared that applying for deferred action could jeopardize her family. Chicago-based immigration lawyer Susan Fortino said many applicants feared – especially before the elections, when it looked like Romney could win – that the information they provided could be used to arrest and deport them and their undocumented relatives.
But Fortino, an immigration lawyer of 25 years who has worked on about 50 DACA cases, said she tries to assure her clients the government will not do that.
â€œThe government will not be using any information on these applications to bring action against these kids â€¦ and with family members, weâ€™ve sort of been assured they wonâ€™t pursue them,â€ she said.
Although some parents are also scared of their children giving personal information, most â€œare overjoyed that their children will be able to attend school, obtain employment authorization, [and] obtain a driver’s license with legal status, albeit temporaryâ€, Fortino said.
Indeed, Mariaâ€™s relief and the prospect of her becoming a citizen have her parents elated and willing to take the risks of giving sensitive information. Despite Mr. Sanchezâ€™s misgivings about being featured in this article, he said he and his wife have supported their daughter in her efforts to get her story out, such as when they accompanied her to speak at the election night rally.
On the campaign trail, both President Obama and Mitt Romney pledged to address immigration reform in their first year in office. Some pegged the DACA policy as a late attempt by the president to win over Hispanic and immigrant voters disenchanted by his poor performance on deportations and the failure to pass a federal DREAM Act.
The impetus for new immigration reform picked up in the wake of the election, with many Republicans calling on their party to ease its hardline stance on immigration in order to win over more Hispanic and immigrant voters. A few weeks after the election, two Republican senators introduced a bill called the Achieve Act that would grant permanent residency,Â but not provide a pathway for citizenship, to childhood arrivals if they pursue a college education or military service.
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of momentum around immigration reform since the day after the election,â€ said Laura Vazquez, a policy expert for the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights group in the nation.
â€œWeâ€™re seeing a lot of movement on the hill â€¦ Weâ€™re in a totally different place.â€
Vazquez said she expects that reform affecting most of the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. will be passed during Obamaâ€™s second term, and criticizes the Achieve Act and other recent bills proposed by Republicans for being limited in scope and piecemeal.
Like many immigrant families, the Sanchezes were pulling hard for President Obama to win the election. Consuelo laughed when her husband mentioned Romneyâ€™s strategy of having illegal immigrants self-deport.
Mr. Sanchez said he has full confidence that President Obama will not renege on his deferred action policy.
â€œInitially I wasnâ€™t scared because this was a great opportunity for Maria,â€ he said. â€œIf Obama gave it, it would be fine, I thought. But I was a little worried when it looked like Romney could become president.â€
Despite hoping to return to Mexico one day, Mariaâ€™s parents believe their daughter â€“especially after receiving deferred actionâ€“ will have more opportunities in the U.S., and so they are committed to staying for now. The family used to often go back to Guanajuato when they had their tourist visa, but stopped once it expired.
In order to travel outside the country, youth with deferred action must apply for permission and show a compelling need to travel outside the country, as well as pay a $360 fee, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Services website. The procedure is still being finalized.
Maria and her parents, as well as many experts, are confident DACA recipients will be provided a pathway to citizenship in the future. But the Sanchez family is still waiting for the comprehensive immigration reform that will provide them with the stability they deserve.
â€œBecoming documented is like waking up,â€ Mr. Sanchez said. â€œItâ€™s a great joy and hopefully itâ€™ll be for all of us, right?â€
[audio:https://immigrantconnect.medill.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Es-un-desperatar-que-ojala-sea-para-todos-verdad.mp3] Listen to Mr. Sanchez express his hope for future immigration reform.