Caroline Bortolleto has a job, a driver’s license, and a college degree in biology.
She has come a long way since two years ago, when all of that was a dream that constantly collided with the reality faced by her and the rest of her family-undocumented immigrants who came to the United States from Brazil in 1998.
“I always knew I was undocumented, but I saw myself as a regular student,” Bortolleto says. “It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to see my limitations. I had to lie to my friends. I couldn’t get a job, a driver’s license, or a scholarship.”
But she saw it earlier than that-whenever her mother, Ana Maria, was driving her around and police were nearby.
“I grew up sitting in the backseat seeing my mom praying every time a police car drove behind us,” Bortolleto says. “Although I now drive freely, I still see the fear in my mother’s eyes.”
Two days after the November 4 midterm elections-which prompted President Barack Obama to delay making changes to the nation’s deportation policy-Bortolleto, who was 9 when her family came to the U.S., is out of the shadows and very much in the limelight. She’s standing at a podium in the crowded second floor rotunda in New Haven City Hall next to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and Mayor Toni Harp.
In 2012, she was granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, (DACA) which allows non-criminal undocumented immigrants who fulfill a slew of requirements-amongst them proof that they arrived before their 16th birthday and have been in the country since 2007-to live and work in the U.S. for a two year period that can be renewed at its expiration.
In front of and around Bortolleto are immigrants’ rights activists-some holding signs that read “DACA for all”, among other slogans. The demonstrators’ message is very clear: expand DACA to include the parents of immigrants like Bortolleto, or at the very least, make good on a promise to-in the president’s own words-make deportation policy “more humane”.
“While our mom leaves every morning to clean other people’s houses with a smile on her face, I know her fear,” Bortolleto says. “My mom, and countless others like her, don’t deserve a life where they are exploited and degraded in their jobs.”
What stirs the fear that Bortolleto sees her mother work to hide on a daily basis can be summed up by Suidy Jiminez, who is standing in the back left corner of the room with her younger sister, Jesslym. They’re each holding a sign with a giant photo-the two of them with their mother, Gladys-plastered onto it.
Right now Gladys, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, is in a detainment facility in Texas. She was recently denied a stay of deportation, Suidy says.
“She could be deported any moment,” she says.
And it wouldn’t be the first time. Gladys was sent back to Guatemala after her bid for a work VISA was unsuccessful, leaving her two daughters-U.S. citizens due to having been born here-separated from her. She was caught trying to reenter the country.
Suidy and Jesslym say that their mother does not want them to live in Guatemala.
“There’s so much violence,” Suidy says. “They think that because you’re from the U.S., you have money. They’ll ask for a ransom.”
Drug cartel violence and poverty-amongst other factors-have been cited as the driving forces behind an influx of underage migrants from Central American countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Authorities detained 46,932 minors attempting to enter the United States this year-up from 38,759 in 2013, according to data from the Pew Research Center. The situation has prompted President Obama to call for an examination of deportation policy, but that discussion was tabled with midterm elections approaching.
The Administration has deported more than 2 million undocumented immigrants throughout its two-term tenure, with a record 419,384 removed in 2012. Authorities deported 368,644 people last year, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
“I think we all knocked on a lot of doors for President Obama,” said Blumenthal. “Now we’re knocking on his door.”
But what exactly, does the president have the power to do? A lot, if you ask Yale University School of Law Professor and Deputy Dean for Experimental Education Mike Wishnie.
“The president has vast Constitutional powers and discretion as to who is deported, who is detained, who-of the 2 million people who have been deported and faced the consequences of a failed political policy-can return,” Wishnie says.
He didn’t provide specifics, but he might have been referring to immigration action taken by previous administrations. In 1990, for example, George Bush Senior moved to expand Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act, (IRCA)-a deferral of deportations for individuals under the age of 18 and living with two parents-to include the spouses and children of those who qualified for the program when the proposal to expand the beneficiaries of the legislation met Congressional gridlock, according to the American Immigration Council.
Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter have halted deportations on massive scales, and the Obama administration has already established exceptions-which include the current DACA program-to protect vulnerable segments of the undocumented population from removal, notes the American Immigration Council.
“Tomorrow, he could release from the immigration detention prisons the thousands of detainees,” Wishnie says. “Tomorrow, he could lift the threat of deportation for millions.”