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Alejandra and Stephany Correa at a Quinceañera party in Bothell. (KUOW Photo/Liz Jones)

Alejandra and Stephany Correa at a Quinceañera party in Bothell. (KUOW Photo/Liz Jones)

KUOW News

Kirkland Family Finds New Hope In Obama's 'Dreamer' Policy

Liz Jones
07/30/2012

This summer, the Obama administration offered a bit of relief to some young, undocumented immigrants.

Obama: "Specifically for certain young people sometimes called Dreamers. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one — on paper."

This new policy aims to prevent the deportation of young people who meet certain criteria. Immigration officials plan to release more details this week.

This rule change may come just in time for a family in Kirkland with two teenage daughters. In collaboration with Investigate West, KUOW's Liz Jones has our story.



TRANSCRIPT

Here's the event Stephany Correa has dreamed of since she was little. Her Quinceañera. A Quinceañera is kind of the Latino equivalent of a Sweet 16 party, except it's usually way more elaborate, and it happens when a girl turns 15.

Jones: "Stephany, is there a delay?"

Stephany: "Yeah, I think they forgot the champagne or something."

About 150 of her friends, family and neighbors pack this hall in Bothell. Their eyes fix on the dance floor.

DJ: "Big round of applause for Stephany and her dad, Mr. Wilmer Correa. Yes!"

Following tradition, Stephany and her dad dance the waltz, to Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube."

Uncles and cousins swap in to dance with the birthday girl. She's decked out in a full–length black gown, sparkling tiara and a beaming smile. For a teenage girl, she's remarkably poised.

It's a big night for her, even though her birthday is still two weeks away. But her family wanted to celebrate early because of a looming deadline.

Stephany and her family are scheduled for deportation three days after this party. Only a handful of people here know that.

I met Stephany's family a few days before her party at their home in Kirkland. Her dad, Wilmer Correa, speaks English pretty well. But he prefers his native language for interviews. [English translation by Liz Jones.]

Wilmer: "Here's the part of the house we like the best, the patio."

Wilmer leads me to the back yard. It shows off his skills as a landscaper, that's what he does for work.

Sofia: "That's my Dora house."

Wilmer: "OK, I don't touch."

That's three–year–old Sophia, popping out from the upstairs window. She's the only US citizen in this family of five. She was born here. Stephany, her older sister, Alejandra, and her parents fled here from Colombia seven years ago.

Wilmer: "Here, fortunately the girls have been safe. It's calm here."

The family has applied for asylum here in the US.

In Colombia, Wilmer ran a business importing electronics. He says guerilla groups tried to extort money from him. He says he was even shot at once. His daughters were with him.

Their asylum petition has been repeatedly denied, even though judges agree the family faces danger in Colombia. But that's not enough. They have to show they face a certain type of persecution.

As we talk in the Correas' living room, Wilmer's two daughters are at his side. At one point, Alejandra, the oldest, brushes back some tears. Then she quietly steps away.

Wilmer says he feels powerless to protect his family.

Wilmer: "I've been confident the government was going to understand our case. It weighs on my conscience that I've risked the life of my family. Now, Immigration knows about us here and they want to deport us. Then, in Colombia, people who want to harm us have an eye on us, too."

He feels caught between here and there. Wilmer acknowledges they could've tried to live under the radar here, like millions of undocumented immigrants. But he wanted to do it the legal way.

Glancing around, their home looks like every other tidy house on the block. Except this one features a dance floor inside. Wilmer has laid plywood over the living room carpet for the girls' salsa lessons.

Everything else is in its proper place: No suitcases, no boxes, no sign the Correas are packing up their modest life here.

Wilmer: "Initially, we started to sell some things. We put the cars up for sale. But now, we've stopped all that because we're confident that with Obama's new law, we'll be able to stay."

Wilmer is referring to Obama's recent announcement for so–called Dreamers. The policy gives temporary legal status to young people who meet several conditions, like they were brought here before age 16, they go to school and have a clean record.

The two older Correa get good grades. They participate in school clubs. They meet all the criteria.

Wilmer was watching the morning news on June 15 when he heard Obama's announcement.

Wilbur: "I was so happy. It was barely 9:00 a.m. and I called the attorney."

Hawkins. "Will called me first. Yeah, first thing in the morning [laughs]."

Elizabeth Hawkins is the Correas' attorney. She joins us in the family's living room. Everyone gathered here — the girls, the parents, the attorney — all have the same question about Obama's new policy.

Hawkins: "It will help the daughters but what happens to the parents? And what happens to the daughters if the parents have to leave?"

Hawkins has filed one more, last–ditch request with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. She's trying to get a new review of the Correas' case, in light of this policy change. Official guidelines are due out August 1.

Hawkins: "So we're hoping that as it becomes clear that the girls qualify, that they'll look again at the parents' case, see that it doesn't make sense to break up this family."

I ask Wilmer if they'd even consider that — leaving the girls here. He says he doesn't even want think about that. He can't quite find the words to answer.

Jorge Baron has been fielding lots of similar questions since Obama's announcement.

Baron: "We got tons of calls first from people who are trying to figure out first, you know, 'Is this for real?'"

Baron heads the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle. He has talked to a lot of families in situations like the Correas'.

Baron: "The reality is that for a lot of these families, unfortunately, the situation is going to be that, yes, the children who came who meet the criteria of the Obama announcement will be able to pursue this temporary form of protection. But the parents will, unfortunately, be still out of status."

In other words, still living in the US illegally.

But Baron points out, in deportation cases like the Correas', ICE can turn to other guidelines enacted last year. That policy gives prosecutors discretion to dismiss low–priority cases and focus more on serious criminals.

These policy shifts have drawn criticism from people who push for tighter immigration controls. When Obama made the Dreamer announcement last month, he heard from one loud skeptic during the press conference.

Obama: "Excuse me, sir."

It's hard to hear, but a reporter for a conservative website shouts, "Why do you favor foreigners over Americans?"

Obama: "I'm answering your question. It's the right thing to do for the American people and here's why ... "

The reporter interrupts again to ask about high unemployment. Under this new policy, qualified Dreamers can also get work permits. More than 800,000 Dreamers may be eligible.

Back at the Correas' home in Kirkland, Stephany shows me her room. The theme is pink.

Stephany: "Oh yeah, pink's my color."

In her sister's room, across the hall, a cork board is spilling over with photos.

Stephany: "This is her best friend. This was Mother's Day. This is in Seattle. That was in Homecoming."

These are her memories, her childhood. She remembers almost nothing from Colombia. She was seven when they came here.

Stephany says the family is stressed. It's tough to live in limbo, but they try not to dwell on that.

Stephany: "You know, like, we always think positively. And, like, if things happen, then they'll happen. But, like, just to know, like, we'll stick as a family, so, yeah."

The Correas' deportation deadline has come and gone. Technically, they're supposed to leave on their own. But their attorney says the new request they filed gives them some protection.

Still, as it stands, ICE could call on the family anytime and enforce the order for them to leave.

I'm Liz Jones, KUOW News.

This story was produced in collaboration with Investigate West.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW

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