Gainesville resident Ariela, a trained doctor, wife and mother of seven children, is facing deportation to Mexico because she was caught driving without a driver’s license.
Ariela, her husband Hugo and three of their children fled to the U.S. in 2004 to escape masked gunmen who broke into their home in Guerrero, Mexico, stealing money, jewelry and medication. They said the men held them hostage for two days and threatened to kill them if they went to the police.
The family has lived in Gainesville for nine years, performs charity volunteer work and sends their kids to local schools.
The Times has agreed to protect the identity of the couple by not using their full names.
“We pray everyday to God, but we feel that at any time immigration can come,” Hugo said.
President’s Barack Obama’s immigration reform proposals and bipartisan frameworks being developed in Congress have given illegal immigrants hope that they can become legal residents and have a pathway to citizenship.
None of the ideas proposed are particularly new, but the sense of bipartisan politics will fix what many call a broken immigration system. No bill has yet been introduced in Congress and it’s unclear what impact possible federal reforms may have on Georgians and Georgia’s tough immigration enforcement law.
“The unauthorized always live in fear,” said Jeffrey Tapia, executive director of Latin American Association in Atlanta.
In Mexico, Hugo was a doctor and a teacher. Ariela worked as a doctor at the health department. They also had a private office and pharmacy.
When the break-in happened, they had tourist visas to visit the United States. The immigration permit allowed them to visit the U.S. for no more than six months at a time. The visa, which was valid for 10 years, expires in November.
Illegal in Gainesville, Hugo was not able to work in his field of expertise and had to take manual labor jobs in construction.
“That was a real bad change for me and I felt very bad because I always thought ‘Why would I be doing this type of job when I’m well educated to do something bigger,’” he said. “My wife doesn’t know this, but I had a lot of problems within me trying to help me accept that I had to do this type of job that was not really what I wanted to do.”
A bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators has put together a framework, but a lot of details remain. The plan would reform the immigration system while enhancing efforts to prevent illegal immigration and making sure foreigners return home, even temporarily, when their visas expire. One of the eight, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he hopes to pass a bill in late spring or early summer.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said he is waiting to see what kind of bill comes from the various proposals. He said the federal government has to look at enforcement, illegality and legal immigration.
“We start hearings on Tuesday and it’ll be interesting to see what happens then,” he said.
In 2010, Ariela was driving from picking up one of her daughters from school when she was rear-ended. She begged the other driver not to call the police, she said.
Georgia’s immigration law, passed in 2011, allows local and state law enforcement officers to verify immigrant status of someone they suspect of a crime. Georgia law also allows police to detain and jail people found to be in the country illegally.
“I was afraid that once I would be taken into custody, I wouldn’t see my children anymore,” Ariela said. “They would just deport me and I wouldn’t see my children anymore.”
She was held until the family could show that she had gall bladder surgery scheduled.
Attorney Arturo Corso, a partner in the Gainesville-based law firm of Corso, Kennedy & Campbell LLP, said he hopes federal reforms would convert people from hiding in the shadows or crossing the street to avoid being questioned about their legal status to showing their “papers” with a sense of pride.
“They will be happy to comply because they will actually have something to show,” Corso said.
Ariela applied for asylum and was denied in August. Hugo said the request was denied because the judge couldn’t read the documents that were in Spanish. They appealed twice and were denied both times.
They are still trying to stop her deportation through the legal system. Hugo said they hope to one day have legal status, to drive and to feel free.
“To continue with our professions because right now that I’m volunteering for the (health) clinic, I feel that I can be beneficial to the community,” Ariela said. “In the deportation process, at any time they can come take you away.”
Obama’s immigration proposal has a number of reforms based on key principals that include continuing to strengthen boarder security, cracking down on employers that hire illegal workers, allowing people to earn their citizenship and streamlining the legal immigration process.
The president calls for some changes that could help the family, such as creating a provisional legal status that would require immigrants to register, pass background checks, pay fees and penalties.
Other pathways include earned citizenship for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by going to school or serving in the military and streamlining immigration law to better address humanitarian concerns, including protecting victims of violence or domestic abuse and eliminating restrictions that prevent qualified people from seeking asylum.
Last year, Obama halted the deportation of illegal immigrants younger than 30 who were brought to the U.S. before age 16 and are considered to present no risk to national security or public safety. That move may help Hugo and Ariela’s eldest daughter.
Georgia has a Hispanic population of nearly one million, about 9 percent of the more than 9.6 million residents, according to the Pew Hispanic Center and 2010 Census data.
Yet State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he believes it may take years to see federal reform enacted.
“I don’t really set my timetable by the federal government,” he said.
Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote last November and 67 percent in 2008. GOP campaign professionals say Republicans are dooming themselves if they don’t show a more welcoming face to the fast-growing segment of U.S. voters.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.