How one Ohio family’s struggle defines the deportation debate

Updated
Immigration detainees from Honduras arrive by bus to board a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 28, 2013 in Mesa, Arizona.
Immigration detainees from Honduras arrive by bus to board a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 28, 2013 in Mesa, Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio may have been onto something when he said President Obama could halt deportations if immigration reform dies. To understand why, take a look at the Hernadez-Ramirez family in Ohio.

Like many American families, the Hernandez-Ramirez clan includes both American-born citizens and undocumented immigrants. Pedro Hernandez-Ramirez entered the country illegally from Mexico but his wife Seleste is American, as are Pedro’s three stepchildren and one biological son. Among his stepchildren is 24-year-old Juan, who suffers from cerebral palsy and requires constant care from Hernandez-Ramirez. Despite the family’s deep roots, immigration authorities threatened to split them up.

The Hernandez-Ramirez family is hardly an exception when it comes to illegal immigration, they’re actually closer to the norm. An estimated 9 million people living in America belong to “mixed-status” families that include at least one unauthorized immigrant and one American-born child, according to research by the Pew Hispanic Center.

According to the Hernandez-Ramirez family attorney, David Leopold, Pedro Hernandez-Ramirez was deported earlier this year after a traffic stop prompted authorities to turn him over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He and Seleste had been together for 10 years at the time and, in May, she traveled to Mexico so that the two could be legally married. But even then, the couple faced significant legal hurdles to getting him a visa thanks to his immigration history. After concluding that Juan could not be left alone, Hernandez-Ramirez once more risked deportation and arrest to return to Ohio. It didn’t take long for authorities to catch up to him—he was picked up by ICE and charged with illegal re-entry. Those charges were dropped, but he remained in ICE custody and still faced removal as of this week.

Leopold argued that his client’s extensive ties to the country should compel ICE to stay his deportation. ICE agents can consider mitigating factors in determining if a case merits discretion from prosecutors, including whether an individual is married to a citizen, whether they have a child who is a citizen, and whether they’re the primary caretaker of a sick or disabled citizen. Immigration advocacy groups picked up Hernandez-Ramirez’s cause and called on members to petition ICE to halt his removal. His wife and stepdaughter each recorded videos to publicize his case.

The vast number of mixed-status families living under similar threats of deportation make it difficult to parse which slices of undocumented immigrants should qualify for legal status under an immigration bill. House Republicans are currently considering a plan to legalize young undocumented immigrants and stop there. But if Congress punts on addressing the legal status of all 11 million undocumented immigrants, authorities will constantly run into the problem of how to handle their parents and older siblings when they’re rounded up by ICE. This is why young undocumented activists are threatening to oppose any legislation that falls short of a full fix.

Similarly, President Obama faces ongoing challenges in determining which undocumented immigrants should qualify for stopgap measures protecting them from deportation. Already more than  500,000 individuals have applied for relief through DACA, a 2011 program set up through an executive order that allows certain undocumented youth to live and work in the country. But those young immigrants face the same problem as the Hernandez-Ramirezes—even if members of their family are full citizens, they can still be broken up at any moment. If reform legislation fails, the pressure on Obama from immigrant rights groups to account for these cases will be enormous.

But while the Hernandez-Ramirez family’s story is a common one, their ending could be happier than most. A spokesman for ICE told msnbc in an email Friday morning that Mr. Hernandez-Ramirez would not be deported after all.

“After conducting a further review of his case, ICE has granted Pedro Hernandez-Ramirez a one-year stay of removal,” ICE public affairs officer Khaalid Walls said.

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How one Ohio family's struggle defines the deportation debate

Updated