Immigration officials ordered Ana Cañenquez and four of her seven children in Utah to leave the United States by March 21. Then they scooted the date back to June 25. Now she has no specific date and remains here with tacit permission.
“They told me they are giving us time to save money to afford a home in El Salvador,” she says in Spanish. “We would have nothing there if we return now.”
Andrew Muñoz, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says the agency “is exercising prosecutorial discretion by not taking immediate action on her final order of removal,” but requires her to check in regularly with ICE.
It’s the kind of approach many immigrants hope to see more of as President Barack Obama promises to take executive action on immigration reform if Congress remains gridlocked on the issue.
That is, ICE choosing not to deport people — even when ordered — who are not major criminals, especially when removal would separate families.
“Many in the community hope the president will use more prosecutorial discretion,” says Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino de Utah. “It makes sense for ICE to focus on serious criminals rather than to separate families or target people who keep out of trouble here. That is a wiser use of resources.”
Ana’s story • In April, The Salt Lake Tribune featured the story of Cañenquez — and how she cried, lost sleep and prayed for a miracle to halt the ordered deportation/separation of her family that lives in northern Utah’s Garland.
She believes it would send four of her sons to their deaths at the hands of gangs in her native El Salvador, which they tried to escape by illegally immigrating here. Even if they survive, she said, “they still won’t have any life at all” in extreme poverty.
Cañenquez told how she decided to immigrate as she lived in a two-room shanty with six sons and an alcoholic spouse. She sold treats in a marketplace seven days a week to earn $6 a day, barely enough for food. Then one son died of malnutrition.
So she came without papers to America, hoping to better provide for the family she left behind and to save enough to pay off debts, buy a house in El Salvador and fund her children’s schooling. But she made less than hoped.
In time, she came to Utah and eventually moved in with Eusebio Granda, a farmworker from Mexico. They had two children of their own, now ages 8 and 6, who are U.S. citizens because they were born here. Cañenquez’s eldest son also came to America to help them.
In 2010, two of her sons in El Salvador were threatened either to join violent gangs or be killed. They were caught trying to enter America by the Border Patrol, but sent to live with Cañenquez while their case was appealed.
Meanwhile, her ex-spouse in El Salvador received a threat to the lives of her two remaining children unless a ransom was paid. She tried to smuggle them out, but they were apprehended in Mexico. She retrieved them and tried to bring them to America, but became lost in the desert and surrendered to the Border Patrol.
ICE allowed her also to return to Utah during appeals of the family’s cases.
Cañenquez says her partner from Mexico would have no permission to go with her to El Salvador, and she has no permission to go to Mexico. He and their two children — and her eldest son — plan to remain in the United States if she goes to El Salvador.
Status • Muñoz, with ICE, says the case of Cañenquez and the four sons caught by the Border Patrol “has been reviewed at multiple levels of the immigration court system and on each occasion, immigration judges ... have found she has no legal basis to remain in the United States.”
She was ordered to leave the country no later than March 21, “an order she is now in violation of,” he says. ICE later told her she must go by June 25. Now it has no firm date by which she must leave or forcibly be removed.
Muñoz says ICE is using “prosecutorial discretion” to delay her removal “to permit a reasonable amount of time for Ms. Cañenquez to save money in order to secure housing for her and her family in El Salvador. Until that time, she remains on an order of supervision, which requires her to check in” periodically.
He adds because Cañenquez and her sons were arrested at the border, that makes them “a priority for removal.”
“It’s very good that they have given me more time,” Cañenquez says, “but I don’t feel tranquil because I don’t know if they will suddenly say in one moment or another that now your time is up and you have to leave.”
She is grateful for every extra moment she has to spend with her family together and to try to save money for what lies ahead. “I am trying to enjoy my family a little, now that I have been given time.”
Obama • Cañenquez says that Obama provided hope this week when he said that because immigration reform has been blocked in Congress, he will take steps without lawmakers to fix as much of the system as he can on his own.
“The only thing I can’t do,” he said, “is stand by and do nothing.”
Obama did not spell out many specifics, other than to say more ICE agents may be transferred from the interior of the country to the borders and that he would seek to accelerate cases of unaccompanied minors who were arrested at the border.
But, Cañenquez says, “It gives us hope that he will do something,” and that her temporary reprieve could develop into something more.
Yapias says many immigrants hope that Obama may expand the sort of prosecutorial discretion shown to Cañenquez.
“We hope they will look at the threat posed by people on a case-by-case basis,” Yapias says, “and target criminals who have done truly bad things — but not those who maybe didn’t pay a traffic ticket, or whose families would be separated.”
Muñoz says ICE’s priorities already point in that general direction.
“ICE’s civil immigration enforcement priorities include the apprehension of criminal aliens and other immigration violators in the interior of the United States; and the detention and removal of individuals apprehended by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States.”