MIAMI — Eric Narvaez returned home a war hero. He was an Army sergeant, shot at and wounded during his first tour in Afghanistan. But his homecoming wasn't quite what he had hoped.
When Narvaez touched down on U.S. soil in 2011 for the first time in months, he watched as his friends hugged their wives and families reunited. But Narvaez didn’t have anyone waiting for him: His mother had exhausted every legal route to obtain permanent residency in the U.S., and she was barred from seeing her son in the country that she had called home for more than a decade. Although she later returned to the U.S. illegally, the fear of deportation hangs over their family.
"I served in the war in Afghanistan only to come back and fight another war with my own country?"'
“I served in the war in Afghanistan only to come back and fight another war with my own country?” Narvaez said of his fight to bring his mother back to the U.S. “I feel like I just got slapped in the face.”
The sting was still fresh on Wednesday when Narvaez told his family’s story in front of a packed crowd in Miami. But Narvaez wasn’t addressing just anyone.
“I just wanna ask you, Mr. President, there has to be some kinda gray area for a situation like this,” Narvaez said to President Obama at a town hall event Wednesday. “I put in a lot of time and I love this country.”
When Obama unveiled his sweeping executive actions last year, shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation, he opened a window for the parents of American citizens to remain in the U.S. and step out of the shadows. For Narvaez, that meant he and his brother Jorge could fight to keep their mother in the U.S. But that battle was put in jeopardy last week after a federal district judge put a temporary freeze on the executive actions. The decision put the Narvaezes' life on hold, with no end date in sight.
The Narvaez brothers stayed up all night to figure out the best way to ask one single — yet crucial — question. It had to be heartfelt and genuine, not too long, but get the point across. After all, it’s not every day you get a chance to talk directly to the president of the United States and be heard.
“I'm confident that your mother qualifies under the executive action program that I've put forward,” Obama said in response. “Right now -- the judge has blocked us initiating the program where she can come and sign up and get registered. But in the meantime, part of the message that I'm sending is if you qualified for the executive action that I put forward, then we're still going to make sure that your mom is not prioritized in terms of enforcement.”
Immediately following the event, the two brothers had mixed reactions to hearing the president talk about the issues they cared about most. For them, it wasn't enough to hear Obama's words -- they wanted decisive solutions.
"He’s a wounded combat veteran. Why would the president turn his back on somebody like that?"'
“He’s a wounded combat veteran," Jorge said of his brother. "Why would the president turn his back on somebody like that?”
Jorge and Eric Narvaez are a unique pair: one is a YouTube star, the other a soldier wounded in battle in Afghanistan. But in recent years, the whole family has taken on the role of becoming vocal advocates of comprehensive immigration reform.
Their mother, Esther Alvarado, led the way. A mother of three U.S. citizens, Alvarado tried the legal route by having her husband petition for her permanent residency. So in 2007, she returned to Mexico to formally apply. But Alvarado’s petition was denied and she could not return home. She later returned to the U.S. — illegally — and turned herself in at the border.
The family is reunited for now, but the threat of deportation is constant.
“I raised good citizens. One … went to a very good university, he graduated with honors. And then I raised a solider that’s fighting for his country,” Alvarado said. “But this country is kicking his mama out on the streets.”