A 24-year-old hasn’t seen his parents in eight years after moving to Southampton illegally from Guatemala.
A legal permanent resident now living in Hampton Bays waited a decade for his wife and sons in Ecuador to join him here.
Current immigration law splinters families like theirs, according to supporters of reform like the bill the U.S. Senate approved last Thursday, which would blaze a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and expedite visas for spouses of permanent residents, among other things.
Now it’s up to the House of Representatives to tackle immigration reform, which advocates say would “reunify” families and critics predict would lead to “chains” of immigrating family members.
The man who immigrated from Ecuador—who, like the young man from Guatemala, requested anonymity—said Spanish-speaking families in particular are closely knit. “When we are together, we are happy, even if one of us doesn’t have a job,” said the Ecuadorian, who worked as a psychologist in his native country before spending years painting houses with his brothers and moving from state to state to earn a living in the United States.
In terms of weather, food and the economy, Ecuador was “like a paradise,” he said, but also dangerous, with gangs making threats against his family. “We were in jeopardy,” he said.
The young man from Guatemala, on the other hand, joined a cousin in crossing the border through Mexico so he could “work more” to allow his father, who has epilepsy, to “work less.” He continues to send money home between working as a landscaper, studying English and car repair, and earning a general equivalency diploma. “I still miss my parents, because I’m the only boy in the family,” said the 24-year-old, who stays in touch with his parents and four sisters using FaceTime, a feature of Apple smartphones that allows video calling.
Like him, an estimated one in five immigrants on Long Island is undocumented, according to Neighbors in Support of Immigrants, which is an organization based in Hampton Bays. There are about 100,000 undocumented immigrants from Westhampton Beach to Montauk and Riverhead to Orient Point—including migrant workers who tend crops or handle horses—and about 75,000 to 80,000 if migrant workers are excluded, according to Carlos Piovanetti, an attorney for Immigration Legal Services of Long Island.
The Brentwood-based organization expanded the hours of its satellite office in Water Mill on July 1. “We wanted to shrink, but we keep expanding. We want immigrants to integrate,” Mr. Piovanetti said.
Many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States live in fear of deportation. They may forgo basic expectations like the minimum wage, decent housing and protection under criminal and civil law to remain in “the shadows,” as the office of U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, a sponsor of the Senate bill, and many others have put it.
“Immigrants have a right to go to court, but they’re afraid,” said Mr. Piovanetti, who recently helped a group of local women whose wealthy South Fork client reneged on a negotiated fee after they had completed a large job.
Mr. Piovanetti said he believes the government has a perfect right to weed out illegal immigrants “with serious criminal issues,” but he added, “Deportation is worse than anything else that could happen.” The attorney noted, “People commit crimes and go to jail for one or two years.” In contrast, he said, if someone is deported, “your family does not know what’s going to happen to you.”
Daniel Hartnett of Sag Harbor, a social worker affiliated with East End schools, as well as a board member of Immigration Legal Services of Long Island, described a typical “blended family” in which the status of one member affects the others. “What immigration reform is going to do is going to ease the crazy legal burden that the immigration system puts on a family like this,” a family replicated on the East End and most likely throughout the country, he said.
In Mr. Hartnett’s hypothetical family, one member is a child born in this country and thus a citizen. One parent is a Green Card holder, a legal permanent resident with almost all the rights of a citizen who “can walk out the door and not worry about anything.” The other is undocumented, and thus cannot travel freely and has no Social Security number or driver’s license.
The parents might have come to this country for humanitarian or political reasons—Mr. Hartnett worked with one child who’d been kidnapped by a cartel in Colombia, for example. “There’s a lot of anxiety and worry and fear in a family like that,” he said of the blended household. “Sometimes there are children who worry if their parents are going to be home,” or a wife who told him, “My husband was arrested last night for making an illegal left turn, and I think he’s in immigration detention.”
The man from Ecuador described a similar experience involving his brother, who had a Green Card, and his brother’s girlfriend, an undocumented immigrant from Portugal who lived with the brother in Southampton and Miami as they consulted lawyers about how to legitimize her status. “They suffered a lot because she was not able to work,” the psychologist said. She was “scared and had to stay home.”
Mr. Hartnett said a permanent resident can petition to legalize the status of a spouse, but that the spouse may need to return to the country of origin to get the visa to return legitimately to the United States. “It’s not likely that they, say, go to the embassy at 10 o’clock on May 31. The wait might be six months, nine months or a year and a half,” he said. “So that individual in a sense in some ways has abandoned the family.”
Also in the blended family, the parents may have left two children in their native country while saving up money to bring them here. Raised by a grandparent or another relative, the children are teenagers by the time they arrive, having gone years without seeing their parents and never having met the youngest sibling.
The older children adjust to the new household and new school, play by the rules: learning English, studying hard, earning awards. They are stunned to discover, once they turn 16, that they can’t get a driver’s license, or, when they’re 18, that they are not eligible for college aid.
“We have a special concern about the children, many of whom were brought here quite young in their lives,” said Sylvia Baruch, who co-chairs Neighbors in Support of Immigrants along with Sister Mary Beth Moore of Centro Corazon de Maria, a mission serving Latinos that works out of St. Rosalie’s Church in Hampton Bays.
“And then there’s this threat that they could be sent home to a country they don’t know,” Ms. Baruch continued. “And when they graduate from our high schools and colleges, they can’t legally get a job or drive to the job, so that is another area of concern.”
Since last August, an Obama program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has granted temporary legal status to nearly 300,000 undocumented young people nationwide. Mr. Piovanetti said Immigration Legal Services of Long Island alone had processed about 500 applications since an executive order for the program went into effect.
Deferred action allows young undocumented immigrants to work and drive, and it protects them from deportation. Sister Mary Beth noted that the executive order will have to be renewed after two years, which questions the long-term security of young people who risked coming out from the shadows to apply. In addition, it is open only to a “very narrow group of youth,” the sister said. They have to have been younger than 16 years old when they came to this country, must have been here for at least five years, and must be under 30, among other restrictions.
The 24-year-old landscaper, for example, was already 16 when he crossed the border and thus is not be eligible.
“It’s really hard to find people that will help you and advise you how to start life in another country,” he said recently, explaining that there was no one to help him enroll in school, and that his first employer, a native citizen who paid him in cash, never explained that he should have had a tax ID.
For the past three years, working under a different employer, he has been paying taxes, which he reached for words to explain helps to prove “that you’re helping this country and not being, like, a charge for this country.”
The Ecuadorian psychologist also could have used better advice. An attorney told him not to marry while he was seeking a Green Card in 1998, creating a “nightmare” down the road when he tried to bring his family to this country. He traveled several times each year to Ecuador both to see them and to try to keep everyone’s status intact, including one son who’d been born here while his wife was in the United States on a tourist visa, and another born in Ecuador who has a Green Card and whose diapers the psychologist vividly remembers changing on airplane trips.
Upon the advice of a different lawyer, the psychologist and his wife, an accountant, finally were married in Ecuador in 2004. At the end of 2011, she got a call saying to get her paperwork together immediately. “They gave her, like, two weeks to come here,” her husband said, telling her, “If you don’t come here by that time, your husband will have to apply again.”
“Now, we are together with the family,” he said, adding that he and his wife intend to apply for citizenship. “To have the citizenship, that is giving the people a chance to be part of the community,” he said. Whether it’s Ecuador or the United States, he said, people will be at and on their best when they are treated as full-fledged members of a community.
“If they allow them to be here, they are going to grateful in the future,” he said.
The psychologist’s situation with his wife would have been different if the Senate bill just passed had been in effect. Under the bill, spouses and children of Green Card holders would be treated just like spouses and children of citizens, which means there would be no wait time to join their families here, according to Mr. Schumer’s office.
If the House were to approve immigration reform like the Senate’s—which at the moment is considered unlikely—many Southampton Town residents could embark on a path to citizenship, said Michael Anthony of Neighbors in Support of Immigrants and Organizing for America, which is pushing for reform.
“It’s a very arduous path,” Mr. Anthony said. “They would be getting provisional citizenship status. At the end of 13 years, they would eventually be able to become citizens, and, of course, they would be able to step forward, sort of come out of the shadows [and] become more a part of the community and all that entails.”
Mr. Anthony stressed that this was “not a free pass.” Undocumented residents would have to clear background checks, learn English and civics, prove that they’re gainfully employed and pay application fees, fines and any back taxes.
Many undocumented immigrants, like the young landscaper, not only pay property and sales taxes, but also have Federal Insurance Contribution Act accounts, Mr. Anthony said. “So they’re paying into Social Security and Medicare, although they cannot avail themselves of those services.”
“I think it’s fair to look for back taxes, but many immigrants have been paying all along and will be able to document that,” said Mr. Hartnett. Additionally, he said, if they can find their way to citizenship, “these are folks who are going to go fully on to our tax systems—taxpayers, licensed drivers with insured cars.”
U.S. Representative Tim Bishop said he has been a strong supporter of earned legalization, and most of the Senate bill’s provisions for all of his 11 years in office, during which time immigration reform has gathered an increasing amount of support. The congressman said he was certain that more than half of Long Islanders support a path to citizenship like that provided for in the Senate bill.
Mr. Bishop noted on Monday that Speaker John Boehner had called immigration reform like that approved by the Senate “dead on arrival” and a “nonstarter” as far as the House was concerned.
Even so, the congressman said he was “very hopeful that we can come to some common understanding in the House that will allow us to move forward on this.”
In the meantime, the 24-year-old landscaper hopes someday to find time to write a book and pursue his interests in music and computers. He would like to become a permanent resident, or a citizen, in part to be able to visit Ecuador to see his family.
“I thought it would be a really good opportunity to come to the U.S.,” said the young man, who made the decision to leave Guatemala at the suggestion of his cousin. “He knew my parents, he knew they struggle with that disease my dad has.
“I didn’t think twice,” the landscaper said. “I just said ‘yes.’”