Wednesday, May 16, 2012
A San Diego track star is one of several thousand undocumented immigrants to benefit from a new government policy that lets them avoid deportation. But the reprieve leaves them in a kind of legal limbo.
Talking with 19-year-old Ayded Reyes, it’s hard to imagine a young woman more classically American. Her sentences are spiced with a healthy dose of that favored word, “like.”
But Reyes isn’t technically American and some things about her and her life aren’t at all normal.
She’s one of a few thousand undocumented immigrants to benefit from a new government policy that lets them avoid deportation. However, it leaves them in a kind of legal limbo.
The lanky, attractive Reyes is one of California’s top-ranked community college athletes. She’s captain of her track and field team at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, and a B+ student.
She recently won first place in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Southern California Community College Championships.
But last fall, she was just a split second away from being deported to Mexico.
Reyes and her boyfriend were sitting in his car at night at a park when a San Diego police officer shined a flashlight on them. He said it was past park curfew hours and asked them for identification.
When Reyes offered up various school ID cards, the cop refused to accept them and pressed her for her social security number. She finally confessed she didn't have one.
Soon after, immigration authorities showed up and took Reyes away. Once in detention, she says immigration officers pressed her to sign a document consenting to immediate deportation. Reyes recounted the conversation.
“And I was like, ‘but I don’t want to be deported,’" she said. "And he’s like, ‘well, why don’t you want to go to your country?’ And I’m like, ‘because that’s not my country. I was raised here. I was born there but I don’t know a single city, I don’t know what’s over there.’”
The officer told her she’d likely get sent back anyway and suggested she just sign the paper, wait 10 years, and then come back.
“And that’s when I was like, ‘I don’t have 10 years. I have a race next week on Thursday,’” she said.
After several days in detention, Reyes was released in time to lead her cross-country team to a regional championship title.
Soon after, she won an even bigger victory: her deportation case was closed.
Reyes was allowed to stay here under a policy announced by the Obama administration last year dubbed “prosecutorial discretion.” It directs immigration officials to focus on prosecuting and deporting serious criminals and those who have repeatedly violated immigration law.
People like Reyes — who have strong ties to the community, or who have been living in the U.S. since they were young children — will have their deportation cases reviewed, and possibly closed.
Some analysts say the prosecutorial discretion policy is one of several ways the Obama administration is trying to work around Congress on thorny immigration issues.
“(They’ve) recognized that they’re not going to get comprehensive immigration reform passed by this Congress and probably not the next Congress,” said Wayne Cornelius, co-director of the Center of Expertise on Migration and Health at UC San Diego.
He also suspects Obama is pandering to both sides of the political equation in this election year.
“They're still promising to deport roughly 400,000 people a year. So how do you make that policy more politically palatable, particularly to Latino organizations, immigrants’ rights advocacy groups, to rank and file voters within the Democratic party base? You make it more palatable by focusing the attention of the system on criminal aliens,” Cornelius said.
Implementation of the policy has had a slow and somewhat rocky start. Of the some 300,000 undocumented immigrants with deportation cases pending, just a tiny fraction — 1.2 percent — has had their cases closed, according to data from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
That percentage could, however, grow, as many cases are still pending.
Some lawyers and observers note little consistency across the country in how the policy is being implemented. And some ICE agents have been resistant to training for the new system.
Undocumented immigrants who have had their cases dropped, like Reyes, are grateful. But their legal status doesn’t change.
A case closed under prosecutorial discretion does nothing to improve a beneficiary’s chances of getting a work permit, noted Jacob Sapochnick, a San Diego-based immigration attorney who represented Reyes after she was detained.
“Once they get the case closed temporarily, what will they do? They basically have nothing,” he said. “They fall in the same situation like they were before.”
So Reyes still can’t legally work. She can’t get a driver’s license. She can’t apply for federal loans for school.
All she has is a piece of paper from immigration authorities saying she’s already been through the system, and her case is temporarily closed.
She takes that paper with her everywhere.
“It makes me feel more safe,” Reyes said. “But not completely safe because I still don’t know what’s going to happen. Because what about later on? The laws change, or, you know, and that paper’s going to be nothing.”
For now, Reyes is concentrating on running. She’s competing for the state title in long distance this month. And she’s preparing for a future in this country.
She desperately wants to become a citizen but has few options for getting there. Her best chance might be a private bill introduced by San Diego Congressman Bob Filner, which would grant her permanent residence and put her on a path to citizenship. But such bills rarely get through Congress.
If Reyes somehow finds her way to a U.S. passport, her track coach, Tonie Campbell, who’s a former Olympian, thinks you might just see Reyes running in Rio in 2016 — in a red, white and blue uniform.