As immigration reform was dying on Capitol Hill, a 6 a.m. knock on Jose Castillo’s door delivered reality in the bluntest terms.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers awoke the 47-year-old father of two and owner of a construction business in Orlando on a Sunday in September, picking him up on a deportation order from two decades ago. Castillo, who has lived in the United States since he was 14, was detained for nearly seven weeks. He has been granted a one-year stay but still faces deportation to Mexico.
Speaking of Congress, Castillo says: “I was hoping they would really do something so I don’t have to worry.”
More than 11 million undocumented residents across the country (about 740,000 in Florida) — two-thirds of whom have been in the country a decade or longer — are grappling with the effects of legislative paralysis.
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Hopes rose in June when the Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill, which would dramatically increase border security while bringing immigrants into the open.
But those hopes were deflated as the months went on and the House remained a sticking point. The once intense focus on immigration has been replaced by battles over the budget and health care.
The human costs of inaction continue to build: Hundreds of thousands of people are deported annually — some 150,000 since the Senate bill was passed — the very people the bill would have legalized and put on a path to citizenship.
Countless others fear they will be next.
“You see people just trying to come here and work and find a better life,” said David Castillo, 22 and a U.S. citizen. “It can just all be taken away from you no matter how much you helped the country out. My dad provides people with jobs. He’s a taxpayer. He contributes more than he takes away.”
Across town, Martha Rosales fears her undocumented mother could be deported, as her father was in 2008. “Whenever she leaves for work or the store, she might not come back. It’s a horrible feeling,” said Rosales, who was carried across the border with Mexico when she was 2.
Rosales, 21, attained legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Barack Obama began in 2012. That too is temporary; legislation to grant the youth permanent protection has been stalled for years and is part of the Senate bill.
“If another president decides to take it out, where are we going to stand?” Rosales said. “I feel safer, but what about my mom? What about the parents of every dreamer or every dreamer that was left out?” Dreamer refers to the Dream Act, failed legislation that Obama addressed through deferred action.
In Miami, Julio Calderon is left out. Deferred action applies to people who arrived in the United States before they were 16. Calderon came from Honduras a month after his 16th birthday. Now 24, his fear of deportation is mixed with a more pressing concern. He does not qualify for in-state tuition and cannot afford to enroll full time at Florida International University, where he wants to major in economics and political science.
“It makes me really, really mad,” Calderon said. “I’m missing all these opportunities because I was here a month late.”
His family is a mishmash of immigrant status: A younger sister is a citizen because she was born here, a younger brother is legal under deferred action and his twin brother is also undocumented.
“I’m in limbo,” Calderon said.
Lobbying to no avail
Increasingly frustrated, immigration reform activists are confronting lawmakers in the hallways, going door-to-door in their districts and paying for ads. They have fasted and staged civil disobedience leading to arrest. Groups of conservative business and faith leaders have descended on Capitol Hill to press the case. On Wednesday, Obama met with faith leaders, including evangelical pastor Joel Hunter of the Northland Church in Orlando.
That same day, however, House Speaker John Boehner flatly said the House would not negotiate on the Senate bill and instead focus on a piecemeal approach. Dozens of activists are expected to make another run on the Capitol next week, sharing stories of families torn apart by deportations.
“I’m disappointed in all of them, Democrats and Republicans,” said Rosales, who traveled to Washington this month as part of her volunteer work with the faith-based organizing group PICO United Florida. “But it gives me more energy because we have to keep fighting for this.”
Prospects for reform have always been tough in the House. Many conservatives scoff at the Senate proposal as too vast and as amnesty, despite the penalties and hoops it made undocumented residents go through. Citizenship would take 13 years, for instance. There were bipartisan House talks but they fell apart amid policy disagreements. Several individual bills, mainly dealing with security, have been approved by committee but nothing has made it to the full chamber for a vote.
The personal stories gain sympathy in the House but a sense of law and order prevails.
“Many people came here illegally, and you have to face the consequences of your action,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who in June dropped out of the bipartisan group. “Our primary concern is to fix this system so that we don’t have this problem again, so that we don’t have another 10 to 15 million in the future that are in those same circumstances.”
Meanwhile, deportations continue, with a record 409,849 in 2012. About 55 percent of those immigrants had been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Under Obama’s watch, nearly 2 million people have been expelled.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is focused on smart and effective immigration enforcement, which prioritizes the removal of convicted criminal aliens, threats to national security, recent border crossers, illegal re-entrants and immigration fugitives,” said Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Immigrants are angry with Obama for continuing the deportations, though defenders point to new security programs and technology since Sept. 11, 2001. There are calls for the president to act administratively to legalize the broader immigration population as he did for the youth, a proposition that is unlikely as it would be politically explosive. Those calls continued even as the Department of Homeland Security on Friday took another step in announcing family of military members would not be deported.
Americans largely think undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria should be allowed to stay — 71 percent, according to a June Pew Research Center survey.
“When the economy was humming, everyone turned a blind eye to the undocumented workforce. We were all complicit in taking advantage of that cheap labor. Now the immigrant has become the scapegoat,” said Noel Castellanos of the Christian Community Development Association. “Everyone seems to know that the system is broken. It’s never easy, but it’s so frustrating it can’t be fixed.”
Powerful sentiment remains among opponents who see the plans before Congress as amnesty. They prefer the broad view.
“You can empathize with one individual,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants more enforcement. “But the fact of the matter is we have probably 12 million people here and that does have a real impact on the lives of everybody else.”
Detained for deportation
Two days after ICE officers showed up at Jose Castillo’s door in Orlando, 2,100 miles away in Mesa, Ariz., Raul Leon was getting his own jolt of news.
He had been fighting deportation since being pulled over in a routine traffic stop in 2008 but had lost his case. He now has one year before he must leave the country unless something changes.
“Right now it seems like they don’t want to do anything. They should have compassion, but I don’t think they are having it,” he said.
Leon arrived in the United States when he was 16 — he’s now 38 — and worked washing cars and dishes, sending money to his parents in Jalisco, Mexico. He went to night school to learn English, got a GED and now works as a landscaper.
Now, facing a deadline, he has had to tell his 10-year-old son, Raul Eduardo, who was born in the United States, that he may have to go. “He wants to be with me,” Leon said, “so if I leave, he has to leave.”
“We’re really praying for something to pass the Congress.”