Yearning to Breathe Free Family’s journey puts human face on upcoming Supreme Court ruling

By Patrick T. Brown, Associate Editor

“What’s the point of working so hard in school if you’re going to end up cutting grass?”

Those words stick with José Aguilar two decades later. The undocumented teenager sitting in a New Jersey classroom took his ex-Marine teacher’s hard-nosed advice as license to, as he puts it, “give up.”

Aguilar remembers his teacher calling him an “excellent student,” but saying, “I see a lot of kids just like you who end up working as a landscaper. If I was you, I’d just quit school, and find something you’re good at.”

When he was young, José had been brought across the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation as his family pursued economic stability and a brighter future. His choices led him to instability and a brush with death.

But his journey didn’t end there. A conversion experience, becoming a father and a trip to a Catholic Charities immigration office helped him regain the promise his family sought when crossing the border decades ago.

His background, circumstances and drive to succeed are undoubtedly unique. But in other ways, his story exemplifies the challenges and opportunities facing the roughly 700,000 young people brought to this country illegally who have found permanent legal status in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

By the end of the month, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on an expansion of the DACA program, and the introduction of a Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, which would grant legal status to undocumented parents with children who are lawful citizens.

All told, more than five million individuals could be impacted by the Court’s decision. The ruling could have a far-ranging impact families struggling to stay together and gain a foothold from which to build a more stable future.

Families not unlike José and Marina Aguilar.

José Aguilar, foreground, was brought to the United States without documentation as a child.

‘I Deserve to Die’

It took José’s family four tries to cross the border.

His dad already lived and worked in New Jersey, so his mother led the journey.

“The guy that was supposed to bring us, he abandoned us in the desert, he left us there,” José remembers. Another coyotaje – one of the smugglers who help migrants cross the border without authorization – came across them and helped them finish the journey.

“When I was in Mexico, they all told me the U.S. was beautiful, that I would have everything I never had over there, and at first it was like, ‘that was a lie,’” José remembers. “It was horrible at first, crying, missing Mexico, but you just get used to it.”

He learned English, “good enough that my friends thought I was born here,” and worked hard in the classroom. Then came his conversation with his teacher, and the spiral downwards commenced.

“I’m not blaming him for what happened, because it’s my fault, but…I gave up. I gave up hope,” José said.

“I started cutting class, doing bad stuff, I was a mess. Gangs and all that – they were my family…I didn’t care about my mom’s tears, I really didn’t care about any of it. I’m not proud of it.”

Parties were frequent, drugs became a part of life – then more than just a part. An accidental overdose left José in the hospital, at death’s door. He started seeing deceased family members. Feeling his time was up, he started to pray.

“I told God, ‘Don’t do it for me,’” José said. “’I deserve this. I deserve to die. I am nothing. But don’t let my mom suffer for what I’m doing. Because she doesn’t deserve it.’

“If he helped me, it was because of my mom, because I was nothing. I deserved it. But my mom didn’t deserve for me to have to die that way.”

He recovered, started attending church again, and swore off drugs. For six years, he’s been on the straight and narrow - “I don’t even drink beer any more.” He’s found the stability his mother wanted for him in leaving Mexico. A large part of that change occurred upon meeting his now-wife, Marina.

The fence marking the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Becoming an American

In 2009, Marina Aguilar, a native of Colombia, arrived in the United States as a legal permanent resident. Her grandmother sponsored her green card, and Marina graduated high school and attended technical school, which helped her secure her current job as a phlebotomist.

Marina was 19 and José was 20 when they welcomed their daughter, Helen. Her arrival convinced them to secure a future in the United States.

“Once she was born, we were like ‘we have to do something about changing her life,’ because it’s not just about our life anymore, everything is about her now,” Marina said. “We want her to have both of her parents, always, and that’s it. It’s just the best thing that happened to us. She’s our sunshine.”

José and Marina, who belong to St. Anthony Claret Parish, Lakewood, began to look into programs which would help Marina become a permanent U.S. citizen. A friend of a friend encouraged them to attend an outreach presentation organized by Catholic Charities Community Services in Ocean County.

Lisha Loo-Morgan, a program coordinator for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, met with the Aguilars and began to help them chart a path towards creating a stable home in the United States.

“We want her to have both of her parents, always, and that’s it.”

Marina’s green card meant she could apply for lawful citizenship. For over two months, she stressed over studying for the citizenship exam, finding time during breaks at work or before going to sleep.

As the date of her test approached, her car was stolen. Inside was the green card proving her legal residence.

Devastated, the Aguilars went to another lawyer, thinking “I don’t think Lisha is going to help us, we call her all the time,” José recalls. The lawyer gave them a quote of $10,000-$15,000 to overcome the loss of the green card and successfully attain permanent citizenship.

“Hell, no,” José remembers thinking to himself. “I’m going back to Lisha.”

Loo-Morgan helped Marina navigate the bureaucracy and continuing her journey towards becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. Even after Aguilar passed the citizenship test, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services still made her wait two months before the naturalization ceremony to investigate the lost green card.

When the day finally came for Marina to be sworn in as a citizen of the United States, she said, “I just couldn’t stop crying.

“It really means a lot to me – I met José here, my daughter was born here, this is now my country. I really worked hard for it, and it’s my country now…

“We never could have afforded it [without Lisha]. So I became a citizen and now I just want to help him so we can have a better future.”

Lisha Loo-Morgan, a program coordinator with Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton

Place of Refuge, Journey of Hope

These types of success stories are why Loo-Morgan has dedicated her career to working with immigrant families as an accredited immigration services representative for Catholic Charities.

Born in New York, she spent nearly a decade doing missionary work in Uganda, Jamaica and Panama before returning to New Jersey. She spends her time traveling to parishes in the Diocese of Trenton, doing outreach to the Hispanic community and practicing immigration law under the umbrella of Catholic Charities in front of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

Catholic Charities’ mission, she said, is to help “keeping the family united” in the face of economic and legal challenges. Many of the individuals she meets with are working low-paying jobs, often under the table, with little legal protection, such as landscaping, working in kitchens or cleaning houses.

“People say that [immigrants] ‘come and take our jobs’ and that’s not so,” Loo-Morgan said. “The jobs that they’re working are menial jobs that no one wants. So everything is for economic reasons – they can’t receive their driver’s license, they can’t receive any kind of state benefits, so they come to Catholic Charities.

“We help with food, we help with clothing, we give them any kind of household needs they might need. And if we have the funds we might also help them financially too,” said Loo-Morgan.

“Lisha…was there to help us,” Marina said. “Every single thing we needed, she knew the answer. She really played in an important part of all these processes – if it wasn’t for her, we never could have done it. It was so expensive, it was so stressful, but she helped us through it.”

According to statistics released by Catholic Charities USA, over 40,000 immigrants received help with family visa, citizenship and DACA applications from a Catholic Charities agency last year, with nearly 7,000 individuals like Marina becoming citizens. Whatever their immigration status, Loo-Morgan said, people come to Catholic Charities for a “sense of refuge.”

“These migrants come here and are looking for a place to be accepted…the Church has always been a refuge,” she said. “Our work is based on the Gospel, on helping one another, on helping those who are the least of our brothers, that’s the Gospel. That’s what makes it Catholic Charities.”

“Faith is what kept us up. It’s what kept us hopeful.”

“The Church has always supported the right of people to migrate,” said Pat Zapor, director of communications for CLINIC, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. “People of faith have an obligation to take care of ‘the stranger,’ which in today’s society is very often the migrant, the refugee, the young person who needs protection from the fear of deportation to a place he or she doesn't know.”

Working with individuals eligible for the DACA program has been inspiration in many ways, Loo-Morgan said. She knows immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children are graduating from high school and have gone onto succeed at Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and other colleges. These “kids…are smart, intelligent individuals who want to get ahead,” she said. Despite that, there is still “a lot of stigma out there” about Catholic Charities’ work with undocumented immigrants.

“The Pope, the Catholic Church, especially in this Year of Mercy, [have] talked about love for your brother and your sister – even the ones that are undocumented, they’re still our brother and sister. But there’s still that old stigma,” Loo-Morgan said.

But in the Latino community, programs like DACA are helping families envision a future in which they might be fully welcomed into society. “These days, I’m seeing a lot more hope,” she said. But an impending decision by the Supreme Court could throw a wrench into the Obama administration’s plans to use the existing DACA program as a baseline to provide stability for undocumented immigrants.

SUVs drive past the U.S.-Mexico border. CNS photo

Concerns Raised by 26 States

DACA was introduced by the Department of Homeland Security in June 2012 as a way to exercise “prosecutorial discretion” regarding those who had entered the U.S. without authorization as young children. In February 2015, a planned expansion of the program was put on hold by a federal district court judge’s injunction.

Texas, joined by twenty-five other states and the U.S. House of Representatives, claimed the program’s rollout created new immigration law by executive fiat and that the White House did not follow proper procedure in announcing the new regulations. As the lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court, broader questions about the states’ legal standing to sue the federal government, and questions over the Constitution’s command to “faithfully execute” the laws of the United States, also became topics at issue in the case.

Oral arguments were heard April 18. The Court’s current vacant seat, left open after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, complicates the calculus.

Five justices could join in a ruling to allow the planned expansion to go forward – or one finding the planned expansion unlawful or unconstitutional. A split four-four court would keep the current injunction against the plan in place while sending the case back to lower courts for final rulings.

While a decision against the new programs wouldn’t impact current DACA enrollees like José, it could lay the groundwork for further legal action to dismantle that program. Zapor said that until the outcome of the Court’s ruling is known, “we’re continuing to advise our affiliates to encourage people to get their materials together in case there is some kind of relief they can apply for.”

The Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project estimates five million individuals would be eligible for legal status under DACA and DAPA if the Court rules the new program rules can go into effect. A ruling will be handed down by the end of the Court’s term, expected to be June 30.

Helen Aguilar, sitting on the lap of her mother, Marina.

‘We Don’t Need to Be Scared Any More’

José met all of the criteria for application to the DACA program, save one. To qualify for deferred action, individuals need to be under 31, have been brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday, have continuously lived in the U.S. since their arrival, have never been convicted of a felony, and graduated from high school or possess a GED.

It was this last requirement José didn’t meet, having dropped out of high school during his activities with drugs and gangs.

“I did quit school and I’m not proud of that,” José said, “but now I’ve got my own business, I’m working hard, I’ve got my wife and my daughter.” He didn’t want to take the GED test, but when Loo-Morgan informed him his eligibility depended on it, he “was like ‘ok, ok, I’m going!’”

He passed the test, and three years ago started his own firm doing drywall and other construction work. Having seen the dark side of informal employment, it was important to José to control his own source of income. “My uncle was working for a place that just stopped paying him…so I always wanted to start my own company,” he said.

Having the stability of legal status in the U.S. has made the Aguilars’ lives less stressful in innumerable ways.

“I used to be scared before, of him going out [for the day] and not coming back” Marina said. “I used to always make sure I went with him, so in case anything happened, I knew he’d be okay. But when you’re in a position, in this country that you love so much, and knowing that the person you love the most could be [taken] away from you, it’s scary...We don’t need to be scared any more.”

“You try to do everything good, but you never know,” José said. “Faith is what kept us up. It’s what kept us hopeful.”

Now, thanks to Loo-Morgan’s efforts, José is returning to his native country for the first time in two decades, to visit an ailing grandparent.

“It’s not that I’m not happy with what I have, but I want my daughter to have a better future.”

“I wanted to go back to Mexico ever since [crossing the border],” José said, “but I just got used to it. I never thought I would go back, but thanks to Lisha, I have the chance to go to Mexico to see my family again.”

His “advanced parole” gives him permission to return to the country lawfully – and José and Marina will be bringing three-year-old Helen with them to help develop an appreciation for the blessings and opportunities available to her in America.

Marina hopes Helen will grow up learning to dream big but that “nobody will give you anything for free…You have to work hard for it.”

After obtaining his GED and receiving legal status through DACA, José already has a new goal: to be sponsored into U.S. citizenship by Marina and become a licensed contractor.

“It’s not that I’m not happy with what I have,” José said, “but I want my daughter to have a better future.”

Patrick T. Brown was associate editor for The Monitor from 2015-16. He is on Twitter at @PTBwrites.

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