As Immigration Battle Rages on, Appleton Native Longs to Return from Exile
Thursday, December 04, 2014 4:55 AM
On November 20, when President Obama announced his controversial executive order to shield 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, the decision marked another milestone in America's long, tumultuous relationship with immigration. Opponents of Obama's order argue that it violates the rule of law and rewards those who broke the law. But supporters point out that the U.S. was founded as a nation of immigrants and it's impossible to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants who do some of the toughest and dirtiest, indispensable jobs in the country. In his remarks, the president emphasized the importance of keeping "mixed status" families together, as the order would prevent the undocumented parents of legal U.S. citizens and legal resident children from being deported.
At the Sommo home in Appleton (from right to left): John Sommo, Jean Geslin, Lucy Sommo, Anna Sommo, Jose Carlos Berdeja Cortez, Priscila Berdeja Cortez, and Shubham Bodke (Jose Carlos’ visiting classmate). Missing: Elizabeth, David, and younger brother Ethan. (Photo by Andy O’Brien)
"Over the past few years, I have seen the determination of immigrant fathers who worked two or three jobs without taking a dime from the government, and at risk any moment of losing it all, just to build a better life for their kids," said the president. "I've seen the heartbreak and anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken away from them just because they didn't have the right papers.... These people - our neighbors, our classmates, our friends - they did not come here in search of a free ride or an easy life. They came to work, and study, and serve in our military, and above all, contribute to America's success."
The Debate Hits Home
Back in Maine, as the Sommo family sat down for an early Thanksgiving dinner at the family home in Appleton, the topic of immigration was never far from their minds. After growing up in the area, the four Sommo children went out into the world and, in some ways, brought the world back to Maine. Lucy married Jean, a Frenchman, and Elizabeth married David, a farmer and migrant laborer from Mexico. This past Thanksgiving, the family was joined by Elizabeth's stepchildren Jose Carlos, 18, and Priscila, 15, who are now legal U.S. residents and studying at private schools in Maine. Jose Carlos, who is a junior at Hebron Academy, says he intends to stay in the U.S. and apply for citizenship in five years. He says what he likes about the U.S. is that in Mexico career success depends not on personal merit, but rather "palanca" (slang for "lever"), which is the personal influence of someone in high levels of business or government.
"You don't get there by your intelligence or how much you know," said Jose Carlos. "You just talk to your contact, and he's going to get you in that job. It's better here because I can earn it by myself."
As a guitarist and singer in the school's a capella group, Jose Carlos says he plans to apply to music school next year.
Priscila, who is taking a semester at Coastal Studies for Girls in Freeport, says she hopes to become a vet or a doctor. At a time when drug cartels and government corruption have embroiled Mexico in crime, violence and protests, Priscila says she particularly loves Maine for its peace and quality of life.
"You don't leave your door or your car locked because no one is afraid somebody is going to steal it," she said.
But the hardest part of living in Maine is being separated from their father David, who is still barred from entering the U.S. after illegally crossing the border several years ago to find work and support his young children.
"I guess there has to be a punishment, but 10 years? C'mon," said Jose Carlos. "He didn't do anything wrong here. He paid taxes. He didn't do any harm to anyone. He left his house and worked his job."
David was working as a laborer in Oregon when he met Elizabeth, but he had to return home shortly after to take care of his three children, who had been left by their mother with relatives. After a few years of Elizabeth traveling back and forth to Mexico, the couple finally decided to marry. They moved to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, near the border with Texas, so Elizabeth would be able to get a job in her field working across the border in the U.S. while the family waited for David's immigration ban to be lifted. The couple has filed their I-130 Petition for an Alien Relative form, which is the first step in the process. But even though David would technically be eligible for a waiver in August 2015, that doesn't mean immigration officials will grant him one.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 slaps a 10-year ban from re-entering the U.S. on any immigrants who have illegally stayed here for over a year, but officials are still often hesitant to allow re-entry when bans expire. Even for immigrant spouses without a black mark on their record, the U.S. immigration process is notoriously long, costly and confusing. Elizabeth has since spoken to four immigration lawyers who have all given her the same advice."They all said wait the 10 years and then find the best lawyer you can," said Elizabeth. "It's going to cost a boatload of money, and there's a very slim chance that you're going to get the waiver that you need."
According to the group American Families United (AFU), there are hundreds of thousands of Americans like Elizabeth who are married to undocumented foreign spouses and have either been forced to move abroad, endure the hardship of separation, or live in constant fear that their spouses will be discovered and deported from the U.S.
No Help from Executive Order
Although Obama's executive order temporarily protects about 48 percent of undocumented immigrants from deportation, specifically those with children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, it does nothing to assist couples like David and Elizabeth who are obeying the law in exile. Following the president's decision, AFU, which is comprised primarily of U.S. citizen spouses who are married to undocumented immigrants, expressed frustration that immigration policy would continue to punish U.S. citizen spouses whose only crime is loving someone who has committed an immigration violation in the past.
"It is untenable that as U.S. citizens they would not be treated at least as favorably as others in the president's brave effort to relieve the suffering of families torn apart," wrote the organization in a statement.
Under the proposed Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, a provision would give judges and consular officials more discretion in considering cases like Elizabeth and David's. AFU is also lobbying for the bipartisan HR3431, "The American Families United Act," a stand-alone bill submitted last year that sets out a similar policy. However, the website GovTrack estimates that the bill has a 14-percent chance of even making it out of committee and a 2-percent chance of being enacted. After this most recent election, the prospect of immigration reform passing a Republican-controlled Congress appears even dimmer.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell likened the president's executive order to "waving a red flag in front of a bull" and vowed retaliation. House Speaker John Boehner said the president was "poisoning the well." Even Sen. Angus King, a supporter of immigration liberalization, criticized the president's order, arguing that it could end up causing a "backlash in public opinion and solidifying Republican opposition." Other members of Maine's Congressional delegation, including Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, remain supportive of immigration reform. However, incoming Congressman Bruce Poliquin campaigned on his adamant opposition to "amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants living in America." On Wednesday, the AP reported that Governor LePage has joined a 17-state coalition led by Texas to sue the Obama administration over the executive order.
Not one to miss a chance to blast the president, LePage was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as calling the executive order "very shameful." He argued others shouldn't be given a break since he says he spent 11 years and $80,000 to secure a green card under current immigration regulations for Devon Raymond Jr., a 29-year-old Jamaican man, who the governor often refers to as his "adopted son."
"I should have just told [Raymond] to go to Mexico and jump the fence," said LePage, according to the WSJ.
But according to Elizabeth's experience, legal immigration has become so incredibly complex and expensive that only the rich can afford to legally immigrate, even though the country continues to rely on a low-wage immigrant workforce for farm and domestic work. Although she says her dream would be to return with David and the family to Maine, the first step is to get out of Mexico to a more safe and secure environment with better educational opportunities for the children.
Currently, she is in the process of applying for an ancestral visa for Italy, which would allow both her and David to legally reside in the European Union. She is also applying for a Ph.D program in Canada, which, unlike the U.S., allows Ph.D. candidates a path to legal residency. In the meantime, she holds out hope that Congress will recognize the plight of families like hers and allow the whole family to finally be reunited in Maine.
"Maine kids are going to keep going out into the world and then wanting to bring the world back to Maine so they can see how great it is," she said. "We can't let Maine lose its welcoming spirit."