Immigration debate’s missing piece — immigrants
Debate in D.C. centers on issue’s nuts and bolts, not on real people, including Utahns, whose families are torn apart and who live in fear.
Published: June 24, 2013 12:00PM
Updated: December 7, 2013 11:34PM
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Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Maxima Uribe spends time at a park in Eagle Mountain with her kids Karina, 7, and Diego, 6, Aguilar recently. Her family was torn apart when her husband Jose was deported back to Mexico in November of 2010. He faces a 10 year ban on returning while his family faces struggles, including Karina's serious heart condition and medical expenses.

Máxima Uribe’s buoyant voice deflates, then falls apart remembering what her 6-year-old son, Diego, wants for Christmas.

“My little boy always wishes for his dad,” the Eagle Mountain mother of four manages to say. “For Christmas, that’s what he wanted — for his dad to be here.”

At every cardiologist visit, Uribe’s disabled 7-year-old daughter, Karina, whom doctors call the “miracle baby,” wishes the same thing — especially hoping to see him before her likely heart transplant.

Deported to Mexico in 2010, Uribe’s husband, José Aguilar, has contact with his wife and kids only by phone. They can’t afford Internet access to Skype. And Aguilar is too terrified to cross the border again.

When the couple filed residency papers for Aguilar, they learned his voluntary visits to Mexico years earlier carry the same penalty as deportation. He faces a 10-year ban — potentially 30 years — for multiple deportations.

“When they took him to take his fingerprints, he never came out of there,” says Uribe, a U.S. citizen, between sobs. “It’s like they took everything away from us.”

Such fractured families get little airtime in Washington, D.C., where the debate over comprehensive immigration reform has been overwhelmed with talk of drones patrolling the border and heavier financial penalties for the undocumented.

When Congress debates farm subsidies, lawmakers tell stories of farmers in need. When it debates student-loan legislation, members talk about the plight of low-income students. But few senators have devoted much time to discussing the millions of lives the immigration bill could change in profoundly personal ways. Those impacts have been drowned out in a race to toughen up the bill to attract Republican support before this week’s expected vote. And that has left some of the reform effort’s biggest champions disillusioned.

“There are plenty of ways to continue to punish immigrants in our country, and many of my colleagues are coming up with a long list of them,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the bill’s sponsors, tells The Salt Lake Tribune. “Ultimately, I believe these people need to be treated fairly, given a chance to register with our government, pay a fine, pay their taxes and ultimately become part of legalized America.”

Politics of the impersonal • If the Senate bill becomes law, José Aguilar would be able to reunite with the family that needs him desperately. It would eliminate the 10-year penalty for the previously deported, an idea supported by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a skeptic of the Senate approach to reform who believes that it encourages people to immigrate illegally.

The legislation would also wipe out the decades-long wait some foreigners face to obtain a visa. And it would quickly provide work permits to most of the people here illegally and allow them to eventually obtain citizenship if they want it badly enough.

White House officials call these provisions the “heart” of the bill, but the heart isn’t enough. Most Republicans and a fair number of Democrats won’t support this reform unless they believe it would stop future waves of illegal immigration and reorient the visa program to favor needed workers instead of wives and children and siblings.

Bill opponents argue those fixes should come first and be securely in place before anyone gains legal status — fearing the government would drag its feet on enforcement but plow straight ahead on a path to citizenship.

Immigrant groups are ready to compromise, just not that much, with activists insisting they don’t want a handout, just a chance to contribute. They hold regular rallies in front of the U.S. Capitol, and they packed meetings of the Judiciary Committee in May, hoping to remind politicians of the human impact.

The Rev. Eun-sang Lee, of Salt Lake City’s First United Methodist Church, came to the United States 35 years ago from South Korea and has advocated relentlessly for an easier path for future immigrants. He had a coveted seat before the Judiciary Committee when it approved the bill, but it didn’t feel like a victory to him.

Instead, Lee said he felt: “Sadness. People’s lives being debated as a political issue. That is difficult.”

He understood senators rejected ideas he considered benevolent to preserve a bipartisan deal — like one amendment that would allow people facing extreme hardships to bring their siblings here to help them — but he had a hard time accepting what he witnessed.

“I understand the political process, but that doesn’t make it right,” he says, advocating for a bill focused on the lives of unauthorized immigrants. “They should have no more fear of living under constant threat of deportation and family breakup. Give them a chance to contribute openly, a chance to fulfill their dreams.”

Lee might have found the debate and vote depressing, but a group of young Latinos with the Campaign for Citizenship was overjoyed. Applause turned to cheers and dueling chants of “Yes we can” and its Spanish equivalent, “Sí se puede.” They rushed the senators and took cellphone pictures with Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., treating them as celebrities.

Arely Cruz, 20, was one of them. She took three weeks off from her classes at Utah Valley University to keep up a constant presence. She prayed for the senators before each meeting began and for her family, herself and her community.

“Yes, it was hard,” she says. “They would talk about us like we were nothing, like we didn’t have faces, but it also taught me how much work we need to do in our community.”

Cruz is an undocumented student given a two-year reprieve by the Obama administration because she is under 31. She’s convinced that letting lawmakers “see our human side” would result in a new law that would give her permanent legal status.

‘A sense of hopelessness’ • An older generation of undocumented immigrants doesn’t share her youthful enthusiasm. These are people who watched promises go by the wayside after the last immigration overhaul under President Ronald Reagan in 1986. They also don’t qualify for deferred action like Cruz.

“There is definitely a sense of hopelessness,” says Diana Paredes, immigrant and integration coordinator for Communities United, a nonprofit that helps Latinos get health services and civic education.

Since January, Paredes has circulated a Utah petition for immigration reform, finding more cynicism than signatures. “Some of them laugh and say, ‘What good is this going to do?’ ”

Paredes says half the undocumented families she meets are unaware of the reform debate — too busy laboring in low-paying jobs and rearing kids. Many more think they can’t work or travel during the proposed 13-year wait for citizenship — restrictions that aren’t actually in the bill.

Harder still, kids in these families grow up without success stories to look up to, Paredes notes, creating yet another generation of immigrants discouraged about upward mobility. “It’s very crippling to the family economically.”

Families in fear • Domingo and Maritza González are happily married, own a home with their three kids in Kearns, and run a successful food truck. But they are running out of time.

Last fall, Domingo, who is undocumented, went to Mexico to visit his 92-year-old father, in the throes of three open-heart surgeries. “My brother called and said, ‘This is the last time you’ll be able to see Dad,’ ” he recalls.

Trying to return, Domingo was stopped at the border, placed for two months in an Arizona detention cell, and now, after paying a $2,500 bond, awaits a July hearing on deportation proceedings.

“I’m really, really scared they will take me back there because my nephew [last November] was kidnapped and killed,” he says, adding most of his earnings in Mexico get confiscated by crime bosses.

Domingo, now 49, has lived in the U.S. since his early 20s. He has traffic tickets but no criminal record, worked decades in construction before joining his wife’s catering business, and is devoted to his three children. Maritza, who fled El Salvador in 1992 under temporary protective status after a hurricane, also could earn permanent status under the reform bill.

“I hope they don’t want to deport because my situation is very bad if I go back,” Domingo says as the couple played with their kids in a park. “If they change the law, I’d have an opportunity.”

That is true of countless couples, says Salt Lake City immigration attorney Steve Lawrence, who has multiple clients facing the same fate.

“Most of these people are business owners; they mind themselves,” Lawrence says. “Sometimes they’ve gotten into a little bit of trouble, but it’s nothing bad. They’re not in gangs or anything. They’re forced to live apart for 10 years [under deportation rules.] If you have to wait 10 years, it’s almost like a death sentence.”

If the bill becomes law, Domingo could remain in Kearns with his family — and he could fly to Mexico to see his dad, who is hanging on with a mended heart.

A broken system • President Barack Obama made immigration reform the top priority of his second term, partly because of these kinds of dramatic personal stories growing out of a broken immigration system ignored for more than a generation by political leaders.

Politicians of all stripes often talk of removing people “from the shadows” and acting with compassion, but, as with every intractable problem, there are competing interests at play and political calculations to consider.

The drafters of the bill want to bolster border security and immigration checks by employers to make it less enticing to overstay a visa or slip into the country to find a job.

Employers, from tech companies to farms, demand access to new, reliable streams of labor, while unions fear the potential erosion of wages.

Immigrant groups want legalization, but they feared the politically toxic label of “amnesty.”

And there are people who want unauthorized immigrants to face serious punishment for violating the law.

The Senate seems poised to pass this complicated bill, negotiated by four Republicans and four Democrats, with a big majority, but it won’t become law without action by the Republican House — and that’s far from certain.

“A lot of the debate is being controlled by center-right politicians and by Republicans who are demanding concessions,” says Salt Lake City attorney and radio personality Mark Alvarez.

That includes Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Hatch says he’s prepared to support the bill if Democrats require undocumented immigrants to pay back taxes and wait for a total of 15 years before being eligible for federal health care subsidies.

The senator, who has not previously supported a pathway to citizenship, says he’s just trying to ensure these immigrants are treated like everyone else.

Alvarez bristles at all of the obstacles to citizenship, but he does so quietly.

“I know what I want is not possible in Washington,” he says, explaining why he is not fighting to make the path to citizenship easier and shorter. “I think President Obama is doing this as well. He’s staying out of the conversation because he knows his involvement in it could put at risk the passage of immigration reform.”

Supporters say reform would transform labor markets and the border with Mexico. Critics claim it would harm the middle class and attract more people to come by any means necessary.

In either case, the real legacy of the bill won’t be budgets or border fencing — it would be in the day-to-day lives of those with newly granted legal status or inside the homes of reunited immigrants.

Still seeking sanctuary • After fleeing a turbulent Mexico in 1988, Norma Klemz is still seeking sanctuary. She and her two kids bolted California and her abusive husband to start fresh in Montana, but soon after settled in Utah, where she found love.

Now married with a blended family of five kids, the Murray resident’s immigration status remains on administrative hold. But the indignities are constant.

A landlord labeled her family “pigs” — despite their tidy home — because of her brown skin. A clerk refused to swipe her debit card at Harmons, causing a scene while questioning her legal status. And she worries about driving — what if she is pulled over for a faulty taillight and profiled — or shopping amid aggressive police on the valley’s west side.

“It’s not an easy way to live,” Klemz says. “I consider the United States my country, but I know it’s not, because I’m not welcome.”

Steve Klemz, her husband and pastor at Salt Lake City’s Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, says Norma has incredible pride but no voice. “In every way you turn, you are not valued” if undocumented, Steve Klemz says. “Your human dignity is assaulted.”

Norma Klemz twice had a green card only to lose it each time under appeal. She cannot visit her dying mother in Mexico. And she has spent $15,000 and counting on her citizenship push.

“It’s every day, I think, ‘What if I’m going to get separated from my family,’ ” Norma Klemz says. “They see you as a piece of paper. They don’t see your life, they don’t see your story. They don’t see how you struggle.”

The immigration bill, the couple say, is “our only option.”

“It will make us feel like we’re somebody,” Norma Klemz says. “That we’re humans.”

Impact on immigrants

Path to citizenship • Under the Senate reform bill, it would take undocumented immigrants at least 13 years to obtain citizenship, but only about six months to get temporary legal status and the right to work. The government would call them “registered provisional immigrants,” a status they could renew every six years as long as they paid their taxes and a $1,000 fine, remained employed and didn’t run afoul of the law. After 10 years, they could apply for a green card and, three years after that, citizenship.

Dream act • The bill has a shorter path to citizenship — eight years — for the children of undocumented immigrants who entered the country before they were 16 years old and graduated from high school or received a GED. They must have been in the country before the end of 2011. The bill offers a similar fast track for agriculture workers.

Visa backlog • The proposal promises to eliminate the family reunification backlog that varies by country. In Mexico, it’s about 20 years and for those from China, it’s about seven years.