Rene Rivas was about to be deported in the dark of night, at 4 a.m.
But that was last week.
Seven days later, on Monday, the undocumented immigrant was released from an immigration lock-up and allowed to work legally and live openly with his wife and children in Miami for a year.
The roller-coaster story of this 41-year-old construction worker from Durango, Mexico, is anything but common as Congress debates how to handle undocumented immigrants like Rivas.
“It’s rare,” said Rivas’ attorney, Elizabeth Amaran. “But it does happen.”
An essential ingredient: the involvement of U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson.
The Miami Democrat who sponsored a North Miami immigration forum with four other members of Congress last Monday when Rivas’ case was brought to her attention by his son, 18-year-old Carlos Rivas.
Carlos Rivas practically begged for help, telling lawmakers just after 9 p.m. that his dad was to be deported within seven hours.
The crowd gasped. Wilson’s office called Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The deportation was delayed.
The Rivas case was then reviewed. Rivas was allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.
Two of Rivas’s children are U.S. citizens, born here in the dozen years since the family took root in this country as undocumented immigrants. His two older children, including Carlos, qualify for legal temporary residency for educational reasons.
“It’s crazy. I can’t believe it,” said Carlos Rivas. “They gave him a whole year. But he still has to go back to Mexico. But in that year, we’re going to do as much as we can.”
Rene Rivas, who couldn’t be reached, has to wear an ankle-monitor, take drug tests, remain crime free and work. His son and his attorney said he’s ready to do all of that.
Rene Rivas was caught once before, returned to Mexico and then promptly came back to Miami in 2010, his family said. He was again caught two months ago.
The case, brought to light by the Florida Immigrant Coalition, was a bright spot in an otherwise dark chapter of the lives of many undocumented immigrants.
Up to 1,400 are deported on average everyday. Many don’t have a son who beseeches members of Congress at just the right time. Few make the news.
“The way you don’t get deported is to have your picture in the paper,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies and a self-described immigration “hardliner” who wants the borders more secure and illegal immigrants returned to their countries of origin.
“A sob story is a ticket to stay,” Krikorian said, faulting President Obama’s administration for staying deportations.
“The political strategy is to emphasize that they’re only deporting criminals,” he said. “They see the political need to appear tough.”
The deportations under Obama, at record highs, are a political must because Democrats use it to counter conservative criticism that the president isn’t doing enough to stop illegal immigration.
Also, the threat of deportations ensures that immigrant advocates on the political left more easily back immigration reforms they don’t like — as long as it stops mass removals of undocumented immigrants.
Both the U.S. Senate’s bill and a House proposal stop mass deportations for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. They also provide a pathway to citizenship, though the House bill has yet to be released.
The two sides are likely far apart politically, and the chances that immigration reform passes Congress are anyone’s guess.
The Rivas family hopes something gets done so that they can stay in the United States legally and intact.
Carlos Rivas, trying to attend Miami Dade College so he can eventually get a business degree, said his father and mother want to see their children prosper.
“In Mexico, there’s nothing for us — one pair of old shoes a year,” Carlos Rivas said. “My parents want something better for us. And I just want a chance.”