For Utah's Avelar sisters, June 15 ends up with a whole new meaning

Published: Friday, June 15 2012 9:16 p.m. MDT

Laura Rangel Avelar, Silvia Juarez Avelar and Barbara Tapia Avelar, at a press conference about a June 15th deportation hearing for the three sisters who were raised in the Salt Lake City area and whose children are American citizens.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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WEST VALLEY CITY — Barbara Avelar woke up in her own bed Friday morning, something that seemed impossible two weeks ago as she and her sisters Laura and Silvia faced an imminent deadline for deportation to Mexico.

The date, June 15, had weighed heavily on their minds as they contemplated leaving their children and spouses to comply with the order. The sisters, along with their parents, had overstayed their tourist visas and there was a final order for their deportation.

In what Barbara Avelar calls "our miracle," federal immigration authorities granted the three mothers a year's reprieve.

"This morning I woke up and I prayed. I thanked God for everything he has given us, especially this miracle. Then, I went and hugged my kids. I really hugged them.

"June 15th to us seemed like a really bad day. June 15 is a better day now what we found out about Obama's announcement." 

On Friday, the Obama administration announced it would defer for two years deporting most young illegal immigrants under 30 who entered the United States as children and meet other residency and education requirements. They also may apply for work permits and the two-year deferments could be renewed indefinitely.

The announcement brought swift reaction of celebration from the immigrant community, statements from public and private groups, as well as ecclesiastical officials, but also condemnation from some accusing Obama of playing politics with one of the nation's most vexing issues.

But for the Avelar family, it was the latest emotional day in a lifetime filled with them. One of the Avelar sisters, 27-year-old Silvia, would clearly qualify for that deferment. But Barbara is 30 and their older sister, Laura is 34 and may be too old to qualify for work and residency status, despite clean records and high school diplomas.

Regardless, the announcement was welcome news to a family facing a deadline that would have, at least initially, broken up three families. Their parents were deported in December.

"It means a lot right now, especially with what we've been going through. It's just a little light at the end of the tunnel it seems to us right now," Barbara Avelar said.

The women are not sure how the blanket executive directive will affect their case. Their attorney continues to work through the courts to reopen their case.

"It's (the executive order) is a good thing regardless. I was so happy. I was excited because it's going to help a lot of people. All the Dream Teams have been working on this. There is finally a little relief with what they're doing," she said.

Salt Lake immigration attorney Mark Alvarez,  speaking at a press conference earlier in the day, said he believes people like the Avelar sisters have raised public and political awareness about the real-life implications of a broken immigration system.

Their "coming out," he said, "has had enormous impact."

Alvarez said a letter sent recently to the president by some 100 law professors that argued that Obama has "clear executive authority" to defer deportations and permit young immigrants to stay in the country temporarily "had to be one of the voices heard in the conversation."

While local immigration advocates heralded the move, other Utahns decried the action as election year politics, including the state's governor.

"This is not as revolutionary as it sounds. Not only is it politically timed, it simply formalizes the status quo," said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. "The federal government isn't deporting many people now. If we had better border enforcement, we would have less illegal immigration."

Local advocates for immigrants and "dreamers," meanwhile, heralded the policy change.

"The best way to say it is, 'Hip, hip, hurrah! This is great,'" said an ebullient Archie Archuleta, president of the Utah Coalition La Raza's board of directors.

As for criticism that the announcement was motivated by the presidential politics, Archuleta said simply, "So what?"

His sentiment was echoed by Latino community advocate Tony Yapias, who said critics — particularly members of Congress — have had ample opportunity to work on comprehensive immigration reform and have done very little.

"The blame should go to themselves," Yapias said. 

Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, an advocate of legal immigration, said immigration reform should be left to the legislative branch of government.

"I don't think it's the right solution. It rewards people who did things wrong and in many ways punishes people who do things right," he said. 

The policy change applies to young people who came to the United States before the age of 16. They must have been present in the United States for five years as of June 15, 2012, maintained continuous residence and not been convicted of a single serious crime or multiple minor crimes. They must also be in school, have graduated or have a GED or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. military.

Alvarez cautioned that the order will not become effective immediately. But the change acknowledges that the deferrals that ICE has granted piecemeal in recent months are just policy. "What works for the few, works for the many," he said.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he supports the change because it will enable U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to focus its resources on criminal immigrants.

Many undocumented children want to make the most of their educations and serve their country and communities, he said.

"Why not have a whole new group of kids to be our soldiers, scientists, nurses and teachers? These are kids who grew up with our kids, who played with them on Junior Jazz teams. Who would say that is wrong? That's so American. It's a wonderful thing," Shurtleff said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns the Deseret News and other media companies under the Deseret Management Corp. umbrella, had no specific reaction to the announcement. 

It reiterated its regard of the Utah Compact as a responsible approach to immigration reform and released a general statement on immigration that said in part, "Public officials should create and administer laws that reflect the best of our aspirations as a just and caring society. Such laws will properly balance love for neighbors, family cohesion, and the observance of just and enforceable laws."

The Rev. Monsignor Colin F. Bircumshaw, Vicar General of The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said in a statement, "Although we don't have all the details, it looks very promising and is a step in the right direction."

Roger Tsai, a Salt Lake immigration attorney, said he watched the announcement on a big screen television along with 3,000 other lawyers attending the American Immigration Lawyers Association conference in Nashville.

"It was a beautiful thing to see 3,000 fellow immigration attorneys watching CNN as this major development broke. It's was what so many have been hoping for in the national arena. People were cheering, there were standing ovations, what not," Tsai said.

"It should be a fantastic thing for Utah 'dreamers,' " Tsai said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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