Jesus and Radhi Paredes know precisely how their lives could change under the stalled deportation-relief plan that was proposed by President Obama a year ago and that his administration appealed to the Supreme Court on Friday.
The Bolivian-born husband and wife have seen their daughter’s life transformed by a similar program initiated by Obama in 2012.
Kelly Paredes, 20, can now drive to her college classes instead of having to walk, since she no longer has to worry about being detained during a routine traffic stop.
She can apply for scholarships and well-paid jobs that require a Social Security number and a work permit.
And, with special permission, she can travel abroad — she flew to Bolivia recently to visit the ailing grandparents no one in her nuclear family had seen in 15 years.
“It ended the fear, and it opened all the doors to my life,” said Kelly, who lives with her family in Northern Virginia and plans to become a global health professional.
After failing to push comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, Obama announced executive action Nov. 20, 2014, that would offer three years of deportation relief to as many as 4 million undocumented parents of U.S.-born children as well as to another group of younger illegal immigrants.
The programs are modeled after the one that gave temporary residency to Kelly and about 700,000 others who were brought to this country illegally as young children. Because Jesus and Radhi Paredes have a U.S.-born son, they would qualify.
But the programs were quickly challenged in court by conservative governors, who said they would impose a financial burden on states and claimed that Obama did not have the authority to take such sweeping unilateral action.
Obama’s proposals have also been roundly denounced by 2016 Republican presidential candidates and other immigration hard-liners, who say that those who came here illegally should not be given a lawful way to remain.
A federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled in favor of the governors last week. The Obama administration on Friday appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, and it hopes to get both programs approved in time to process some applicants before Obama leaves office in 14 months. Also Friday, numerous advocacy groups rallied outside the Supreme Court and the White House in favor of the relief plan.
In the meantime, tens of thousands of families like the Paredeses — each a legal mishmash of undocumented parents, temporarily legalized older children and younger U.S.-citizen children — remain in limbo.
“We have been desperately waiting for this, and we have all our documents ready to apply,” said Jesus, 41, a slight, soft-spoken man who works in home construction and repair. “Our children are on a solid path now, but we are still stuck and living with the same stress every day.”
One night in 2001, Jesus and Radhi knelt together in a run-down motel in Arizona and prayed. The couple, determined to escape from their impoverished homeland, had left Kelly and her brother Brandon behind in Bolivia and spent a month walking across Mexico with a guide, carrying no possessions and hoping vaguely to find a better life in the north.
Once they crossed the U.S. border, they had no idea where to go. The guide suggested Virginia, where there were established Bolivian communities, and they soon made their way to Arlington.
“At first, we slept in a car to save money, then we moved into a basement with three mattresses,” Jesus recounted at the family’s home in Annandale one recent evening. He found outdoor jobs through a day-labor site and unpacked boxes at night; Radhi worked two cleaning shifts. In between, they took English classes. “Sometimes, we fell asleep in them,” Jesus said.
After six years, Kelly and Brandon followed their parents’ path across the border, arrived in Virginia and enrolled in public schools. Two years earlier, Anthony had been born, automatically becoming a U.S. citizen.
The family lived frugally and quietly. Jesus and Radhi paid taxes and avoided trouble, aware that any legal problem could lead to deportation. When Jesus’s mother fell ill in Bolivia and died, he reluctantly skipped the funeral, afraid to leave his family in the United States and then try to sneak back in.
“We went through a lot, but that was the hardest to bear,” he said.
Kelly, a promising student, enrolled in community college after high school. There was no money for her to attend a university and no way for her to seek financial aid without legal status. Because driving was risky, the family moved to a house near her college so she could walk there.
“I knew I was undocumented like my parents, but I didn’t feel it until my friends started to drive and go on vacations and apply to four-year colleges,” Kelly said. “I realized there was so much I wanted to do, but I couldn’t.”
All that changed in 2012, when Obama issued an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which was open to young people who had been in the United States for at least a decade. Kelly applied right away and became eligible for an array of benefits. Her ambitions soared. She won scholarships that enabled her to attend George Mason University and found steady jobs at nursing and catering services, which helped with expenses.
Early this year, Kelly’s DACA status was extended through 2018. She hopes she will eventually be able to secure permanent legal status through a sponsor.
Meanwhile, she has been able to fulfill an important family mission. Last year, her parents sent her to Bolivia on their behalf so she could visit her ailing paternal grandfather. On the return trip, she was nervous about going through the immigration line, but she showed the agent a thick folder of documents, including her college transcripts and job pay stubs.
“He smiled and said, ‘Welcome to the United States,’ ” she said.
Under Obama’s 2014 proposal, known as “extended” DACA, the residency rules would be eased so that young people who have lived in the United States full time for the past five years can qualify. Some of Kelly’s friends from community college have been waiting for such an opportunity. One of them, a straight-A student, just learned that she is a year shy of the residency requirement.
“She is devastated,” Kelly said. “She is super-intelligent, and we talked a lot about studying for professional careers. Now I think she is going to drop out.”
For young people who do qualify, immigrant advocates said the application process would be relatively simple: Applicants would need proof of their work, school and residence histories.
“Basically, we could be ready to start working on expanded DACA cases the day after the Supreme Court hands down a decision,” said lawyer Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, Va.. The center helped several hundred young people apply for DACA in 2012.
For older couples, the process could be more complicated and time-consuming, advocates say. Undocumented parents hoping to win deportation relief under Obama’s proposed Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, must prove that they have U.S.-born children.
For Jesus and Radhi, that would be fairly easy — they have been married nearly 22 years, and there is no doubt about Anthony’s parentage or birthplace. The couple have also carefully stored every tax filing, utility receipt and scrap of paper that can document their years in the United States.
But many other undocumented immigrants claiming to have U.S.-born children have complex personal histories and relationships. Some fathers were not listed on birth certificates; some mothers never married; some estranged partners may suddenly reappear and claim paternity in order to win DAPA.
“All of these complicated circumstances mean that the government has to come up with new forms, new rules and new criteria,” said the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Sandoval-Moshenberg. “What does it mean to be a parent? What if you raised someone else’s child? What if you are a biological parent who left years ago? All this is going to take time to sort out, and there will be very little time.”
If the Supreme Court does not approve the DAPA and DACA programs, or if Obama’s successor does not implement them, Jesus and Radhi Paredes, and millions like them, will remain on shaky legal ground — unable to seek the work permits, driver’s licenses and other legal documents that have so helped their daughter.
“If my mom and dad don’t get DAPA, it will affect my future, too,” Kelly said. “All of their sacrifice and risk has been for us and our future, but it could still be in vain.”