Sixteen-year-old Ashley knew something wasn’t right as soon as she and her mother, Maria, walked out of their home on the morning of Dec. 1, 2011. They slipped into the car and noted the presence of two strange vehicles parked on their quiet street. A few minutes later, Ashley noted another strange vehicle parked on the curb at her Sacramento-area high school as she told her mom goodbye.
That was the last time Ashley saw her mother in the United States.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in an unmarked car followed Maria, then 40, down the street and arrested her on unknown charges. Agents bound Maria’s hands, feet, and waist in chains for processing, and when she asked for a lawyer, an agent said, “You don’t need a lawyer. You need to go back to Mexico.” Within hours, she was en route to Tijuana on a bus with three other women and dozens of men, who harassed her during the overnight trip. She had no coat or blanket to protect against the cold night air—made worse since the bus windows stayed down for the trek south. Maria also wasn’t allowed off the bus or allowed toilet paper when her menstrual cycle started.
Maria’s story is one of millions. Former President George W. Bush presided over a record 2.01 million deportations in eight years, and President Barack Obama will eclipse that mark this year—his fifth in office. The Obama administration insists it is focused on deporting criminals, but many immigrants, including Maria, had no prior run-ins with the law when they were forced to leave and many have spouses and children who are U.S. citizens. The result is too many single-parent homes producing at-risk young adults. They may be more likely to engage in criminal activity, become pregnant outside of marriage, and become locked in a cycle of government dependency.
“They’re not picking up mom and dad and three kids and putting them in a van and graciously escorting them back to their country of origin—that’s not what’s happening,” said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Families are being separated. It’s wrong.”
Maria and her husband Angel (WORLD agreed not to use their real names) came to the United States as newlyweds on a travel visa in 1989 and decided to stay. Life was hard: Angel’s first job packing concrete required him to walk two hours each way to work a shift from 1 a.m. to 10 a.m. The couple had two children, both U.S. citizens, and became active in an evangelical church after converting from Catholicism.
Angel and Maria applied for and received work permits in 1997 and renewed them annually for nine years, paying more than $5,000 each time for legal help and application fees. But in October 2006, when they had steady jobs and owned two houses, everything changed: They received an unexpected letter ordering them to voluntarily vacate the United States within 60 days or face deportation. Angel said he and Maria discussed the situation and decided they couldn’t take Alex, then 16, and Ashley, then 11, away from the only country they had ever known. “We made the decision because of the kids,” he told me. “It’s their future I’m worried about.”
When Alex turned 21 in October 2011, he petitioned for his parents’ residency. The family isn’t sure whether that’s what drew attention to them, but Maria was deported six weeks later. Angel is still in the United States and hasn’t seen his wife since she left to take their daughter to school in 2011.
VIRTUALLY NO ONE DEFENDS the current immigration system, which too often contradicts itself, keeps out those it should let in, lets in those it should keep out, and punishes those who follow the rules. But in lieu of a political miracle, comprehensive immigration reform will not happen this year, and maybe not until after the 2016 election, causing immigrant advocates to turn their attention to record-setting deportation numbers. President Obama in March ordered Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to conduct a review of the administration’s deportation policy. The results are expected in the coming weeks.
Samuel Rodriguez said he’s personally pleaded with Obama to slow deportations—most of which he’s convinced target “good, hard-working, God-fearing individuals”—and the president maintains he can’t undermine the rule of law. Yet the recent outcry may give him political cover to take executive action. After discussing immigration during an April visit to the Oval Office, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, believes Obama may think he can take action on his own, Moore told me, but most people “would prefer the president work with Republicans to fix the system.”
In June 2012, less than five months before his reelection, Obama signed an executive order granting amnesty to illegal immigrants who were unlawfully brought to the United States as children. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows young adults who meet certain criteria to pay $465 to apply for consideration, and if approved, they receive a renewable, two-year work permit.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved 472,520 DACA applications in fiscal year 2013, including Cynthia Huerta, a 20-year-old college student who works at a Houston law firm. Despite working full time, Huerta—whose parents brought her to the United States legally at age 7 and overstayed their visas—already has 67 hours of college credit en route to an industrial psychology degree. She works Saturdays to get in her 40 hours and keep up with school.
Huerta said DACA has been hugely helpful, but it only partly removes uncertainty: Her driver’s license and work permit expire on Dec. 21, and a lapse in legal status would render her DACA ineligible—even if her application is submitted months before the deadline. USCIS will not release the renewal form until late May. “There’s people like me with no criminal background who have been waiting for over a year” for a first approval, Huerta said. “That’s what scares me about the coming renewal.”
Such uncertainty is why Republicans almost universally opposed Obama’s executive action and the House last year voted to defund DACA, even though members of both parties largely agree that immigrants brought here as children should not be deported. Republicans cite a distrust of Obama as the primary reason they won’t move forward on immigration reform, but another legislative problem lurks: The Senate could take any immigration bill the GOP-controlled House approves and attach the immigration overhaul it passed last year. “We’re more than happy as Republicans to dig in and solve problems, but don’t force us into a corner to get amnesty,” said Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., who has a high Hispanic population in his district.
Pearce told me if Senate Democrats would agree to work on a piece-by-piece basis, the two parties have plenty of common ground. He recently partnered with Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, to introduce the American Families United Act, which would exempt, on a case-by-case basis, immediate family members of U.S. citizens who are barred from lawful re-entry. (Per a 1996 law, six to 12 months of unlawful presence triggers a three-year bar, more than 12 months triggers a 10-year bar, and breaking either one triggers a 20-year bar.)
PEARCE'S BILL IS A LONG SHOT, but Cathy Murillo is holding out hope that it will become law. She’s raising four children (two from a prior marriage) by herself in Arnold, Mo., after her husband voluntarily returned to Mexico in 2007 to correct his visa. They thought the process would take a year at most. Instead, U.S. officials slapped him with a 10-year bar and later a 20-year bar from entering the United States Murillo says he didn’t deserve. Murillo has traveled to the border to meet her husband a handful of times, but not since 2011. “My 3-year-old has seen his father once,” she said. “Best case scenario he comes back in 2018.”
Critics say the bars have been counterproductive. Recent analysis shows eliminating them would provide a way to legal status for about one-third of the approximately 11 million people illegally in the country, who currently have no other recourse.
Sarah Monty, an immigration attorney in Houston, called the law harsh: “Is a primary breadwinner going to wait 20 years? No, he’s going to come back in,” she said. “They thought this was going to stop illegal immigration, and all it did is line the pockets of the human smugglers and document makers.”
Monty compares the situation to Prohibition, which made criminals out of otherwise honest people—only this is being reunited with family, not having a drink. Reform advocates say lawmakers should alter the U.S. immigration system to encourage lawful entry—as it once did.
In the 1950s President Dwight Eisenhower expanded the Bracero visa program to allow seasonal workers into the country. Illegal immigration plummeted (even as border patrol agents dipped below 1,100), but under pressure from labor unions, and despite strong objections from Mexico, Congress voted to eliminate the program in 1964. Between 1965 and 2008, illegal immigrants from Latin America went from near zero to 9.6 million, accounting for more than 80 percent of the current undocumented population, according to Princeton professors Douglas Massey and Karen Pren. They wrote in 2012 that illegal immigration rose “not because there was a sudden surge in Mexican migration, but because the temporary labor program had been terminated and the number of permanent resident visas had been capped, leaving no legal way to accommodate the long-established flows.”
Regardless of why they’re here, David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, said what matters is that they are treated fairly while in the United States. He told me immigrants played a big role in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and yet his church routinely sees them become victims of theft, assault, rape, murder, and other crimes—with no legal or medical recourse. “They cannot and will not access medical care and police protection. Because it’s unsafe for them, it’s unsafe for all of us.”
For Angel, Alex, and Ashley, life without their wife and mother continues. After Maria was taken, Ashley began having frequent panic attacks and withdrew from her high school. She has since returned and is considering several state universities that have accepted her for the fall term. She said losing her mom has allowed her to learn a lot, including how to cook and be a housewife—and how to forgive.
“I don’t blame ICE—I know they’re just doing their jobs,” Ashley said. “It’s very hard to not have your mom, but I’ve learned forgiveness through all that’s happened. … Our faith in God is very strong.”