Peter St. Onge

An imperfect step on immigration

Eight years ago, an 11-year-old Monroe girl gave a long hug to the only father she ever knew, then walked with her younger brother and sister toward a gate at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. They were flying to Guatemala to live with their mother, who had been deported.

All three children were U.S. citizens. Their father, who was staying behind, was not.

It was August 2006. Observer reporter Danica Coto and I had spent months with 11-year-old Kayla Ramirez and her family to tell a story about immigration. It was, back then, a hot and unresolved issue.

On Thursday night, President Barack Obama announced executive actions that will protect as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. Those immigrants include 3.3 million parents of children who are legal residents or U.S. citizens. Like Kayla Ramirez.

Kayla’s mother, Deysi, had crossed the U.S. border in 1994 to escape gang violence that had killed her brother in Guatemala. A month later, she discovered she was pregnant. She had Kayla, then fell in love with a coworker, Raymundo. They had two more children and raised a family.

But in March 2006, Deysi was pulled over for an expired tag, sent to jail and deported to Guatemala. Kayla, a smart and popular fifth-grader, would move to a home with no running water and a village with substandard schools. Ray was staying in North Carolina to earn money.

So this was goodbye at the airport, for who knew how long. It was one of the saddest moments I’ve seen.

It’s easy to imagine how the president’s plans this week will prevent more families from being torn apart. But it’s not that simple. Republicans say Obama is overstepping his authority with his executive actions. Scholars and lawyers are split on whether the president just wadded up the Constitution.

Even if he didn’t, we should all be at least a little uncomfortable with one man crafting a far-reaching policy that should have been debated and decided by Congress.

Of course, Congress has decided not to do that. House Speaker John Boehner has offered no immigration plan, but he’s blocked immigration reform that the Senate passed and Americans want. A majority of the House wants it, too, just not those whom Boehner cares about on the far right.

So immigration reform has remained stalled, as it was eight years ago, when Kayla Ramirez was a casualty of the limbo. The last we heard, about two years ago, the family was living in Mexico. But Deysi’s phone got disconnected, and we lost track of her. We don’t know what happened to Kayla or her family.

The last I saw them was that day at the airport. I stood near Raymundo that morning as he hugged Kayla goodbye. I waited as he waited for the plane to finally back away from the gate. I watched as he walked window to window until he could see it no more.

Some of you might say that’s just sentimentality, and that sentimentality doesn’t change the fact that Deysi Ramirez broke the law when she crossed the border.

That’s an argument we’ll hear a lot in the coming days – as we have for years – and we shouldn’t dismiss it too quickly. We are, after all, a nation of laws.

But we also are a nation that changes its laws, that thinks about what we’re trying to accomplish with them, not just what we want to punish. That discussion should have happened long ago in Congress with immigration, but it hasn’t.

To be honest, I’m not sure what’s more troubling: That one man – the president – is deciding what our immigration policy is, or that one man – the House Speaker – did the same by blocking a bill that Americans and Congress wanted.

I do know that now, finally, something has happened, and maybe Congress makes something bigger happen because of it. I don’t feel bad about that, because it’s one thing to debate an issue from 30,000 feet. It’s another to be on the ground, watching a father watch his family fly away.

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