Ned Barnett

N.C.’s undocumented left in limbo

May 19 was to be a day of deliverance for Irma Ramos and her husband. The day came. Deliverance did not.

Ramos, 40, and her husband live in Raleigh. She is a stay-at-home mother of three. He is a construction worker. They’ve lived in the United States for almost 11 years and their youngest child was born here, but they’ve never lived here freely or without worry. They are undocumented immigrants. Neither can get driver’s licenses, they are blocked from work that requires proper documentation and they fear that an encounter with police could send them back to Mexico.

Those concerns were supposed to be eased by an executive order issued by President Obama in November granting as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants protection from deportation and eligibility for work permits. The order that would have brought Ramos and her husband out of the shadows was to take effect May 19. That hasn’t happened because 26 states, including North Carolina through Gov. Pat McCrory, are challenging Obama’s orders as unconstitutional despite clear precedents of previous presidents using such authority. Last week, a federal appeals court upheld a Texas judge’s stay blocking the program known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents.

“We feel so disappointed because we were waiting for a long time for that,” Ramos says.

Ramos said she did not want to come into the United States illegally, but she fled Mexico to join a sister in North Carolina as killings in her hometown of Ciudad Juarez rose, including the disappearance of hundreds of women later found murdered. “We came here because the city was so violent. They started disappearing women,” she says.

Now Ramos wants to stay in the United States, legally. “We want to be treated like human beings, not as second-class citizens,” she says. “We came here just to work and raise our family. Not to depend on anybody, not to take anybody’s job.”

Ramos’ son, Jorge, is 18. He obtained protected status under another Obama order in 2012. “It has been a drastic change opportunity-wise, but also emotionally,” he says. “It was literally life changing because so many things opened up to me.”

Jorge wishes more Americans appreciated how U.S. policies and the U.S. demand for illegal drugs have fueled the economic and social conditions that have forced many to leave their native land. He says solving the immigration impasse requires seeing the person behind the status.

He says, “People need to learn our stories and see us for who we are, human beings who are trying to make and contribute positive things to the world.”

Perhaps that understanding will come, but in the meantime there are a lawsuit and politics and millions of undocumented immigrants left living and hiding in limbo.

Women and children are being locked up in border detention centers for the crime of fleeing want and violence. Millions of others are trapped in a broken immigration system in which they cannot move about freely without fear of being arrested and deported and they cannot obtain a legal status.

“We talk to a lot of people who want to fix their status and there is no way for them to do it,” says Patrick Hatch, a Triangle immigration attorney. “In November there was jubilation that they were going to be able to come out of the shadows. Now they are going to stay in the shadows.”

There are an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States with a status that limits their movements, their prospects and their dreams. Deporting them all isn’t practical. Making them legal is.

In North Carolina, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that blocking Obama’s order will keep 114,000 of the state’s 342,000 undocumented immigrants from gaining protection from deportation and access to a work permit. Advocates for Hispanics in North Carolina have been seeking a meeting with the governor since December to discuss why he is opposed to the Obama order, but no meeting has been arranged.

The opposition to relief for the undocumented reflects a callousness toward struggling people. After the Republican-led House refused to pass a Senate-approved immigration law last year, Obama acted out of compassion. Now there’s a drive to block that action and leave millions of undocumented immigrants in limbo.

The hard line on immigration and immigrants is driven by xenophobia and hysteria about terrorists and criminals stealing into the United States. The opposition is dressed up, or course, as supporting the law, protecting American jobs and reducing a drain on government services. But if the integrity of the law were really the issue, the House would have passed a better law. Meanwhile, studies show that Hispanic immigrants contribute to the nation’s economy, their spending creates jobs and they often generate more in tax revenue than they get in services.

What should be happening isn’t a hard line on immigrants, but a softer one on immigration. Instead of fortifying the nation’s southern border, the United States should make it easier for immigrants to come and go under a legal status. That would reduce the motivation for illegal entry and better represent the ideals of a nation of immigrants.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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