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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.

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"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.

At a glance

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.

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‘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.

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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.

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