Nick Oza for Al Jazeera America

Families split by immigration status hope executive action brings unity

The Bernals, whose mother is in deportation proceedings, are one of 9 million mixed-status families in the US

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Mexican mother of four Norma Bernal was taking a stroll beside the dusty rail tracks that carve through this sprawling Phoenix suburb when she was stopped and questioned by local police.

Living in the country illegally and unable to provide identification, she panicked, gave a false name and was arrested on suspicion of trespassing on railroad property. Her U.S.-born daughter Julisa looked on, aghast.

“Because she gave a false name, they couldn’t pull up her records, and they were like, ‘You could be a felon … Someone could be looking for you right now.’ So they took her, and they asked us, ‘Do you guys want to watch us handcuff her?’” 16-year-old Julisa said of the Jan. 1 incident.

Norma, 36, a single parent, is in deportation proceedings at an immigration detention facility southeast of Phoenix. Julisa, a high school student, is raising her three younger siblings (all the children are U.S. citizens) with the help of several maternal aunts (three of whom have legal status) and her mother’s boyfriend, Isaiah Ybarra, an aircraft mechanic with three children of his own.

Bernal’s family is among millions across the United States with members with differing immigration status who are hopeful that action by President Barack Obama — which could come as early as this week, according to news reports — will finally end a life characterized by divisions and fraught with anxiety.

Obama’s actions will not provide a formal pathway to citizenship or permanent legal status but would remove fears of deportation and level the playing field for members of mixed-status families by giving unauthorized residents work permits and Social Security numbers. In some states, they will be able to get driver’s licenses and professional certificates, according to a report in The New York Times.

With the help of several aunts and her mother’s boyfriend, Julisa Avila, left, 16, takes care of her two brothers, Christopher, center, 10, and Alexis, 15, at their apartment in Avondale, Arizona. All the children were born in the U.S.
Nick Oza for Al Jazeera America

The Obama administration is said to be weighing the extension of legal reprieve to many of the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants before the end of the year, just as the White House did in 2012 with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which sheltered from deportation young immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children.

Anonymous officials quoted by The New York Times last week said the reprieve could benefit as many as 5 million people. Advocates expect Obama to protect undocumented immigrants with children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, and Julisa fervently hopes that any such action would reunite her and younger siblings Alexis, 15; Christopher, 10; and Mariana, 3, with their jailed mother.

“I hope he looks into it … because it sucks, having lived here, like, our whole, entire lives and still having to go through something like this, without having our mom or dad,” said Julisa, who struggles to balance her junior year at high school with cooking and washing for her siblings at an apartment where they live with Isaiah, also a U.S. citizen. Having her mom back “would be a really big relief,” she said.

Aspects of the Bernal family's situation are shared by at least 9 million people nationwide who researchers said are in mixed-status families, with at least one unauthorized adult and at least one U.S.-born child.

The family’s complicated saga began after Norma, who is from Jalisco state in western Mexico, slipped over the border about two decades ago with the help of a coyote, or guide. Julisa does not know the year her mom crossed or where.

Norma married and had four children but later divorced the children’s father, with whom the family has lost contact. She worked several jobs, most recently as an office cleaner in metro Phoenix. Julisa showed Al Jazeera a picture of her mom wearing a baseball cap, made up and smiling, together with a note she penned for Isaiah that set out her values: “Do what makes you happy. Be with who makes you smile. Laugh as much as you breathe. Love as long as you live.”

Alexis, 15, a hip-hop-loving high school sophomore, remembers Norma as a “really cool mom” who would take her kids to the park and the bowling alley and to eat out at Denny’s and IHOP. She would throw herself onto the couch to watch TV with them or play Super Mario on their PlayStation 3.

“It sucks, having lived here, like, our whole, entire lives and still having to go through something like this, without having our mom or dad,” said Julisa, who struggles to balance her junior year at high school with caring for her siblings. She said having her mom back “would be a really big relief.”
Nick Oza for Al Jazeera America

Last Thursday, as reports surfaced that Obama might take unilateral action, Christopher joined his siblings, aunts and a few dozen activists at a rally on the sidewalk opposite the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in downtown Phoenix. He cried hard as he read out a letter he sent to the director of detention, calling on him to release his mother.

“It said I need her back, I really miss her, we really need her, we love her, it's really hard for us to live without her — things like that,” he said brightly, sitting at the dining table in the family's apartment. He lives during the week with an aunt, Norma’s sister Sandra, but visits Julisa and Alexis for weekends at the apartment, where they live in Isaiah’s care.

Sunday is the day the family visits Norma at the Eloy Detention Center, a Corrections Corp. of America facility in the desert 60 miles southeast of Phoenix. Isaiah, 37, drives down with the children, for whom seeing their mother wearing beige prison garb in the visiting room is particularly painful.

“When I go see her, it gets me mad that she is in there ... [when] she could be out here with us. We're from here,” said Alexis. Leaving her at the end of the visit gets harder each time. “I hug her, but I can see in her eyes she misses us more and more each day.” 

Julisa, Alexis and Christopher all dream of making something of their lives. While differing on what they want to be — doctors, entrepreneurs, lawyers or high-paid construction workers — all said they want to succeed to take care of their mother.

“I want to get a really good job to support our mom. Buy her a house, maintain her and my brothers so we can live together,” said Julisa.

Republicans, who won control of both houses of Congress in a midterm election landslide earlier this month, strongly oppose any relief for the undocumented. While the extent and timing of any executive order remains unknown, Isaiah hopes Obama will act decisively and with humanity.

“Everybody has the power to do the right thing. As the leader of the free world … he is able to see what is going on, see the families that have been torn apart, what it's doing to the children,” Isaiah said, sitting in the apartment as several of his and Norma’s children romped on the couch. “Having her back would be perfect. Perfect.”

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