Before Jennifer Martinez leaves for one of her two jobs every day, she has to spend several minutes reassuring her four young children that she will be back.
They’re not sure they believe her. Their father left for work one day and never came home, after all. Now he’s just a voice on the telephone.
In the year since her father was deported to Mexico, Martinez’s outgoing 6-year-old daughter has become quiet and withdrawn, her mother said. The kids are “petrified” of police officers and any person in authority, she said, even though she and her children are U.S. citizens.
“It breaks my heart every single night to watch my kids say their prayers for their dad and pray that Obama lets their dad come home,” Martinez said.
Martinez and her children, who live in Manitowoc, Wis., are among millions of people in the United States whose lives could be changed if any of the immigration proposals put forward separately this week by President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators actually become law.
The proposals outlined by eight influential senators, including Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and those by President Obama, echo many of the same principles, such as creating a process where illegal immigrants could get in line for a green card – but in both proposals, that process could require a wait of many years.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of children who are U.S.-born citizens but whose parents are in the country without proper authorization totaled 4.5 million in 2010. An additional 1 million children were in the nation illegally in 2010.
While the total number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States is estimated at 11 million people, according to Pew’s analysis of census data, about 9 million people like Martinez live in “mixed-status” families.
Advocates for immigration reform have frequently pointed to the separation of families as a major problem in the current immigration system. Deportations have soared under the Obama administration, although the White House has said that its focus is only on deporting those illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.
Martinez doesn’t have faith in that policy, nor does she believe the rhetoric coming out of Washington now. She says she just wants some clarity on how to bring her husband back from Mexico, where he was deported despite, she says, never having committed a crime – a violation of Obama’s professed policy.
Broad lines of consensus appear to be emerging through public statements in Washington on the need to create a path to legal residency, and eventually citizenship, for the country’s undocumented immigrants. The exact conditions for such a pathway and the fate of such legislation in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives remain uncertain, however.
The proposals so far emphasize that undocumented immigrants would have to pay penalties and go to the back of the line behind legal immigrants when applying for residency, a prospect that worries Martinez. How long will her family have to wait to unite under these reforms, she wonders: 10 years? 15?
“We have faith in God. I don’t have faith in what the president has to say,” Martinez said. “What hope do I have when they already didn’t follow the policy they set in place?”
Martinez’s husband, Jaime, came to the United States illegally from Mexico as a child, she said. They married 16 years ago and had four children, the oldest of whom is 7. In 2000, the couple tried to apply for a green card for Jaime based on his status as her spouse, Martinez said.
But even for those who want to do the right thing, current immigration laws can be opaque and confusing. “We got a lawyer and did everything we were supposed to be doing,” Martinez said. They traveled from their home in Wisconsin to apply at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City as they had been advised, Martinez said. Instead, the embassy barred Jaime from the United States for 10 years.
“He wasn’t even allowed to apply,” Martinez said, adding that she recently found out that there was a government waiver that could have helped them at the time. “There are so many gray areas that somebody who doesn’t know the immigration process just believes what they’re told.”
The couple decided to return to the United States anyway, and resume their life in Wisconsin.
A year ago, government agents detained Jaime as he came out of his workplace. Some weeks later, he boarded a bus for Mexico as his children watched. A former stay-at-home mom, Martinez now works two jobs six days a week, as a receptionist and as a certified nurse assistant, often seeing her children for just an hour a day.
“My kids don’t have their dad and now essentially they don’t have their mom,” Martinez said, her voice heavy with tears. “I don’t understand how anybody can look at faces of these kids and think that because of failed government policy, it’s okay to split apart a family.”
Advocates for immigration reform expressed excitement at the momentum building on Capitol Hill, but remained cautious about the fate of any reform efforts in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“A roadmap to citizenship must be fair and without insurmountable barriers so that it will not take decades for immigrants to become full-fledged Americans,” said Kica Matos, the director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice for the advocacy organization Center for Community Change, in a prepared statement after the president’s speech Tuesday. “Latinos and immigrants spoke loud and clear during the 2012 elections and we will continue to harness our political power to get an immigration bill passed that includes citizenship and measures that keep families together in this country.”
Donna De La Cruz, a spokesperson for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a national alliance of immigrants-rights groups of which Matos’ organization is also a member, said predicting how the House would act was “a tough one.”
“I think it’s just a wait and see. We definitely think the GOP has to come around if they want to reach out to Latino and immigrant voters,” De La Cruz said. “We’re going to keep up the political pressure, though.”
This past Christmas, Martinez’s kids asked Santa for their dad, Martinez said.
All she wants is some answers from the government.
“I’m not asking for anything to be handed to me,” Martinez said. “At least let me know what I need to do in order to become a family again. There has to be a process set in place, black and white, that this, this, this, is what you need to do to become a citizen. No gray areas. There has to be a set process.”
Photo of Jennifer Martinez and her family courtesy of Jennifer Martinez.