Families, immigrants struggle as politicians feud over reform

Startled by sharp knocking on the door of her family’s Florida City home at 5 a.m., Brenda Perez, 20, jumped out of bed on a chilly Monday morning in January.

Outside she saw uniformed ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers. Frightened and panicked, she ran to her parents’ bedroom.

Surprisingly unconcerned, Julio Perez and Josefina Cid peered through the front door’s peephole, then went back to bed without opening the door.

At 7 a.m., Cid went outside to walk her four dogs and noticed four black SUVs parked along the block. Five hours later, the two parents, Brenda and two younger children piled into their dark blue PT Cruiser to run errands.

A block away, their car was abruptly surrounded by the four government SUVs. ICE officers jumped out and grabbed Julio Perez, calling him profane names. One pulled out a handgun, Cid said.

Brenda and her siblings Leslie, 14, and Julio, 13, were restlessly sitting in the backseat of the family’s car as their father’s arrest unfolded before their eyes.

Like hundreds of other undocumented immigrants living in South Florida, Perez was rushed to Krome Detention Center in Miami where he has been incarcerated for seven months.

The family looks forward to Julio Perez’ deportation hearing, scheduled for Aug. 7.

Today, Brenda Perez is allowed to visit her father in detention because she has authorization to stay in the United States under President Barack Obama’s directive, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA). The program allows her to remain in the United States and attend college. However, her sister, Leslie, is too young to qualify for DACA so undocumented immigrant status bars her from visiting her father at the detention center.

Their younger brother, Julio Perez Jr., was born in the United States and as a citizen is allowed to visit.

Brenda and Leslie Perez are both DREAMers who would significantly benefit if the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act were to be passed by Congress.

The DREAM Act would present a 10-year path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrant students currently living in the United States.

The bill, in its current version, would require those covered to have lived in the United States since before the age of 16, graduated from a U.S. high school, or received a Graduate Educational Development (GED) diploma, or been accepted into a college or university. DREAMers also would have to be between the ages of 12 and 35 with no criminal convictions to apply for preferential status under the DREAM Act to seek citizenship.

First filed in the Senate on August 1, 2001, the original DREAM Act sponsors were Sens. Dick Durbin (R-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Since then, versions of the act have been introduced numerous times, never receiving enough votes to pass.

The larger issue of immigration reform has been much debated in Congress for more than two decades. But the 9-11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center raised fears about national security and unleashed a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the nation. Debate has continued, but no substantive immigration reform legislation has been passed by Congress since 1986.

The most recent attempt to pass the DREAM Act succeeded in the House on Dec. 8, 2010, on a 216-198 vote. Ten days later, the Senate vote fell five votes short.

Four years of inactivity on the DREAM Act shows that immigration policy is in paralysis, according to Bruce Bagley, a U.S.- Latin American relations expert and professor of international studies at the University of Miami.

Bagley said severe recession and high unemployment has fueled anti-immigrant sentiment, effectively making immigration a toxic issue.

The last comprehensive immigration reform in the United States passed in 1986. President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform Act granting amnesty to an estimated three million undocumented immigrants, 2.3 million of them from Mexico.

Since then, efforts have been made by President Bill Clinton with his LIFE Act Amnesty (2000), and, most recently, the reassessment of the DREAM Act by Obama.

Opponents to the DREAM Act, however, have accused the president of ignoring the will of Congress by an executive memorandum in 2012 creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program, which gives short-term help to undocumented high school students and recent graduates, but does not give them a path to citizenship.

“[DACA] is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix,” Obama said.

Since 2012, well over half a million undocumented students have applied for the program. For those who qualify, deportation is deferred for two years and is subject to renewal.

Under DACA, undocumented students receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), allowing them to work and obtain a driver’s license. Applicants must meet certain qualifications: they must have arrived in the United States before the age of 16, be under the age of 30 when the memorandum was put in place and must have resided in the United States for at least five years before DACA (2012).

Applicants must also be enrolled in school, have graduated high school or earned a GED or be an honorably discharged veteran. Moreover, they must not have been convicted of a felony.

The Washington Post reported that applicants for DACA hail from 192 nations, 75 percent from Mexico. Those potentially affected number 1.4 million children and young adults, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project.

“Many students who benefit from the DREAM Act are not even familiar with what their legal status is in this country,” said Coral Gables immigration attorney Sandra Murado, who said she prides herself in bringing families together legally.

DACA has presented an option for these young immigrants, but as Bagley noted there seems to be “no permanent solution” on the horizon.

Undocumented immigrants are no longer viewed in a positive public light and are burdened with an increasing negative sentiment on their status, Murado said.

Some of the labels attached to them have changed. The Associated Press announced in April 2013 that the term ‘illegal immigrant’ would be forbidden.

“‘Undocumented’ and ‘illegal’ seem to be signaling one’s stance when it comes to immigration reform rather than … characterizing the situation in a precise way,” said linguistic anthropologist Jonathan Rosa from the University of Massachusetts in an interview with National Public Radio.

Woven through the linguistics puzzle is the complex and sometimes nuanced political rhetoric, even from those coming from Hispanic lineage. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is an excellent example.

“There is broad support for the idea that we should figure out a way to help kids who are undocumented through no fault of their own, but there is also broad consensus that it should be done in a way that does not encourage illegal immigration in the future,” Rubio said in a statement on his website.

The child of Cuban immigrants granted refugee status in the United States, Rubio criticized DACA: “This is a difficult balance to strike, one that this new policy, imposed by executive order, will make harder to achieve in the long run.”

But the political debate and the consequential stall on immigration reform provides little comfort to those affected.

In Florida City, where Julio Perez’ family waits to learn whether he will be deported in August, his wife, Josefina Cid, has discussed the painful possibility with their three children.

“My kids have sat down and told me that there’s no reason for us to go back to Mexico,” Cid said. The youngest child is a U.S. citizen, their 20-year-old is covered by DACA and their 16-year-old will soon be eligible.

Latin-American policy analyst Bagley predicted that revision and passage of the DREAM Act will not occur until at least 2016, with growing Tea Party opposition and declining support for immigration reform among all Republicans expected after the mid-term elections in November.

“I think that it’s outrageous that the United States, at a time when we need younger workers, when we need better educated workers, when we need these people that we have raised in this country and who are more adapted as Americans than they are as Guatemalans or Hondurans or anything else around the globe, are being tossed away or mistreated,” said Bagley.

“I think it’s a serious error, it’s going to have political consequences down the road, it’s having economic consequences as we speak.”