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U.S. Immigrants in Limbo Over Obama Immigrant Rules

9 Dec

When President Barack Obama outlined why he was letting as many as 4 million immigrants stay and work legally in this country last month, it sounded like he was talking about Arturo Hernandez.

Hernandez, 42, meets the criteria for Obama’s deportation relief. He has a daughter who was born here and is a U.S. citizen, a steady job and he has lived here without being convicted of crime since 1999. But the president’s administration is trying to deport Hernandez anyway.

The deportation case stems from an arrest and charges in 2010, of which he was later acquitted. Hernandez fought it for four years, hoping Obama would live up to his pledges to fix the country’s immigration system. When the president gave his White House address outlining the program, Hernandez and his family watched from the basement room of a church where he has been living for the past month to prevent immigration authorities from sending him back to Mexico.

He felt a flicker of hope, but one that was quickly dashed. His wife and non-citizen daughter qualify for deportation relief, but not him.

“It’s difficult, frustrating. I thought ‘the program is here, I’ve qualified,'” Hernandez said. His wife and daughters flew to Washington on Tuesday to plead for mercy.

The president’s order is the most sweeping in decades, allowing immigrants in the country at least five years with U.S. citizen children to stay. But a still unknown number of immigrants are going to fall through the cracks, immigration attorneys say, because they can’t prove they’ve been here long enough, their children only grew up here but were not born in the United States, or they, like Hernandez, are already in the deportation queue.

“Lines have to be drawn somewhere. There are always going to be people on the wrong side of the line,” Denver immigration attorney Mark Barr said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it will consider on a case-by-case basis people who, like Hernandez, would qualify for deportation relief under Obama’s program but are already in the process of being deported. They would not comment on Hernandez’s case, although officials have suggested that otherwise law-abiding people like him would be low priorities for deportation. That’s not enough to ease Hernandez’s worries.

Hernandez and his wife came to the United States on a legal visa with their 3-month-old daughter in 1999. They built a life in the suburbs around Denver, having a second girl who is a U.S. citizen. Hernandez worked at a construction firm, but in 2010, a co-worker complained that Hernandez assaulted him. Hernandez was arrested and found innocent after a trial, but not before immigration authorities were notified he was in the country illegally.

Hernandez said he hoped he could hang on until Obama carried out his longstanding promise to fix the immigration system and let people like him stay.

“They promised us for five or six years immigration reform and he is doing nothing,” Hernandez said. “Thousands of people are deported every year.”

In October, as Hernandez’s final deadline approached, he fled to the safety of a church, First Unitarian Society of Denver. Immigration policies don’t let agents enter a house of worship to deport someone unless they have committed a serious crime.

Hernandez has been living in a basement room ever since. A poster entitled, in English, “My Family,” drawn by his youngest daughter hangs on the wall, emblazoned with hearts and stick figures representing Hernandez, his wife and two daughters.

Three Democratic members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have asked immigration officials to back off while Hernandez appeals his case. They are asking federal authorities to at least wait until the Obama administration issues prosecutorial discretion guidelines that will take effect in January.

On Tuesday morning, Hernandez; his wife, Ana Sauzameda; and their two daughters, Mariana, 15 and Andrea, 9, embraced at the church before the trip to Washington. They will be joined by representatives of other immigrant families similarly turned asunder and seeking shelter in churches. “It’s hard because we’ve always been together, but at this moment we’re not together,” Sauzameda said.

The Rev. Anne Dunlap, who is traveling with the family and those of other immigrants seeking sanctuary from deportation in churches in other states, said several other of those immigrants would likely qualify for relief were they not already in the deportation queue. That’s a reflection of the complex, arbitrary nature of immigration cases, she said.

“For many families, it’s not just checking off the boxes and you’re good to go,” Dunlap said.