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Published June 22 2012

Obama aims to stop deporting some young illegal immigrants, but locals still skeptical

MOORHEAD – Cindy Gomez-Schempp has seen friends and neighbors deported. She’s seen immigration officials round up workers from job sites and ship them out. She’s been in the back of a squad car for reasons she believes had everything to do with the color of her skin.

So when she hears about a new immigration policy trumpeted as magnanimous and welcoming, she isn’t exactly brimming with trust and hope.

“Immigration policies have already lied to us. Not just once – over and over again,” said Gomez-Schempp, a journalist and immigration activist. “It says nothing.”

The policy changes announced last week by the Obama administration are meant to halt deportation of certain immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. To be eligible, immigrants must have come here before age 16, be 30 or younger, have no criminal record and meet other requirements. People who qualify can apply for temporary work permits and deportation deferral.

Gomez-Schempp’s skepticism reflects a broader view in the local immigrant community that without comprehensive reform of the system, the changes are more election-year ploy than meaningful solution.

Fowzia Adde, executive director of the Immigrant Development Center in Moorhead, remembers past promises that such reforms were coming.

Former President George W. Bush “said he would get everyone a working permit,” she said. “I voted for him. Political people always use our name, use immigration. They don’t deliver.”

She acknowledged the new changes would do some good.

“It’s not a lot, but it’s good for mothers who sacrifice to bring their children to the land of opportunity,” she said. “This is children who were raised in America.”

But Adde said the current system stills rips families apart for doing nothing more than seeking a better life.

“The first reason why this family came to America is to have a better place to live,” she said. “If you take one person away from the families who are here when they are working hard to get their paperwork together, it’s not fair.”

The fear of police

Adde said many immigrants live in fear that any interaction with authorities – including reporting crimes – will get them deported.

Under the Obama administration, a record 397,000 people were deported last year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures.

About 45 percent of those had no criminal convictions.

Police officials in both Fargo and Moorhead say their departments don’t actively investigate immigration cases.

“We’re not going to go knock on that door and check immigration status,” said Fargo Lt. Joel Vettel.

When immigration issues do arise, he said, it’s usually in the course of identifying people detained for crimes. The department shares that information with immigration services.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger said the department does not enforce immigration issues, and typically does not get immigration services involved unless there are criminal charges.

“Our policies are real clear, and our officers understand: This is a civil matter, and we don’t enforce it,” he said.

He also said the department takes specific steps to protect illegal immigrants who come forward as victims of crimes and will help those immigrants secure special visas set aside from that purpose.

“Our entire policy is oriented toward not victimizing people who are vulnerable because of documentation,” he said.

‘What kind of people do you want?’

For people who are here illegally and eligible for visas under the new policy, the question of whether to speak up or lay low is still difficult to answer, said Snyder Gokey, a Fargo immigration lawyer.

He said he’s not yet sure whether he would advise clients to come forward if they haven’t already been found out.

“People will be putting themselves on lists, and there’s no assurance that Congress will act or will act favorably,” he said. “It’s very much a wait-and-see.”

He’s more certain about one thing: The current system provides no good options for people who are here illegally already to become legitimate residents. If they stay in the country, there’s no path to legal status. If they leave, they could have to wait a decade before returning, as a penalty under immigration law.

“We’ve set up a system where people can’t reasonably become legal, even though they’re dying to do so,” he said.

He said many families incorrectly assume factors like marriage to a U.S. citizen or having a citizen child will help their cause.

That was the case for Miguel Balderas and his wife Graciela. Miguel, a Texas native and a U.S. citizen, moved to Moorhead with his wife in 1988. She had come to the United States from Mexico on a visa a few years earlier and stayed after it expired.

For years, they tried to get her documents in order. A miscommunication and a missed hearing led to a deportation order against Graciela, but they thought it would work out.

“We were quite ignorant about immigration laws,” he said.

A decade ago, she was picked up for using false documents. The family spent $12,000 fighting the case, but lost. In 2009, Graciela was sent back to Mexico.

She tried to cross the border again. Again, she was caught, jailed for eight months in Texas, and sent back again. Her daughter, also named Graciela, was also deported, leaving Miguel to raise two grandchildren himself.

There’s no life for Miguel or his grandchildren in Mexico, he says. And under current law, his wife can’t return here for 20 years.

That’s not the kind of country America should aspire to be, he said.

“What kind of people do you want? The people who are willing to die to get into this country,” he said. “What will bring about change? When we decide to become human.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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