Nick Ut / AP

Immigrant families in limbo and on edge ahead of hearing

Oral arguments begin Friday in appeal of temporary injunction blocking Deferred Action for Parents of Americans

SAN FRANCISCO — It is the one major hope for at least temporary relief from the threat of deportation that immigrants like William Ortiz face daily: President Obama's executive order providing temporary stay of deportation and a work permit.

“Getting it would be super extraordinary for me,” said the 31-year-old curtain maker in Castro Valley, California, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador in 2006. “It would mean a clean slate, like being reborn.”

However Ortiz is among an estimated 3.7 million immigrants in legal limbo after the President's Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program was held up in February by a Texas judge who issued a temporary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by 26 states.

Known as DAPA, the program provides relief to immigrants living in the country illegally who have U.S.-born children, demonstrate strong ties to the U.S., have no criminal record, and meet other criteria. Ortiz, who is in deportation proceedings, and his wife are both eligible. 

The administration appealed the injunction blocking DAPA, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hold a hearing on the appeal, with oral arguments set for Friday. Resolving the appeal may take months.

“We will wait for the legal process to take its course — for now,” said Erika Andiola, an Arizona-based immigration activist and co-director of the Dream Action Coalition. “But if nothing gets resolved until next year, in 2016, it’s going to make it really difficult to simply wait.”

For Rick Swartz, a lawyer whose Strategic Solutions Washington consulting firm has provided pro-bono advice to many of the leading groups that pressured Obama to secure DAPA, Andiola and other advocates are navigating uncharted political terrain. 

“The Democrats and Republicans have nothing to offer immigrants — except more deportations,” said Swartz, who is also the founder and former president of the National Immigration Forum. In the absence of a resolution, Swartz and others talk about the possibility of a “third way” of solutions to the immigration crisis separate from those offered up by either party.

And while Swartz and others blame the DAPA gridlock on what they consider the recalcitrant right wing of the Republican party, other immigration advocates reserve special scorn for Obama and the Democrats.

“We feel tricked and manipulated,” said Adelina Nichols, who leads the Atlanta-based Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. She said that while the movement forced the President to enact DAPA, the administration knew there would be a lawsuit leaving people at risk and provided no solutions. “And the risk is from Obama and ICE themselves,” said Nichols.

‘Getting it would be super-extraordinary for me ... It would mean a clean slate, like being reborn.’

William Ortiz

immigrated from El Salvador in 2006

Nichols and others have seen indicators of the 43 percent decrease in deportations nationwide in the last five months, but remain incensed that among those being deported are thousands who have no criminal record beyond their immigration violation and are not supposed to be a priority. Such deportations, say Nichols and other activists, continue the pattern documented in numerous reports of deporting people caught by local police for minor infractions like having a broken taillight or a barking dog.

“They say their priority is to “deport criminals,” says Nichols, whose organization has stepped up protests as part of the national #Not1more campaign to end deportations, “but we are still seeing lots of people come to our offices every single day telling us that ICE raided their home for an old DUI offense or some other excuse.”

Gloria Villatoro, a 33-year-old Mennonite pastor in Iowa City, Iowa, said her life changed after ICE agents rushed into her house on March 3 at 6:30 a.m. and handcuffed and arrested her husband Max, also a pastor. Her four children, Villatoro said, heard Max yell “Gloria!” before the agents whisked him away.

Max's case became a cause among immigrant rights groups following the March 1 launch of operation “Cross Check,” which according to ICE officials was a  “five-day nationwide operation targeting convicted criminal aliens subject to removal from the United States.” Max, who now lives in Honduras, was picked up for a DUI conviction in 1998 and for buying a fake Social Security card — a record-tampering charge to which he pled guilty in 1999.

Villatoro said her husband’s good standing in the community inspired hundreds to protest in several cities and 25,000 more to sign a petition demanding his release — to no avail.

She said the deportation has impacted their children’s mood, anxiety and studies. “My 15-year-old [son] is asking me, ‘Mom, will I have to quit high school and get a job?’ My kids are no longer enjoying life like young people are supposed to,” she said.

Immigration lawyers interviewed by Al Jazeera America said it’s uncertain if Max Villatoro will be able to return to the U.S. even if the injunction on DAPA is lifted. If there is no legal way to bring him back, Gloria says she and the children — all born and raised in Iowa — will move to Honduras because “keeping the family together is most important.”

But her hope has not yet been exhausted. Villatoro was formerly in the U.S. without papers herself, and qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program Obama announced in 2012 that offers temporary deportation relief for students who entered the U.S. as young children. DAPA was supposed to help the millions who, like Max Villatoro, did not qualify for DACA.

“I have no choice but to continue,” Villatoro said of her efforts both to bring her husband back to the U.S. and to raise her children. “I simply have to trust in God.”

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