PHILADELPHIA – For Sara Navarro, being undocumented used to feel a lot like being hunted.
That changed in 2012, with the implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gave temporary protection to certain immigrants who were brought here illegally by their parents before age 16.
“It definitely feels different,” said Navarro, who was 11 when she emigrated from Honduras to Pennsylvania. “Now, we don’t have to watch our backs. We can live with our parents, and they can’t deport us.”
But it was a bittersweet victory. While Navarro, now 23, and her younger sister, Raquel, were lucky, their four older siblings were not. They had all missed the DACA deadline, one by less than a year.
Navarro’s family is one big, messy example of the lucky and the unlucky, the documented and the undocumented. The siblings, parents, grandchildren and spouses represent a pastiche of at least five immigration statuses, ranging from citizenship to temporary protected status, undocumented-and-under-the-radar and direct violation of deportation orders.
While Washington focuses on the politics of comprehensive immigration reform, Navarro’s family is a study of struggle in the system.
The story began in the Honduran countryside. As subsistence farmers and small-time shopkeepers, her parents lacked the money to send their children to school. So the couple left their six children, ages 2 to 14, with family and paid $3,000 to be led across the Mexican border in 1994.
“[My husband and I] were going to come to the U.S. for just two years, save some money, and go home,” said Maria Turcios, 52, speaking through an interpreter at the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an interfaith immigrant rights group. But earning just $3.50 per hour as a seamstress, she could not pay back the $3,000 after two years, so they didn’t leave.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras, leaving millions homeless. For Turcios and her husband, a machine operator, it was a chance to formalize their status through temporary protection offered to immigrants who are in the United States during such catastrophes in their home countries. They renew that status every 18 months and pay income taxes.
“Returning seemed impossible,” Turcios said. So, in 2002, she and her husband decided to send for her children to have them smuggled across the border for a better life. Over time, many from Turcios’ extended family would make the journey.
Long ride, then a long walk
Daughter Navarro remembers long bus rides, then a long walk through the cold desert. Most of her siblings entered undetected, but one of her sisters traveling separately was not so fortunate. She and her husband were stopped at the border, triggering the family’s first contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
When the husband skipped their immigration court date a few years later, ICE agents came to the Turcioses’ house looking for him.
“They couldn’t find him, but they took my uncle and my two brothers-in-law,” Navarro said. All three were put into deportation proceedings. “That’s when my parents told us we couldn’t tell anybody we were undocumented, because we would get in trouble.”
For about eight years after that, Navarro lived in fear. The uncle was deported. Her brothers-in-law had children here. One brother-in-law stayed in violation of the deportation order. The other left and re-entered the country illegally.
The rest of the family moved, and then moved again, trying to stay ahead of ICE. Soon, Navarro’s sister, too, received a notice saying she was to be deported. “She actually decided she was going to go to the immigration office, but she had two kids here,” Navarro said. “She decided not to go. So we moved again. At that point, we thought someone was following us, so we moved again.”
Everyone in the family vividly remembers a dark car following them down the street as they went looking for a new place to live, the same car passing their friends’ houses, their sister’s house. They split up; some stayed in a convent, others with friends.
Navarro felt hopeless because she had no way of correcting her status. She considered dropping out of school. She could not tell what was real and what was paranoia.
“I didn’t decide to come here, and many times I wished I hadn’t come, because of all the pressure and the feeling of having no freedom at all and not being able to go anywhere or have the same future as the rest of my friends, or go to the same schools — having to work twice as hard just to go to a two-year college,” she said.
Then came DACA — and possibilities. Now, Navarro is attending Community College of Philadelphia, and working to pay her way, since DACA recipients cannot receive financial aid or student loans. She is learning to drive. She is making plans to join a convent. And she is determined that whatever happens with DACA — which is only a temporary program — she won’t go back to living in fear.
For her brother and sisters, who lack DACA, the paranoia persists. Her sister still has a standing deportation order; the rest are still undocumented — even those who have married U.S. citizens.
Turcios’ eight grandchildren, all U.S. citizens, are painfully aware of the situation.
“Paola, one of my grandchildren, keeps saying, ‘If I was president, I would do this, and I would do that,’ ” Turcios said.
Lucy Florentino, 16, a U.S. citizen and the stepdaughter of one of Navarro’s sisters, worries about her stepmother, who could also face deportation.
The worst case would be for her entire family to leave the U.S. at this critical time for her. “If I leave the country because of that, I’m going to lose part of my education,” Florentino said. She says she wants to become a doctor or a lawyer, or join the military.
Turcios said she is grateful for her temporary protected status, but she wants more for her family.
“Thinking about the politics, with the president and Senate and the House of Representatives, it seems like for them that immigration reform is a game,” she said. “In the years I’ve been here, I’ve come to love the United States. I’ve worked here and survived here. It seems that the politicians don’t love the United States. They’ve created such a divided country.”