They don’t realize that a minor accident or traffic violation could get him deported to Mexico, where, after 20 years in the United States, he doesn’t know anyone and says he would “feel like an alien.”
By outward appearances Moreno, 39, is living the American Dream. After six years with an electrician company he made supervisor.
He works 50 to 60 hours a week and makes enough money that he bought a house where he lives with his wife and three children, 4, 11 and 14.
But because he doesn’t have a driver’s license Moreno must be careful on the roads.
“I have to drive more than 150 miles per day. So I know that if I have an accident or have contact with the police it’s going to be something that can affect my life and my family,” Moreno said.
“My kids don’t understand that, because they grew up here. They think we are citizens. Sometimes they ask, ‘Why can’t we go to different states? Why can’t we travel?’ And we have to explain to them that we can’t.”
Moreno said he doesn’t go near the Mexican border and the farthest he’ll take his family is north to Dallas. He keeps a keen eye out for drunk drivers.
“I’m afraid of drunk drivers,” he said. “Because sometimes when you’re driving and you know that somebody’s drunk, you better stop and go in a different direction. You try to avoid any danger. Anything.”
Moreno is one of the estimated millions of undocumented immigrants who would qualify for a program President Obama unveiled in November, to give parents of U.S. citizens the chance to apply for lawful status in the United States and federal work permits. Applicants would have to pass background checks and pay a $465 fee.
The legal status would be granted for renewable three-year terms. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was preparing to start taking applications in May.
That door was slammed shut by a federal judge in Brownsville, who blocked the program in February in response to a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott – now the governor – and joined by 25 other Republican-controlled states.
The states claim that Obama’s executive actions were an end-run around Congress, which they say has sole authority to change the nation’s immigration policies.
With frustration tangible in his voice, Moreno said he’s not sure why U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen issued an injunction against the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program.
“What I think is that they really don’t know what the real situation is. They never faced anything like that. They never had fear like we have. … They can go to other countries without problems. It’s a totally different situation between them and us. So if we ask them to understand … I really don’t understand what is happening,” he said.
Moreno said the United States seems to have a double standard when it comes to helping people of other countries affected by disasters, and the undocumented people living here.
“They try to help other countries when something happens like tsunamis or wars, or anything. They try to help. They send money. They send the Army. But the people who stay here, the people who build houses, they don’t care about us. It’s a bad political situation.”
Many opponents of immigration claim that undocumented people use bogus Social Security numbers to get jobs.
But people who can’t get a Social Security number can pay taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number issued by the IRS.
“ITINs are issued regardless of immigration status,” the IRS says. “IRS issues ITINs to help individuals comply with the U.S. tax laws, and to provide a means to efficiently process and account for tax returns and payments for those not eligible for Social Security numbers. An ITIN does not authorize work in the U.S. or provide eligibility for Social Security benefits or the Earned Income Tax Credit.”
Moreno pays taxes with an ITIN. So does Sergio Garcia, a 39-year-old Mexican national who has lived in the United States for 27 years.
Garcia, an air-conditioning technician, works more than 10 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, when Houston’s blazing summer heat increases demand for his services. Garcia’s name has been changed for this article, as has Moreno’s.
Garcia would qualify for the other prong of the immigration policy changes Obama announced in November. Modified Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which expands on a program the Obama administration introduced in 2012. It allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to apply for legal status. The 2014 version removed certain eligibility limits to the original program.
Hanen’s injunction blocked modified DACA as well.
Garcia said if he could speak to Hanen he would tell him this: “Wake up already! This is not about politics, but the welfare of many decent hardworking people with family ties to the U.S.”
Garcia said, “It does not seem fair that we are allowed to obtain an ITIN number to pay taxes on the work we do illegally, but at the same time we are not allowed to obtain a Social Security number that allows us to obtain a driver’s license.”
DACA and DAPA rely on prosecutorial discretion, by which policymakers and law enforcement prioritize which immigrants should be deported in the face of limited resources.
Many longtime undocumented residents, such as Moreno and Garcia, qualify for other, longstanding forms of legalized status, immigration attorneys said. But only a tiny percentage of people who could qualify for suspension of deportation and legalization seek those benefits, because few know about them, immigration attorneys can be expensive, and entering the process requires identifying oneself, and one’s address, to the immigration service.
Nelly Medina got something better than lawful status under a law Congress passed in 1986 and President Ronald Reagan signed. She became a lawful permanent resident and got her green card. Six years later she was granted U.S. citizenship after passing a civics test.
Medina, a Honduras native, said she doesn’t think Obama’s actions go far enough because many immigrants do not qualify for it.
Medina has two cleaning jobs and works 13 hour days, five days a week.
While catching her breath from vacuuming an office building, she said: “I know people who have two or three jobs because they are making the minimum wage. They want to make a better life and they are working so hard, no problems, respecting everything, and they don’t get in trouble, but they don’t qualify because they don’t have any kids born in this country.”
Medina, 57, does not subscribe to the view that it’s rude to ask a woman her age.
“You know, I’m proud of my age. Let me tell you why. Because as an immigrant in this country, I have to work so hard. I worked at the chemical plants, and I worked sometimes Monday to Monday 12 to 14 hours a day to raise my four girls.
“And I’m so thankful with the Lord and with this country because I mean, yes, we have opportunities. We have opportunities; if we want opportunities, we got it.”
University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas said the new programs are not as good for immigrants as the bill Reagan signed because they offer no pathway to permanent residency.
For perspective on the partisan gridlock that has prevented Congress from passing immigration reform, it helps to look back, said Georgetown University history professor Katie Benton-Cohen.
“The major differences between 1986 and today is that geographically the locations where Mexican immigrants, who are the majority of undocumented immigrants, live has vastly expanded and it’s now much more nationally dispersed than it was in 1986, and so the political calculus is different. And there was no Fox News in 1986,” she said.
The associate professor said that throughout history in this country, until the past decade, bipartisan constituencies favored immigration reform.
“It’s not an issue that until recently cut across partisan lines. So in a way we’re kind of in a new space rather than the same old same old, which I think is unfortunate.”
In another sense, Benton-Cohen said, the resistance from some congressmen to immigration reform follows historical trends.
“The executive branch, the president, has nearly always favored more flexible immigration policy than Congress, and it doesn’t matter Republican or Democrat, because the executive branch is concerned about foreign policy and diplomacy, getting along with other countries who are our neighbors and allies,” she said.
“Congress tends to be more focused on the domestic impact of immigration as a general trend historically. So in that sense what we’re seeing is historically typical.”
She noted that President George W. Bush, a Republican, was proposing immigration policy reform with Mexican President Vicente Fox in the early days of his presidency before those plans were scrapped by 9/11.
Moreno and Garcia and the millions of undocumented migrants who could qualify for legal status are in a holding pattern, waiting for a ruling from a federal appellate court.
The 5th Circuit in New Orleans will hear arguments Friday on the federal government’s emergency motion to lift Hanen’s injunction.
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