McHenry County family shares immigration status uncertainty under DAPA

For 17 years, Manuel and Maria have been living a life in the shadows.

At work they have one name. At home, with their children, they're called something else. Always looking over their shoulder. Watching out for police. Leery of contact with government officials.

Manuel and Maria, both in the U.S. without proper documentation, said they feel they're at risk of deportation every time they leave their McHenry County home.

They join an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants who welcome and could be eligible for temporary protection from deportation and could be eligible for a work permit under President Barack Obama's latest executive action on immigration.

The president's program, known as DAPA or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, faces legislative challenges but could go into effect in May.

DAPA allows parents of U.S. citizens who have lived in the country for more than five years and pass a background check to apply for a three-year temporary work permit.

A recent study by the Migration Policy Institute estimates there are 225,000 individuals in the Chicago-area — including Cook, Lake, Will and Kane counties — who could be eligible for the under a pair of deferred action programs. Estimates for McHenry County were not available.

Maria and Manuel are not the McHenry County couple's real names. The Northwest Herald granted the couple anonymity to tell their story, and agreed not to provide specific details about their residence or employment. The interview was translated by Carlos Acosta, a Latino advocate and former leader of the McHenry County Latino Coalition.

The couple said they came here more than a decade ago for a better life. Married young, they had a small, sick child. Juan (also not his real name) had digestion problems, and he needed special baby formula, a can of which lasted two days and cost 100 pesos. Working 48 hours a week, Manuel was lucky to bring home 500 pesos.

"There's work, but they pay you almost nothing," Manuel said through the translator. "There's no real chance in Mexico to get ahead."

In Manuel and Maria's household, the family runs the gamut of statuses. There's 16-year-old Juan, a high schooler, who was eligible for a work permit, under an earlier deferred action program for those who came to the country as young children. The couple also have two young daughters who are U.S. citizens.

Mixed status families such as these are common, said Rockford-based immigration attorney Sara Dady.

"That's a big misconception," she said. "Most undocumented [people] are not living here in isolation. They're part of a family group with U.S. citizens and green card holders, and often they are caught in the wheel of a very broken immigration system. They either had no way to apply for green card status, or immigration laws are so harsh it would disqualify them from applying for a green card in the future."

While DAPA was equally lauded by activists and immigration attorneys, Dady says it doesn't go far enough.

"DAPA does not provide real legal status, nor does it provide a road to a green card or real citizenship," Dady said. "It is simply protection from being deported for three years and eligibility for work authorization.

"This is not a replacement for complete immigration reform, which only Congress can pass."

But there is still strong opposition to DAPA from Republicans and others.

U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Winfield, is sponsoring legislation seeking to block funding that would allow the president to act on his executive order.

“The president must not reward and encourage unlawful entry at the expense of those who have patiently waited years in line to lawfully pursue the American dream and citizenship," Hultgren said in a statement. "The American people sent us to Washington to take action and stop the president’s overreach — we must act now."

Although Congress and the Obama administration have failed to enact meaningful immigration reform over several years, Hultgren said Congress should take the lead and that some are willing to work with the president.

“I continue to believe that Congress should take the lead on immigration reform by securing our borders, improving the visa system and addressing the many layers of our broken system," Hultgren said.

Manuel and Maria said they hope to see a day that immigration laws are truly revamped.

"The truth is I've been here 17 years but I don't count. I don't exist," Manuel said.

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