Sin País

PBS Premiere: Aug. 9, 2012Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

The Mejia family's home was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) agents on an early morning in March 2007, in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity--I.C.E. was actually looking for someone else. Nevertheless, Sam, Elida and their son, Gilbert, were placed in removal proceedings because they were in the United States without lawful immigration status. All had been living in this country for more than 15 years at that time, Gilbert since age 1. Sam and Elida had two U.S. citizen daughters, Helen and Dulce, who were 11 and 1 1/2 years old, respectively, at the time of the raid.

In immigration court, Sam and Elida applied for a form of relief from deportation known as cancellation of removal, based on their long residency in the United States and the exceptional hardship their deportation would cause to their two young U.S. citizen daughters. If their case was granted, they would become lawful permanent residents, or "green card holders." If his parents became lawful permanent residents, Gilbert, too, would become eligible to apply for cancellation of removal, based on the hardship his deportation would cause his parents. Gilbert also filed an asylum application.

After hearing Sam and Elida's case, the immigration judge granted their applications for cancellation of removal. However, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) appealed that decision, arguing that not enough hardship was shown and, unfortunately, the judge's grant of permanent residency was overturned on appeal. Had D.H.S. not appealed the judge's grant, Sam and Elida and Gilbert would have become lawful permanent residents years ago. Sam and Elida's attorneys continued to fight to keep them in the United States, but after all efforts had been exhausted, Sam and Elida were deported on November 4, 2009, despite hundreds of letters written to D.H.S. on their behalf and numerous press articles and editorials calling on the government not to deport them. Helen, then 13, made the wrenching decision to stay in the United States with Gilbert rather than accompanying her parents and Dulce back to Guatemala so that she could continue her education in this country.

With Sam, Elida and Dulce in Guatemala and Gilbert and Helen on their own in the United States, the entire family was suffering. Elida, who had worked as a caretaker in the United States, resorted to selling tortillas on the street, while Sam was unable to find work at all. Dulce became withdrawn and hardly spoke. Helen's grades dropped, and Gilbert was overcome with the pressure of supporting his sister Helen, maintaining their house and pursuing his architecture studies. Eventually, with the help of their lawyers, Sam and Elida applied for a very rare form of temporary visa known as humanitarian parole and D.H.S., recognizing the extreme hardship that the Mejias, especially Dulce and Helen, were suffering, granted their application. The family was reunited in July 2010 and Sam and Elida have applied for annual humanitarian parole renewals since then. It is only a temporary solution, though, and their attorneys continue to seek a permanent means for Sam and Elida to remain in the United States with their children.

Gilbert's deportation case was temporarily closed in March 2012, thanks to a new D.H.S. policy of granting "prosecutorial discretion" to immigrants who meet certain sympathetic criteria and do not fall under D.H.S. deportation priorities. Under current D.H.S. prosecutorial discretion policies, a family like the Mejias probably never would have been placed in deportation proceedings.

Under a new policy announced by the Obama administration on June 15, 2012, Gilbert (and many other young immigrants) will also be eligible to apply for "deferred action" status for a period of two years, with the chance to renew. While deferred action status will not lead to permanent residence or citizenship for Gilbert, it will give him the opportunity to receive a temporary work permit for the first time in his life.

Caption: The Mejia-Perez family together in California on the night of the deportation of Sam and Elida
Credit: Photo courtesy of Theo Rigby