Monday, August 29, 2011

Undocumented immigrant tries to navigate an uncertain future (Salt Lake City Tribune)

Undocumented immigrant tries to navigate an uncertain future

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 27 2011 11:13PM

West Valley City • David Morales is a teenager. A bundle of contradictions wrapped within his wiry frame.

He cares deeply about people and dreams of helping the homeless. But then he’ll blow off a meeting with a guidance counselor at school. “They’ll reschedule,” he says.

He is passionate about his Christian faith, reading the Bible daily, professing his love for God on Facebook and sometimes speaking in tongues at church. But he’ll just as easily judge an entire group of Bible school teachers as corrupt — without any knowledge of malfeasance.

He loves his family members and yet, by speaking publicly, puts them at risk. But the biggest contradiction of all is the one he is powerless to control: Morales is an undocumented immigrant. The place he calls home, in the eyes of the government, isn’t that at all.

“I want to be able to build a church here and to pastor to people here,” he said. “I want to raise kids and give them the opportunities I’d have. I would like that to be in America.”

He has an Oct. 6 court date. For months his family planned to go back to Mexico.

Then Aug. 18 happened and may have changed everything.

Policy shift » When Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a letter that day outlining the Obama administration’s policy of prosecutorial discretion, optimism erupted in the Morales family.

“My mom and dad were really happy,” Morales said. “My mom called the attorney to ask what it meant for me, and I heard that I might be able to get a temporary work permit. But I won’t believe anything until I have a permit in my hand.”

The new policy is estimated to affect about 300,000 cases in the midst of removal proceedings and is believed to affect people like Morales who have been in the country for more than five years, have no criminal record and are enrolled in college.

The 19-year-old Morales appears to fit the bill on all counts.

But Matthew Kolken, a high-profile immigration attorney based in New York, made a prediction last week on Twitter that he believes only about 1,000 of the estimated 300,000 would actually be beneficiaries of the new policy.

“I think the Obama administration is doing this as a publicity stunt,” Kolken told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I think there will be about 1,000 cases that will be newsworthy enough that the administration will try to avoid embarrassment and that those are the ones who will benefit. If you’re anonymous, forget it.”

He said Morales has improved his chances “exponentially” because his arrest earlier this year was so public.

However, Gillian Christensen, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the policy outlined by the Obama administration would be followed as outlined.

“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the U.S.,” she said in a statement. “The agency exercises prosecutorial discretion, on a case-by-case basis, as necessary to focus resources on these priorities.”

Morales hopes he’s a low priority, which is why he has felt emboldened enough to speak publicly on his case despite an alleged threat made by an ICE agent who told him if he talked to the media, he would be put back in jail.

Lori Haley, ICE spokeswoman, said there is a complaint process through the Office of the Inspector General and DHS open to those who believe they’ve been victims of civil rights violations or misconduct.

Morales said he didn’t know about that. He said he forgives that agent and prefers to remember the ICE agent in Louisiana who let him bring his Bible into the jail cell after his arrest.

“I’m actually thankful for that,” he said.

Border crossing » He came to the United States when he was 9, crossing the border at Nogales with his mother and his younger brother with the help of coyotes and a border agent taking bribes before making a long drive up to Salt Lake City, where his father, who had arrived almost a year earlier, was already waiting for him. Morales said he remembered his first day in Utah and how he walked into a large grocery store with his dad.

“There were some Hot Wheels that were, like, 99 cents. I said, ‘That’s too expensive.’ I was, like, ‘We could buy a whole pack of tortillas with that,’ ” Morales recalled. “I remember he said, ‘This is your life now.’ ”

Morales paused, thinking about that small purple car.

“I started crying.”

That was in August 2001. During the next 10 years, he would go to Monroe Elementary and Hunter High, getting a mix of good and bad grades and meeting a mix of good and bad friends. He graduated from the alternative high school, Granite Peaks.

His parents would land jobs in the service industry, and they were able to buy a house five years ago. With the family’s strong Pentecostal roots, Morales knew he wanted to be a preacher. When he saw the chance to go to a Bible college in Louisiana, the family gave its blessing.

On Jan. 4, while sleeping on the bus rumbling its way to Lafayette, Morales had a dream.

Thirty minutes later, when he woke up, it came true as a nightmare.

Visions » Morales said he’s always been prone to visions and revelations.

When he was a child in Acapulco, he was so sick with a rare disease, doctors believed he wouldn’t walk again. During that time in the hospital, he said he had visions of angels and demons in the room. He said he prayed to God to just let him walk again and that he’d go wherever God told him to go on his legs. He said God answered that prayer.

Later, as a 17-year-old, he was complaining about having to walk home from school then, suddenly, heard the voice of God filled with sadness — recalling the promise made and the blessing received.

“I felt terrible,” Morales said. “I stopped complaining right there.”

So, when he dreamed on the bus in Texas that federal agents pulled it over, boarded it and asked for his identification that he didn’t have — and it all played out exactly as he had dreamed — it wasn’t a surprise to him.

“God said this is part of the process. He’s like, ‘Relax, I got this,’ ” Morales said. “I was shaking, but I wasn’t looking to run away. I knew it was going to be a hard process. But I don’t think God gives more than I can handle.”

He spent 17 days in jail and was released on a $4,000 bond. He came back to Utah and remembered the promise he made to God — that he would go wherever he wanted him to go. And if that meant Mexico, then he would do it.

But in the meantime, he met a group trying to pressure Congress into passing the DREAM Act. He decided then to be an activist.

A dream » The Salt Lake Dream Team meets once a week, usually on the Jordan campus of Salt Lake Community College.

It’s a mix of youths — citizens and undocumented immigrants — that strictly follows Roberts Rules of Order to run the meeting.

Raymi Gutierrez, 22, said Morales joined the group in the early days of summer.

“He’s different,” she said. “He wants to make a difference, but he needs to remember he’s not Superman. He can’t do everything.”

Morales, who still feared retaliation for talking to the media, was eager to discuss his situation. But often, at public events where The Salt Lake Dream Team would appear, he would stealthily materialize in the background. He would push the envelope as far as he could without violating the instructions laid down by the ICE officer who threatened him.

At an open house hosted by Sen. Orrin Hatch in July, The Dream Team arrived dressed in graduation gowns and sang “Happy Birthday” to the DREAM Act, which was written by Hatch 10 years ago. It would offer a pathway to citizenship for children brought to the United States by undocumented immigrants, provided the child — among other things — attended college or served in the military.

Morales blended in with the crowd, careful to avoid the camera, but smiling mischievously while wearing sunglasses.

He would slink around news conferences, flirting with the possibility that he might be stopped and asked to be interviewed or end up on television.

Then, he decided to work with members of The Salt Lake Dream Team on a project. They were approached by television producers to be the subject of a reality TV show that would follow the lives of undocumented immigrants. He agreed to do it.

Diego Ibañez, one of the Dream Team organizers, said Morales is “a good kid who can seem a bit naive about some things.” But he said he has never met someone as optimistic.

“He always thinks things are going to work out,” Ibañez said. “To someone else, it looks different and can be hard to understand. But that’s just David.”

Emergency room » While at his Dream Team meeting Wednesday night, Morales didn’t feel well. He slipped out without saying anything to anyone and passed out. He woke with bad stomach cramps and coughing up some blood.

He walked across the street to the Jordan Valley Medical Center’s emergency room.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said.

Morales didn’t pay a dime for the care.

Molly Evans, emergency room manager, said it’s the hospital’s policy to not turn away anyone who needs medical care. Income and legal status, she said, aren’t considerations when faced with a sick patient.

Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, proposed a bill in the past legislative session that sought to tackle the issue of free medical care for undocumented immigrants. It failed because it had a $35 million fiscal note, but he plans to take on the issue again in the upcoming session.

“I’m not advocating we deny care, but what frustrates me is these costs aren’t ever calculated into the illegal immigration debate,” Herrod said. “Again, I’m not advocating we deny care, but those costs are there.”

Laura Ruiz, a 21-year-old friend from Heber City, accompanied Morales back to his house after his stay in the hospital, and she went with him to school, where he battled stomach pains off and on throughout the morning.

Sitting in his developmental reading class at Salt Lake Community College on Thursday wearing a gray shirt with the word “Revolutionary” written on it in bold letters, Morales watched the teacher, Kathleen Johnston, write the word “Respect” on a whiteboard and ask the class what it meant.

After several offered answers which Johnston wrote down, Morales raised his hand — the hospital wristband from his ER visit sliding down his thin wrist.

“Treat other people as you want to be treated,” he said.

Johnston nodded her head and put it on the board.

After class, Morales went back to the house to work on what he would say at a news conference he is planning for Wednesday. He thought about his past and his future. Where he had been and where he was going.

And, looking at the toy purple car he has kept to this day, how his father told him things would be different.

He told the doctors his story. They treated his ulcer, and he was dismissed a few hours later.

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