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Immigration laws can divide mixed-status families

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 26, 2012 - Four hours were set aside last September for Frank Cortez’s removal case in the immigration court in Kansas City. 

Depending on how things went, he could be headed back to Mexico, where he hadn’t lived since he was 4. The proceedings had taken two and a half years.

If he lost his case, Cortez told his lawyer, he was too tired to appeal. He’d go back to Mexico.

Cortez, who grew up in Clarkton, Mo., had letters from people who knew him to be a good guy. He worked hard in construction. And his family all lived here, including his mother, a sister born here, and another two born in Mexico as he was.

His case was allotted four hours in court, but it only took 15 minutes. 

Cortez was granted residency and today is a legal permanent resident.

“I’m still the same person I was before I got in immigration proceedings of removal,” said Cortez, now 28. “A piece of paper ain’t gonna make me no better than anybody else.”

But it does mean he can legally work, drive and, after five years, begin the path to citizenship. 

Cortez’s road to remaining in the country is told in the final hour of the three-hour documentary, “Homeland: Immigration in America,” by the Nine Network for Public Media.

Cortez was 10 or 11 years old when he realized that where he came from and how he came here might be a problem.

Originally from Jalisco, Mexico, he was brought with his siblings to Laredo, Texas, when he was 4. 

He didn’t then know about being illegal or undocumented, but it’s come up again and again in his life. He couldn’t get a driver’s license at 16. 

Still, he went to school and worked, but driving while not having that license was what eventually brought on the threat of deportation. 

Nine Network producer Jim Kirchherr spent time with Cortez in his hometown.

“My sense is he’s about as well-established as everyone there,” Kirchherr said. 

During production, Kirchherr was surprised about a few things with Cortez’s story. First, he didn’t realize how many families are what’s called mixed-status, with some members who are citizens, some permanent legal residents, and others undocumented. 

The second thing that surprised Kirchherr was how Cortez’s case was resolved.

“I kind of thought they would keep just putting it off,” Kirchher said of the courts.

But according to immigration lawyer Suzanne Brown, who worked on the case, Cortez’s family is the reason his case was resolved. 

“It’s not common,” she said. 

The judge in the case originally delayed the matter until Cortez’s sister, who was born here, turned 21 and could petition for their mother to get legal permanent resident status. When that was granted, the case was made that her son being deported would be “an exceptional and extreme hardship.”

The judge in the case, Brown says, took a very humane approach to the situation, taking into account that Cortez had a good moral character and had been here a long time and that his family was well established. 

Mixed-status families are very common, Brown said, and generally, removing one member is not considered by the courts to be an extreme hardship. 

“It’s a pretty strong burden,” she said.

For two of Cortez’s sisters, who are also undocumented, things have changed even more with President Barack Obama’s announcement of a policy to not deport young, undocumented people who meet a specific set of standards. But it’s not a permanent solution, Brown said.

“It doesn’t make them safe from removal forever. It’s a temporary status.”

Now that his own status is legal, Cortez hasn’t changed much. He still works in construction. He’s still in Clarkton with his family. 

He is taking up mixed martial arts and would like to travel to Laredo to see family — a trip he didn’t dare take before.

When he met Cortez, Kirchherr was struck by what a hard worker he was.

“I’ve had both worlds,” Cortez says in his country drawl. “From not having nothing to being over here and working for what I have. I appreciate what I have because I have to work for it.”

And that, like Cortez, probably won’t change with a piece of paper.