Immigrant Families With Mixed Status Face Difficult Reality
August 13, 2013
Heath Haussamen
Cynthia Alba, 19, is working legally in the United States for the first time after receiving deferred action last year. She said the possibility that immigration reform will stall once again, and her deferred action work permit will expire, terrifies her.

Among the millions of immigrant families living in the United States, many have mixed legal status. One member may be here illegally, another might have a temporary permit and yet another may be a U.S. citizen. This creates uncomfortable disparities within the families.

With Congress out on recess and the future of immigration reform uncertain, it leaves their lives in limbo.

At a pizza joint in Las Cruces, N.M., a father and daughter fire plastic guns at a video game screen. A few feet away some teenagers trade tickets for glitter bracelets. This is a favorite hangout for Cynthia Alba, a 19-year-old Mexican immigrant who entered the United States illegally when she was just a toddler.

"I remember playing in my grandmother's garden with some little plastic toys," Alba said.

That was her last memory of her birth country. She left with her mother, who was escaping an abusive relationship. They moved in with a relative in New Mexico and Alba's mother worked cleaning houses.

Last year, Alba qualified for President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program which puts off deportation proceedings for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Up until now she couldn't get a job, pay for college, or afford medical care.

"I get to fight for everything," she said. "Everything, you know, getting glasses, getting attention to your teeth."

An old, unattended knee injury means now Alba walks with a limp. She hasn’t gotten new glasses in more than two years.

Meanwhile her half-sister, Andrea Muñoz, was born in this country.

As a U.S. citizen she qualifies for Medicaid and is able to get braces and see a doctor regularly. Andrea is 15 years old, shy, with pink and purple hair. She’s said her older sister’s situation makes her feel helpless.

"I get all this stuff… and she can barely go to the doctor," Andrea said. "I find it unfair because she's human and she has a right to health."

Both sisters also worry about their mother, who remains undocumented. Now that Alba has deferred action, she has a temporary work permit and recently got a job as a Spanish interpreter. She'll soon get health care benefits from her employer. But her long-term future is a big question mark.

"I don't know what I'd be doing in ten years," Alba said. "I'm just scared of next year in December, that's when my deferred action runs out."

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are some 9 million people in a mixed-status family, which includes members without legal documentation as well as U.S. citizens. In the southern district of New Mexico, represented by Republican Congressman Steve Pearce, the Pew Center estimates there are 19,000 young immigrants that qualify for deferred action.

Sarah Nolan leads a faith-based organization in Las Cruces that works with immigrant families.  

“A few months ago Representative Pearce voted to defund deferred action and expedite their removal," Nolan said. "These are students and young adults that are really contributing and wanting to be professionals in our country and stay in New Mexico.”

In a letter to Nolan’s organization, Pearce wrote that it’s unfair to reward those who broke the law by allowing them to remain in the United States. He opposes a path to citizenship for more than 11 million immigrants here illegally.

Pearce is among the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives who hold this position. He supports tackling immigration in numerous separate bills as opposed to one single comprehensive bill.

This story was produced with New Mexico in Depth, an investigative online news organization that collaborates with the Fronteras Desk on New Mexico stories.