ELKHART — There have been no parties at the Paez household here.
“There’s no time to celebrate,” said Armando Paez, patriarch of the family. “There’s work, there’s school.”
No question they’re happy, though. U.S. immigration officials last Friday put a hold on pending orders calling for their deportation back to Colombia, and the five family members, speaking Monday, expressed relief. For now, at least, they can remain in Elkhart, where they’ve lived since 1999.
“I felt, I didn’t believe it,” said Ana Paez, one of Armando Paez’s three kids and a senior at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. On learning the news from the family’s lawyer late last Friday, “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Armando Paez, wife Martha and their three kids, Ana, Maria and Juan, met with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Chicago last March. They had worried they would face deportation that day, but with many in the community publicly backing their bid to remain, ICE officials delayed a decision, telling the family to return for another meeting on June 21, this coming Thursday.
Anticipating the meeting, the Paezes had been on pins and needles last week, worried once more about deportation. Again, though, they have a respite, at least until March 22 next year, when another ICE meeting in their case is to be held.
“It was a relief,” said Juan, who will be a freshman at Elkhart Memorial High School this coming school year.
Armando Paez called the ICE officials’ decision a miracle.
Last Friday’s decision comes on top of President Obama’s announcement that day that new guidelines have been established allowing children brought here as illegal immigrants by their parents to legally remain and work in the country. The three Paez children, brought here when they were ages 1 and 9, intend to pursue that option.
‘IT’S NOT OVER’
The Paezes came to Elkhart with legitimate documents. Their visas, however, didn’t give them permission to remain or work here and their efforts to secure legal residency, initially through a request for political asylum, were rejected, leaving them in limbo.
The Paezes appealed, immigration officials issued deportation orders and the case lingered on.
Then late last year, Paul Cataldo, Armando Paez’s boss at Antonio’s Italian Restaurant here, started campaigning for support for the Paezes, worried his star employee would be deported. He touted the work attributes of Armando Paez, a waiter at Antonio’s, his wife and the couple’s high-achieving children.
In all, about 500 letters of support came in for the Paezes — from patrons at Antonio’s, the children’s teachers and others. Immigration officials weigh such support, and Ana said the backing seemed to help, factoring in the latest delay in their deportation orders.
The Paezes haven’t been without detractors, though — anti-illegal immigrant activists, among others, who say the law should be applied as it’s written and the family deported. Likewise, the case is hardly closed.
The Paezes still have to go to Chicago to meet with ICE officials on Thursday, as planned, though they’ll likely face just routine questions. And though the three Paez children potentially face a means to legally remain in the United States thanks to the changes announced last Friday by Obama, the future is cloudier for their parents.
“It’s not over,” said Armando Paez, noting the meeting with ICE reps on March 22 next year, when the stays on the family’s deportation orders are set to expire. “We have to continue praying.”
ICE guidelines allow ICE officials to exercise “prosecutorial discretion,” halting deportation orders involving undocumented immigrants who have lived peacefully in the United States, committing no serious or violent crimes. That’s the sort of formal request the Paezes have put to authorities.
TIES IN THE U.S.
In responding to ICE’s decision to temporarily halt deportation, the five family members issued statements through their Chicago lawyer, Maria Baldini-Potermin, expressing gratitude to supporters.
The three children also noted that though born in Colombia, their formative years have been spent in the United States. Their ties, they say, are here.
“My life is truly in the U.S., where I have gone to school, grown up and developed many close relationships with friends in the Elkhart community,” said Maria, who plans to study at IUPUI next fall.
Juan said he eventually hopes to go to college and study architecture.
“I came to the U.S. when I was one-year-old and the U.S. is the only country that I have ever known,” he said. “I do not want to leave the U.S. to go back to Colombia.”