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Photos courtesy of Fernando Zapari | El Mexicano
This is a view into the Mexican side of the border with the United States at Tijuana, taken in 2011.

LIVES in limbo

Undocumented immigrants await fate in delayed debate

The view from San Diego is much altered since these photos were shot; the fence has been heightened and contact across the wall is much more limited.
Cruz

Imagine.

This is your home. This is where your family is, your work, your future. But you are not accepted here. You feel you are not truly welcome here.

You live every moment with the knowledge that your family could be ripped apart – with the possibility that you will never again see your children.

This is the plight of many of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants. They work, go to school and raise families, but they are always wary. Some of them have been here as long as you have. Some of them are your neighbors.

There is a way to solve these problems that no longer requires imagination. A plan that offers undocumented aliens who play by the rules and obey the law a way to become American citizens. A plan that would end the uncertainty for millions of families. Seventy percent of Americans support such a plan, according to a Gallup Poll taken last year.

The U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill last year. But the House has never voted on the measure. A variety of excuses has been given.

House Speaker John Boehner has blamed President Barack Obama, saying he could not be trusted to enforce the law (though Obama has deported more than 2 million people – more than any other president.)

U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman has said he would prefer to address the immigration reform package piece by piece, starting with increased border security. Though 14 Republican senators joined all 54 members of the Democratic caucus in passing the measure, Sen. Dan Coats gave that same reason for voting against it.

But Stutzman and his fellow Republicans have not taken the legislation up piece by piece, either.

“I support the one-piece-at-a-time idea,” says Max Montesino, a local advocate who’s met with Stutzman on the immigration issue, “if they do it.”

Others darkly infer that immigration reform would bring a crime wave, cost Americans jobs and be a drain on the already-overstrained economy.

None of those things is true.

“Every single study, by very respectable entities, points to economic benefits of immigration reform,” says Montesino, an assistant professor in IPFW’s department of organizational leadership and supervision and president of the Hispanic Leadership Coalition of Northeast Indiana.

“It will help the deficit. Economic benefits come from the integration of 11 or 12 million people coming out of the shadows, contributing to Social Security, paying taxes, contributing to the restitution of neighborhoods, mainly in urban centers.”

Once worried that immigrants would take their jobs, unions are now backing immigration reform. So is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Labor and business are realizing that dedicated, hard-working immigrants can be a benefit to the American workforce, not a drain on it.

The role of anti-immigration votes in the recent defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor perhaps has been overblown.

“Cantor, one day he was for immigration, another day he wasn’t for it,” said Fernando Zapari, editor and publisher of El Mexicano Newspaper in Fort Wayne.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was actually one of the Republicans who voted for the immigration reform bill, yet he easily overcame four primary challengers the same night Cantor went down to defeat.

“Immigration is being framed in a way that is really disastrous,” Montesino said. “People think we are paving the way for citizenship for people with a criminal record, a record of evading taxes. These people would be deported anyway.”

So would the flood of unaccompanied children that has been crossing the border recently. Montesino believes 90 percent of those children have parents already in the United States.

“But the kids are removable” if they weren’t born here, Montesino said; the reform law will have no effect on that.

“We are fighting for those people who actually desire to be documented.” Ironically, those are some of the people who are most exposed and thus vulnerable to being caught up in the deportation machinery.

“They are actually out in the open,” Montesino says. “They work, they participate in commercial transactions, they are members of a church, they have families.”

Their uncertain status leads some to go back. Others – people who would qualify for a path to citizenship – are being deported while the nation waits for a chance to act.

“People have been working and praying for years for this to happen,” Zapari said.

“Most of these people have been here for many years. It’s too bad they’ve been caught up in the political battle.

“So many people separated, so many families.”

Someone may be stopped for a traffic violation and suddenly find himself or herself on a fast track to deportation. It’s often clear the person being deported will never be able to come back, and so if the deportee’s spouse or children have the opportunity to stay, they have to choose between never seeing a parent again and leaving the country that has become their home.

“I have seen this too many times happen,” Zapari says.

Sara Cruz, a junior at Manchester University, has overcome the challenge of being an undocumented immigrant – at least for now.

She and her sister were brought to this country from Mexico by her parents when she was 6 years old and her sister was 6 months old, Cruz said. Two brothers were born here and thus are American citizens. Cruz grew up in Fort Wayne and graduated from North Side High School in 2012.

She learned early to be cautious – she says even her closest friends didn’t know she was undocumented.

“I always told them I had a green card (a federal permanent-resident card),” Cruz recalls. “It’s just something you can’t tell.”

Cruz had to be aware of her status even during such teenage rites of passage as learning to drive or going to a movie.

“Driving was scary,” she says. “I didn’t drive until I was 19. My parents knew the possibilities of getting stopped by a cop would hurt me.”

She says she told her friends, “My parents are really strict, and they don’t let me drive.”

When she went to an age-restricted movie, she would always try to get her ticket separately from her friends. “I didn’t have an ID. All I had was my Mexican ID. That was embarrassing.”

Last year, Obama used his presidential authority to grant undocumented immigrant students a status called “deferred action.” Cruz applied for the program and now has a Social Security number and a driver’s license. Her status has to be renewed every two years, though, and there’s no guarantee that whoever succeeds Obama in 2016 will continue the program.

When she explained her situation, she says, Manchester worked with her and arranged a scholarship. “Those people are great people,” Cruz said. “It’s people like that who make you feel you have a chance.”

But even for someone like Cruz, who’s studying to be an accountant and recently was married, the future under today’s law is murky.

“I want to work here,” she says. In fact, Cruz says, she wants to use her degree to help immigrants navigate the tax system.

The immigrant reform bill would take away the uncertainty and even the fear for so many. It would make this a better country for all of us to live in.

But if House Republicans don’t act on immigration this summer, the political timetable will make it quite hard for anything to be passed until at least 2017. Maybe until much later.

While the House dithers about how the far right will take it if the immigration bill passes, families are suffering, and even the best and brightest immigrants are being forced to put their futures on hold.

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