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Those timeframes, outlined among dazzling legalese in State Department bulletins, tripped up Elizabeth and Marcos and their first lawyer, who hadn't realized that those visas are only available to people who have not crossed into the U.S. already. Ergo, Marcos returned to the back of the line to wait until 2020 with other previously deported immigrants. His is a fairly emblematic story of federal and immigration roadblocks. And as time went on, Marcos' dreams receded further from view.
"I want to see my family. Sometimes families, in these kinds of situations, they separate," Marcos says. "It's kind of hard to make it work like that." Four years in, he's calmer about his station in life these days. But knots of resentment don't fade easily.
At 35 with two kids and an exiled husband, Elizabeth is fiercely aware of the passage of time. When doctors removed part of her thyroid several years ago, they found cancer cells. The news came as a shock and added one more gut-wrenching stressor to the pile of life, the sort of thing that married couples would typically confront together in partnership.
But it might be the frightening, lingering possibility of doomed cells that can help her build a case to reunite her family. The Perezes are working on the application for a humanitarian visa, usually reserved for political refugees, as a long-shot attempt to bring Marcos home before 2020. As always, Elizabeth is hoping for good news.
The March 20, 2014, rally in Erie, Pa., was something proactive Elizabeth could do. After slipping into depression after her husband's 2012 visa application was denied, she'd connected with HOLA, a statewide grassroots advocacy group for Latino outreach. As she fought her personal battles, she'd committed herself to understanding the plight of immigrants and identifying real solutions for the people she was meeting. They were good people, after all, like Marcos.
Statistics published by the University of Arizona's National Center for Border Security and Immigration show that most men and women who illegally reenter the U.S. after an initial deportation are just like Marcos Perez: people with promise who contribute to society via taxed employment and community and family involvement.
Local immigration attorney David Leopold has a similar characterization of the vast majority of undocumented immigrants and the tenuous position they attempt to hold every single day.
"The real problem is not him," says Leopold. "He would comply with the law like millions of other people if he could. This is a guy who pays his taxes with an ITN number, you know; he doesn't have a social. He does what he can to comply with the law. The one thing he can't comply with is the immigration law. He can comply with the tax law, he can comply with the criminal law, he can comply with the law that says you gotta take care of your kids — and that's both a moral law and a regular law. He does all that, but he can't for the life of him comply with the immigration law because there's no way for him to do that."
Men like Marcos walk on increasingly thin ice, and one slip changes their world forever. And while each story is unique, Marcos Perez's ICE dossier reads familiarly. According to federal records, the biggest increases in deportations over the past five years involve people charged with nothing more severe than a traffic violation. The deportation rate for men and women in Marcos' shoes quadrupled over time once Obama took office in 2008. The president backs his policy, citing criminals in need of a swift kick out the door. Elizabeth refers to all of this as the "deportation machine."
"There are people who ought to be prosecuted, no question about it," Leopold says. "If some dangerous felon or drug dealer or some terrorist is deported and then reenters the U.S., that's what that law is for."
In 1992, there were 690 illegal reentry felony cases prosecuted in the U.S. In 2012, there were 19,463. The average prison sentence lasts two years, which often comes on top of yet more time lost to the quagmire of naturalization policy. Those stats don't even include men like Marcos, who aren't charged with any federal felony before they're flown to the nearest border.
There are families like the Perezes, with one undocumented parent, and there are families with two undocumented parents and there are families with some children who are U.S. citizens and some children who are not U.S. citizens. They each have their own circumstantial roadblocks to cross.
"They're all still here. Something has to give," Elizabeth says. Her voice takes on a frantic tone when she talks about other families in similar situations.
"You can't just keep deporting and separating all these families. It's going to have effects on their futures — our futures. Who knows? My sons, when they're teenagers, they're going to be angry. I already know this, because all teenagers are angry. But what are they going to be angry about? Are they going to be angry, like, 'Mom, why didn't you take us to Mexico?' Or are they going to be mad at my husband? 'Dad, why didn't you cross the border to come be with us?' They're not going to be happy. That really tears me apart when I think about that."
Elizabeth diverts her attention making popcorn in the microwave and doing what she can to calm Ignacio and Marcos. With that sort of limitless energy that only toddlers possess, they've been wrestling each other for an hour. In between suplexes, the kids pause now and then to watch La Casa de Mickey Mouse, which is blaring on the TV. Elizabeth watches on.***
"People hear things and that's how they justify what's happening," Elizabeth says.
Detailed truths don't sell newspapers. And the real story from the view of the people living this stuff doesn't make it onto TV. Broad brushstrokes and generic rhetoric fail to capture the nuances of each family.
"Then they think that the situation is not as bad, because they just believe what they hear and what everyone else says, even though it's not true. That makes them feel that — one — it's not as bad as it really is and — two — things are justified. Like, 'Why didn't they get papers this whole time since they've been here?' Well they can't get papers! What are you talking about? 'Oh, they just drain our system.' They're not allowed to get subsidies. They can't get food stamps. They can't get anything! What are you talking about? 'They take away from our social security.' They're not allowed to get social security! They don't get earned income tax credits, though they pay taxes with ITN numbers. They're paying into it that way."
She lands, near frenzied now, on a exasperated closing note: "Where are you getting all this information from?"
Cleveland political leaders and news outlets have historically pushed the immigrant issue off the table, and quite publicly too. What little coverage the matter picks up is either vitriol from the cartoonish Kevin O'Briens of the world or intimation that it's not the in city's interest to welcome outsiders ("I believe in taking care of your own," Mayor Frank Jackson famously said last year on the topic of immigrants in Cleveland).
"People hear things and that's how they justify what's happening," Elizabeth says. She leans back now, reasserts eye contact and admits: "I thought the same stuff before, though."
Before the yellow light and the white van and the border town and the night terrors. There's a pretty grim line of demarcation in her family's life — the sort of game-changing twist that no one really sees coming when they plan for the future. On one side of the line is a life steeped in sepia. On the other side, where Elizabeth and Marcos now find themselves, is one colored in grays.
"This is my country and I love the United States. I don't want to leave. This is my culture," Elizabeth says. "I don't want to ever say anything negative about my country. We have a process here to make things change. That's what sets us apart from a lot of places. We can make a change, and I feel like a change needs to be made. This is not right. It is not right that elected officials either turn a blind eye to it or they're just so uneducated about what's happening to people. As a veteran, I'm not happy with what's happening. But as an American, I say that we have the opportunity to change things."