President Obama looks set to go big on immigration reform with executive orders that may shield millions of undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation, but 19-year-old Rosemary DeLeon is trying hard not to expect too much. “I don’t want to get my hopes up,” she said.
DeLeon’s parents, Eli and Claudia, undocumented immigrants from Guatemala living in Connecticut, are likely to be prime candidates for deportation relief under the executive actions Obama is expected to announce Thursday evening. Both have been in the United States for more than a decade, have snow-white criminal records (aside from illegal entry into the country) and have a 7-year-old son, Rosemary’s brother, who is a U.S. citizen.
They have several relatives (aunts, uncles, cousins) with legal status in the United States. They also hold jobs, Eli as a landscaper and Claudia as a babysitter, and pay taxes. Rosemary became eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program two years ago, which allowed her reprieve from deportation and a work permit.
But even on Wednesday evening, as news reports all pointed to a high likelihood that Obama would extend deportation relief that could radically change the DeLeons' circumstances, she was skeptical. “To be honest, I don’t think [Obama] is going to do anything,” she said. “I’m sure he doesn’t want the whole country hating him.”
The reaction isn’t out of the ordinary for the DeLeons, who have spent every day of their lives since arriving in the United States more than 10 years ago exercising intense caution. Eli and Claudia don’t own a car, drive without licenses or venture anywhere with a remote possibility of being checked by law enforcement. Even Rosemary, with DACA protection and a driver's permit, won’t drive alone to her job for fear of being stopped by police.
In Connecticut, where they live, a batch of recent laws has relaxed many of the restrictions that unauthorized immigrants face:
- Immigrants can now apply for driver's licenses, regardless of status.
- Undocumented students are allowed to pay the reduced in-state tuition at public colleges.
- Last year the state became the first in the country to pass legislation limiting law enforcement cooperation with the controversial federal Secure Communities program.
But these developments have done little to ease the fear that has been so pervasive in the DeLeons’ lives in the U.S. over the past decade. Eli hasn’t applied for a driver's license because it would reveal his immigration status. Even if he was technically allowed to drive, he fears that a traffic stop might alert police and potentially sweep him into the deportation net. The family still tries to avoid police officers as much as possible, even with laws prohibiting law enforcement from turning over people to immigration authorities unless they are convicted of serious crimes. “That just depends on what kind of cop you get,” Rosemary said.
Meanwhile, being undocumented (even with one child shielded from deportation and another child a U.S. citizen) has strained the family in nearly all facets of life, with only a sliver of options for where they can live, what jobs they can hold, where they can travel and what they can make of their futures. The constant financial squeeze has put her parents’ marriage on the rocks, Rosemary said.
“My dad tells me, ‘I can’t do it anymore. All I do is worry about money.’ He’s so stressed out, and even though it’s not right, he takes it out on the family,” she said. “You feel like you have your hands tied, and you can’t really move, you can’t really go anywhere, you can’t get a better job, you can’t be someone.”
Questions still swirl over what would happen if Eli or Claudia gets caught by authorities and sent back to Guatemala. The biggest concern is what would happen to Rosemary’s 7-year-old brother, Jerson. “We’ve talked about this -- whether I would be able to adopt him and take full custody of him or even get him his passport so he would be able to go and live with [my parents] legally. All of those things go into consideration,” she said.
Life in the U.S. has been so hard on Eli and Claudia that they have thought about returning to Guatemala. But the United States is home to Rosemary, who can barely recall her childhood in Guatemala now. And then there's Jerson: He “wouldn’t last a day” there, Rosemary said. “If he sees a fly, he starts crying.”
Even though Rosemary is shielded from deportation under DACA, the DeLeons are aware of the temporary nature of the protections. Any president who comes into office after Obama could potentially overturn his executive orders, putting the family back into limbo. If that happens, Rosemary has another last resort consideration: marrying her boyfriend of one and a half years. It’s not an option she’s eager to take.
“It sucks being told the only way you’re going to get to stay is to get married,” she said. “Why do I have to do that [to] get to [stay in] this place, to be someone? I’ve told my parents that I never want to be that person who marries for papers. I would never do that.” Her boyfriend has assured her that he wants to marry her eventually regardless of her status, but she still worries about how it would look to immigration authorities.
As a 9-year-old in 2004, it didn’t dawn on Rosemary that she was entering the U.S. illegally until she and her mother were already at the U.S.-Mexico border in Border Patrol custody. Eli had arrived in Connecticut four years earlier, fleeing a threat on his life in their hometown in Guatemala, and Rosemary and her mother left later to join him. They had taken a two-week journey through Mexico with a group of migrants, culminating in a mad dash into Texas in a freezing desert in the dead of night. Weeks later, after they were released and reunited with Eli, she realized her undocumented status meant she could never return to Guatemala to see the grandparents who had raised her, or the friends she never bid goodbye.
President Obama’s announcement of the DACA program in 2012 shone a shred of light on what Rosemary had always thought would be a bleak future. “When I was in ninth grade, I did so poorly in high school because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go to college. I thought: What’s the point of being in high school if I can’t do anything after? But as soon as I found out about [DACA], I was a little more hopeful that I could go to college and have a future,” she said.
But the legal landscape still hasn’t paved the way for the kind of future she wants for herself. DACA recipients can’t qualify for financial aid, and so Rosemary hasn’t applied to college, even though she desperately wants to go. She’s used her work authorization to get a job as a waitress. Meanwhile, getting a permit to travel back to Guatemala to see her grandparents is still pricey and requires lots of bureaucracy.
Deportation relief and work authorization for her parents would be transformative for her family, she said. Claudia would be able to get a second job, and Eli would no longer be tethered to seasonal landscaping work. He would be able to travel farther and take on a range of different types of jobs to fill the financial gaps, easing so much of the stress the family’s endured over the past 10 years.
But neither of her parents is hopeful about immigration reform that could change their futures. “They think everything’s going to stay the same,” Rosemary said.
“All the time, we get doors closed in our face and told no,” she said. “I want to be told yes.”