Lives in limbo: A guide to who’s waiting for immigration reform


Guatemalan illegal immigrants deported from the U.S. wait for their turn to be processed for re-entry at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City July 15. (Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters)

This Fourth of July, President Obama pledged to keep pushing immigration reform as it languishes on Capitol Hill: “As long as there are men and women like all of you who are willing to give so much for the right to call yourselves Americans … then we’re going to keep on growing our economy, we’ll continue to journey forward.”

Immigration

In the meantime, millions of people are left in limbo. Here’s a glimpse into whose lives are put on hold:

1. Immigration policy is breaking up families: 100,000 Americans lose a spouse or parent to deportation every year.

The data:  Today, an estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. Nearly one-fourth of undocumented immigrants, or about three million, have children or spouses who are U.S. citizens.

The story: Madina Salaty, a 45-year-old Kansas woman, was forcibly separated from her husband, Indian citizen Zunu Zunaid, after he was pulled over and charged with a DUI  in 2009, triggering the deportation process. Authorities discovered his student visa had expired 15 years ago. Washington Post writer Eli Saslow describes the couple’s last days together:

“She tried explaining Zunaid’s case to five lawyers, spending $10,000 on legal fees, only to learn there was nothing left to do. A 1996 change to immigration law had made it so that marriage to a U.S. citizen no longer canceled out many kinds of immigration violations. She tried talking with her congresswoman, meeting immigration activists in Kansas City, Mo., and working with a lobbying group called American Families United. When none of that worked, she started approaching strangers at the grocery store to enlist their help, telling them not only her story but about all of the families with children who had it so much worse. She asked so many people to e-mail their politicians that Zunaid finally pleaded with her to stop.

“Let these people live their lives,” he told her, with two days left. “You will drive yourself crazy. I need you to be okay or we will both come apart.”

“You’re my husband,” she said. “I’m supposed to just let go?”

2. Immigration policy is causing a crisis for children.

The data: An estimated 5.5 million children of undocumented immigrants live in the U.S., according to Pew research from 2011. About 82 percent were born here. President Obama has asked for $3.7 billion in funding to address the crisis. More than 1,000 child migrants are crossing America’s Southwestern border per week.

The story: The Post’s Saslow introduces us to a Florida woman who professionally cares for the kids of deported or detained parents. 800 of them:

“The first emergency phone call of the morning is the one that wakes her up, and Nora Sandigo, 48, answers one of the three phones she keeps within reach of her bed. “Hello. How can I help?” she says, because someone is always asking for her help. She gets up, pours herself coffee and takes down notes as she listens. ‘Sebastian. 12. U.S. citizen,” she writes. ‘Father deported. Mother detained. Drs appointment today, 2:45.’

“Okay, yes. I can do this,” she says, and soon she is in her minivan, sorting through a notebook that contains her to-do list for the day. She has to prepare lunch for 120 children, deliver school supplies to 13 others, drop five off at schools across greater Miami, help find housing for three, take two to doctor appointments, one to a psychologist and one to visit a parent detained for immigration violations.

“Dios mio,” she says, my God, because these are not just things she hopes to get done but things she needs to get done — things she is in fact legally responsible for doing.”

3. Nearly all of the arrests of undocumented immigrants are coming from one area of the country.

The data:Last year, the U.S. Border Patrol arrested 420,789 undocumented immigrants. More than 98 percent of the arrests happened on the Southwest border.

The story: Michael May of the American Prospect shows us how three activists decided to promote immigration reform by intentionally putting their freedom on the line.

“Before they stood up and announced they were undocumented, before they started putting themselves on the line and getting arrested, before they started making plans to infiltrate detention centers, Abdollahi, Saavedra, and Martinez were like hundreds of thousands of other Dreamers across America: scared of admitting to anyone they were undocumented. But when they hit their late teens and early twenties, they’d begun to run up against the limits that their status placed on their future. The only way to get their lives on track would be to fight to change immigration policy.”

4.  Who’s getting deported? Not who you might think.

The data: In fiscal 2013, the U.S. government announced 370,000 total deportations. That’s a bit lower than the previous fiscal year, which saw 410,000 removals.

The story: Writer Jose Antonio Vargas details in a New York Times essay how his hidden identity complicated his work in the public eye. Even the most successful immigrants, he writes, are at risk for deportation.

“It was an odd sort of dance: I was trying to stand out in a highly competitive newsroom, yet I was terrified that if I stood out too much, I’d invite unwanted scrutiny. I tried to compartmentalize my fears, distract myself by reporting on the lives of other people, but there was no escaping the central conflict in my life. Maintaining a deception for so long distorts your sense of self. You start wondering who you’ve become, and why.

In April 2008, I was part of a Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings a year earlier. Lolo died a year earlier, so it was Lola who called me the day of the announcement. The first thing she said was, “Anong mangyayari kung malaman ng mga tao?”

What will happen if people find out?

I couldn’t say anything. After we got off the phone, I rushed to the bathroom on the fourth floor of the newsroom, sat down on the toilet and cried.”

5. Since border security has increased, deaths have escalated.

The data: This year, an average of 31,410 captives were held daily in U.S. detention facilities. In 2012, 478,000 foreign nationals were detained — an all-time high. Officially, 2013 saw the second-highest number of migrant remains found on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The story: Ben Ehrenreich writes in Los Angeles Magazine about a young woman who died in Southern California while being held by immigration officials:

“Arellano faced deportation to Mexico, but for her first few weeks on Terminal Island, she danced through the days, singing so loudly and constantly that she got on people’s nerves. Bernardo Martínez, known as Luna, says, “No one could imagine that a few days later she would die.” When her last hour came, on the morning of July 20, 2007, Arellano was shackled to a gurney at Little Company of Mary Hospital, just ashore from Terminal Island in San Pedro. For weeks she and her fellow detainees had been asking, begging, and demanding that immigration authorities provide her with the medical care she needed to stay alive. When they finally took her to the hospital, Arellano was too weak to walk. The autopsy report attributed her death to complications from AIDS. She was 23 years old.

Danielle Paquette is a reporter covering the intersection of people and policy. She’s from Indianapolis and previously worked for the Tampa Bay Times. Follow her on Twitter: @Dpaqreport.
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