For five days, she carried the boy in her arms across the Mexican desert. With little or no food or water, the 17-year-old from Veracruz trudged to the border, evaded the authorities and made her way to North Carolina to be reunited with her husband.
In Sampson County, she picked potatoes, blueberries and cucumbers, her 5-year-old by her side, learning. Her husband left. Physically abused, she refused to call the police, fearful of being deported. Today, ill and nearing 50, she hopes for the best.
Now 27, her son, Luis Castro Martinez, supports her.
Three years ago, Martinez heard about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an initiative of the Obama administration that permitted unauthorized immigrants who had entered the country by the age of 16 and met other conditions to extend their stay in the U.S. and receive a work permit.
Qualifying for DACA, Martinez won a reprieve from deportation.
Now, other unauthorized immigrants hope to extend their stays as a result of last fall’s executive action that lifted the age cap on DACA and also opened the door for extended stays and work permits for qualifying parents of children who were citizens or lawful permanent residents at Nov. 20.
Both programs require applicants to pass criminal background checks and neither confers citizenship.
But, like the trek pursued by Martinez’s mother, the path forward may not be easy.
On April 17, a three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on an injunction issued by a Texas judge that froze last year’s actions as part of a challenge by a group of 26 states including North Carolina, which the Pew Research Center estimates has 350,000 unauthorized immigrants. At press time, the appeals court had not ruled on lifting the injunction.
The dust-up over executive action has set immigrants’ emotions on edge while thwarting progress on their applications.
Yet Martinez’s success in overcoming obstacles continues to provide them with hope.
Caring for his mother in 2012 and happening upon a television commercial from McKinney Immigration Law, Martinez knew what to do, but froze.
“It was frightening at first,” he recalled. But doing right by his mother finally drove him to see Jeff Widdison, a certified immigration law specialist at McKinney.
Before joining the firm’s Wilmington office, Widdison had worked for a variety of immigration courts. Earlier, the Utah native had spent two years on a church mission in Chile, where he became fluent in Spanish.
“Before that, I didn’t have a lot of Latin friends. I was forced to deal with other people and other cultures,” he reflected.
Working with Widdison on DACA, “All the negative things started going out the window,” Martinez said. By the time he learned that his application had been approved, he had shed 40 pounds’ worth of stress.
Martinez now works at a garment-cleaning business, pays taxes and looks after his mother. He’s also applied for renewal of his work permit.
Over the past six months, McKinney Immigration Law has screened about 1,000 applicants for eligibility under the DACA extension as well as the new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program, said Jeremy McKinney, a former defense attorney who founded the Greensboro-based firm that bears his name.
“Most” of his firm’s applicants will qualify under the programs, McKinney said. But their hopes have been tempered by fear, fees and a potential for fraud.
At an immigration open house hosted by McKinney’s firm in January, a group of 25 Latino construction workers, migrant laborers and family members stepped into the Burgaw Community House, shook off the morning chill, signed in and sat down to ponder their futures.
As McKinney and Widdison greeted their guests, Irene Silva Edwards scanned the room.
Edwards, executive director of El Puente (“The Bridge”), a local counseling center for Latinos,
recognized almost everyone.
“They’re afraid. They’re afraid of putting their names on anything,” the half-Colombian, half-Ecuadorian services coordinator said.
Some people wouldn’t be applying for DAPA or DACA despite the discount made to the firm’s fees, she said. “They don’t because of finances, and to me it’s really sad.”
On top of the $465 application fee, “We can’t go out there and charge our normal hourly rate for this program,” conceded Widdison.
Charging full price, he said, could drive would-be applicants into the hands of “notarios”, individuals who are considered the equivalent of a lawyer on the streets of Latin America but who are not qualified to practice law in the U.S. The American Bar Association has warned repeatedly that using notarios can lead to missed deadlines, erroneous applications or false claims.
Widdison said he must undo the work of notarios on a regular basis. “Sometimes impossible, sometimes irreparable,” is how he assesses the damage.
Documentation is another roadblock. Because seasonal farmhands don’t always leave a paper trail, it’s difficult to prove they were physically present in the country at a given time. Stay-at-home moms can use their child’s school or pediatric records to prove their whereabouts, Widdison said.
Those who come to him end up paying for services in a variety of ways – with rainy-day funds, with a credit card or through an extended family network. An in-state credit union’s loan program for DACA and DAPA has drawn tepid interest.
For those who complete the application process, the benefits outweigh the obstacles, the Wilmington attorney believes. “It’s a means to becoming economically stable,” he said.
But when Widdison heard of the injunction freezing pending applications, he decided to scrub plans for additional open houses. “I don’t think a lot of people would show up,” he said.
The injunction created “tons of confusion,” adds Helen Tarokic, Wilmington’s other certified immigration law specialist, whose firm quickly mailed explanatory notices and called clients.
While inquiries have slowed they have not stopped, she said, in part because of emotions within families.
“Maybe I handled a naturalization case for one person, and now he’s asking me to help his parents get DAPA because he has siblings who are still little and need their support,” Tarokic explained. “I keep seeing these people who truly lived in the shadows, and have no criminal record and cute kids and have been waiting 20 or 30 years for a reform that fits them, and once again, as close as we got, it’s been ripped away,” she said.
Like McKinney, Tarokic’s firm charges reduced fees.
As the courts start sorting out the future of immigration law, there is continued focus on the long-term impact of immigrants on North Carolina’s economy.
“Immigrants, generally speaking, are very driven people,” observed Luis Lobo, executive vice president and multicultural markets manager for BB&T Bank, which is hosting 27 DACA forums at universities around the Southeast, including a recent one at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Born in Costa Rica and brought to the U.S. by a father who wanted to serve in the military, Lobo thinks that “only the very motivated leave and give this nation economic oxygen.” He is a strong supporter of the courses in English being offered through El Puente and other nonprofits.
Alex Murillo, a Mexican immigrant who sells groceries, cell phones and sundries at Tienda Tropicana in Shallotte and who funded his 2009 start-up by cleaning houses, agrees that education is the key to advancement.
“The only way to break the chains is through education,” said Murillo, whose father used to make shoes out of tires back home. “You can lose everything, but you can never lose what’s in your mind.”
In 2012, immigrants comprised 7.7 percent of the state’s population, according to an April 2014 study from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Already, it stated, these foreigners have had a net positive impact on the state’s economy.
Comparing total consumer spending and tax contributions to the cost of essential services, $10 in revenue was generated for every $1 the state invested in immigrants in 2010, with $6 generated for every $1 invested among Hispanics, the study found.
But wage parity may take some time.
In the Cape Fear Region, where they now number around 5 percent, Latinos earn $6.80 an hour less than white workers and $2.60 less than African-Americans, says FOCUS, a sustainability group.
As an original DACA beneficiary, Widdison’s client, Luis Martinez, could proceed with his application for an extension of his stay in the U.S. and reauthorization of his work permit despite the tumult over executive action.
On April 14, three days before the appeals court hearing, Martinez walked into Widdison’s office, all smiles and waving a newly reauthorized work permit, ending the uncertainty that persists for others.