Sixteen-year-old Alejandra Renteria had not really followed the news about Tuesday’s stunning Republican primary election defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia by an anti-immigrant Tea Party candidate.
She didn’t know anything, therefore, about all the talk in Washington that Cantor’s defeat dooms any kind of comprehensive immigration reform legislation in Congress this year.
She hadn’t heard that conventional wisdom says Republicans just won’t dare go there now, won’t even allow it to come to a vote because of the fear of a Tea Party backlash, although election results from other states might offer a different lesson.
Renteria, a sophomore honors student at Whitney Young High School, doesn’t really know much about the politics of immigration.
All she knows is that her father, an illegal immigrant, was deported back to Mexico in 2011, and that her mother, who also is undocumented, is potentially just a traffic stop away from the same fate.
And it’s hard enough for Alejandra and her brother and sister, all U.S. citizens, to be facing another Father’s Day without their father. But the prospect that she could also lose her mother is too much for Alejandra to contemplate.
That’s why she became emotional Monday in a speech to the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition in which she pleaded for House Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote on immigration reform and for President Barack Obama to halt the deportations.
And that’s why the tears flowed again Wednesday as she shared her story with me.
If there’s one thing Alejandra would like to get through to our elected officials in Washington, Democrats and Republicans, it’s that “immigrants are not numbers. We’re people.”
“We’re all human beings. We all need the love and support of our families. Tearing families apart is not going to get anywhere,” she said.
Alejandra, who lives in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, began learning the harsh realities of our nation’s broken immigration system in 2008 when her father was arrested.
Although the charges were later dropped, his arrest brought him to the attention of immigration officials who began deportation proceedings. On Aug. 18, 2011, having exhausted his appeals and under orders to leave the country, he returned to his native Mexico.
Alejandra said he stays in close contact by telephone and email, but that it’s not the same as having him here to give her a hug or to attend her little brother’s soccer matches.
“It’s the small things that I miss the most,” she said.
She remembers her father’s advice.
“When he left, he told us to stay focused on school, so that’s what I did,” said Alejandra, who plays soccer for Whitney Young and was studying for finals when I called.
Alejandra’s mother, also concerned about the possibility of being deported, hired a lawyer to explore legalizing her own status.
But she learned that wouldn’t be possible because she had returned to Mexico in 2000 to attend the funeral of Alejandra’s grandmother, and on the return trip had been caught at the border. With that on her record, she’s not a candidate for any current legalization program.
Alejandra said her mother learned English and received her G.E.D. after coming to the U.S. and now works two jobs to provide for her family.
“It’s scary to think at any moment she can be taken into custody,” Alejandra said.
If her mother were to be deported, Alejandra also worries what would happen to her and her brother, whether they would stay here or go to Mexico.
As proud as she is of her Mexican heritage, Alejandra stressed: “I’m an American. America is my home.”
If the Congress doesn’t act on immigration reform this year, immigration activists are expected to put more pressure on Obama to take further steps to provide some measure of relief using his executive authority.
Alejandra doesn’t know much about that, but she remembers her excitement in 2008 over the prospect of Obama’s election.
Now, with his second term almost half gone, she wonders when he will make good on his promise of immigration reform.
“How much longer do we have to wait?” she asked.
I’m afraid it will be a bit longer now.