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Fighting to Stay: Inside one Mother's Fight to Keep her Family United and Safe in the United States

One day Ana Canenguez received a call from the gangs. The message was clear: They would kill her sons unless she sent $25,000.

Last month, Carla Garcia and I sat in the middle of a conference room of the Mexican Federation community center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Garcia, whose name has been changed to protect her immigration status, was cutting out a stencil in the shape of a monarch butterfly surrounded by the words “migration is natural.”

“I want to see these on every sidewalk,” she said, smiling as she looked up. “Wouldn’t that be so beautiful?”

By seven o’clock, more women filtered into the conference room for a meeting of the Salt Lake Dream Team, an organization that was created to pressure Congress to pass the Dream Act after Senator Orrin Hatch presented it in 2001. Since the legislation’s introduction, the Dream Act has gone to the Senate floor multiple times, although never with enough votes to pass. Ironically in 2007, the year it came closest to passing, Hatch missed the vote in order to attend his grandson’s graduation. With many Dreamers increasingly disillusioned about politics and legislation, the Salt Lake Dream Team transformed into a group of mostly undocumented women focusing on stopping deportations on their own.

Garcia finished her stencil as Ana Canenguez arrived. A mother originally from El Salvador, she’s currently the focus of the Dream Team’s campaign to force ICE to use prosecutorial discretion to keep families together in the United States. The plan is to demand lawmakers present a private bill to grant the family legal residency — a last-resort step that comes only after all other forms of relief have been exhausted. This reality is true for the Canenguez family, who has applied for every immigration solution, including Deferred Action and asylum. All of her applications were denied.

Rebecca Hall, a retired law professor at University of Utah , explained the ideological challenge migrants face when applying for legal residency.

“The U.S-legal system cannot contemplate the fact that there is worldwide economic injustice that we have created through our neoliberal system,” she said. “And that’s why people need to leave (their countries of origin) … The legal system doesn’t even think that way. That’s not even considered a truth.”

As the meeting began, the woman began to outline the plan.

“Senator Hatch is our main target, “ said Angie Rodriguez, another member of the Salt Lake Dream Team. To win a private bill for the Canenguez family, the group must persuade a member of Congress to present it on the floor. He’s the only representative in Utah with an even mildly pro-immigration platform, and he’s known for having a soft spot for families.

“We are first asking the ‘proper way,’ setting up meetings and such,” Rodriguez continued. “But knowing politicians, it will take a little persuading before any decisions are made,” she added, as the rest of the group giggled.

According to Rodriguez, a person’s immigration status can be changed instantly, a success they’ve already experienced in previous cases. Take, for example, the deportation case of the Avelar sisters.

“Our targets were Hatch and the field officer from ICE in our region,” Rodriguez recalled.

After a large press conference in downtown Salt Lake City, the sisters received a phone call from their lawyer saying that their case had been dropped.

“Apparently ICE received a call from the Attorney General of Utah telling them to use prosecutorial discretion to drop the deportation case,” Rodriguez said. “Just like that their deportation case was dropped.”

It’s hard to leave your children

When President Obama took office in 2008, the Department of Homeland Security publicly began prioritizing the deportation of immigrants with criminal records — even as it began rapidly accelerating the rate of deportations overall. In August 2010, the same administration issued a detailed policy telling ICE agents to try to avoid deporting parents of children under the age of 18. But even with these two policies enacted to place “focus on sensible immigration” — as Obama frequently declares in speeches — many who don’t fit this description still end up trapped in the system.

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