That’s what 30-year-old Miguel Morales says caught the attention of a police officer in Prince George’s County, a Maryland suburb near the nation’s capital.
He was charged with driving without a license after that 2010 encounter. For most people, that would probably mean a ticket.
The cost was steeper for Morales, a Guatemalan immigrant who had been living in country without papers since 2008. He was detained for 10 days, eventually released by federal immigration officials with an ankle bracelet to monitor his whereabouts.
Last Thursday, he was still wearing the bracelet and searching for a way to stay in the country legally. His three-year-old daughter, Valentina, lives a half an hour away with her mother. He visits her once a week and hopes they can all live together once he fixes his immigration status.
“Her mother can find another person, but [my daughter] won’t have the love of her father,” he said. “This is why I’ve fought to stay here, for her.”
Morales says he would like to visit his parents in Guatemala, but his immigration status makes it a difficult choice. (Credit: Ted Hesson)
After Morales spoke with Fusion last week, federal immigration officials informed him he would receive a six-month stay of deportation and that his ankle monitor would be removed.
That’s a short-term reprieve. But like millions of people living in the shadows, his future is still uncertain.
Undocumented immigrants are unlikely to get relief from Congress this year. Republicans in the House of Representatives haven’t taken up immigration reform, saying, as it stands, they can’t trust President Obama to enforce the law.
That’s put the focus on the president. Activists are increasingly calling on him to halt deportations and create an avenue for undocumented immigrants to live and work in the U.S. legally. One of his last allies among immigrant rights boosters, the National Council of La Raza’s Janet Murguía, is now calling the president “deporter-in-chief” and demanding he change his policies.
There’s a middle ground between deportations and blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants: The president could grant deportation relief to low-level offenders, non-criminals and family members of people already receiving a reprieve. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a longtime advocate for immigrants, recently suggested something along those lines.
That wouldn’t be a permanent solution for the millions of people living in the shadows, but, it’s the most viable route to a policy change this year.
“The reality is that our parents are not protected and we cannot live in a situation where our parents and our entire families continue to live in fear,” said Cristina Jiménez, the managing director of United We Dream, a grassroots immigrant rights organization. “I think that the community has just reached a point where people, they cannot live in this reality any more.”
President Obama has deported undocumented immigrants at a record pace during his time in office, and at some point this year, he’ll likely surpass two million removals since 2009. For some perspective, that’s roughly the same number of people deported between 1892 and 1997.
Immigrant communities are feeling the strain of the deportations, which can split apart families and have negative repercussions for American-born children. A 2011 report by the Applied Research Center found that at least 5,100 children were currently living in foster care because of a deported parent. Those statistics don’t include families where one parent is left struggling after the removal of a spouse.
Even while executing an average of 1,000 removals each day, though, the Obama administration has worked to refine its immigration enforcement.
In 2012, for example, the president announced a new program to provide deportation relief and work permits to qualifying undocumented young people. More than half a million people have been approved for that program so far.
Source: Migration Policy Institute
In addition, federal immigration agents have focused on higher priority cases in the past several years, concentrating their efforts on recent border-crossers and convicted criminals.
In the 2013 fiscal year, two-thirds of deportees were apprehended at the border. Of those being removed from the rest of the country, 82 percent had been convicted of a crime.
Gillian Christensen, a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said that the deportation statistics demonstrate the focus on more important cases.
“The numbers clearly show that ICE is focusing our resources on our enforcement priorities — convicted criminal aliens, recent border crossers, illegal-reentrants, etc.,” she said in a statement.
Still, roughly one in five of non-border deportations last year were of someone never convicted of a crime. And of “criminal alien removals” by ICE, 44 percent had only been convicted of a single misdemeanor.
Miguel Morales exists in the gray space of immigration policy. He committed a crime while living in the country illegally, but a relatively venial one: driving without a license.
Further highlighting the low-level nature of his offense, the law has changed since he was apprehended by federal immigration authorities years ago. Now undocumented immigrants in Maryland are eligible for driver’s licenses.
Morales displays his ankle bracelet, which he has worn for more than three years. He's scheduled to have it removed on Wednesday. (Credit: Ted Hesson)
Nevertheless, police in Prince George’s County arrested him and held him for 10 days until he was taken into custody by federal immigration officials, he said. Morales later filed a lawsuit against the county, claiming he was unlawfully detained. Last December, he received a $40,000 settlement.
His tenuous immigration status also affects his relationship with Sandra, the mother of his child, who is a legal resident. Morales isn’t entitled to live and work in the country legally, and if an immigration authorities decide he should be removed, he could be deported before the end of the summer.
“We’re planning to live together, but only after this problem goes away,” he said. “Because she doesn’t live alone, she lives with her family… Imagine we’re living here, they catch me again, she’s left here alone. So it’s better she stays there.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.