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Naturalized American Citizen Says Immigration System Is Broken

Judith Valente

By the time Jenn Carrillo crossed into the U.S. illegally from Mexico,  her family had already tried for years to to obtain legal status.

The family's original petition was filed in 1996. That application is still pending.

"We still haven't heard back from that petition. I can look it up and track it and see where it is in the stack," Carrillo, who came here at age 10, said on GLT's Sound Ideas.

"For a lot of us, there is no legal remedy."

Carrillo, now 26, was able to eventually obtain permanent residency through her marriage eight years ago to an American citizen. She has since become an American citizen. But that is not the story for many who, tired of waiting, make the journey without documents.

The person "who is starving or who is facing violence or who can no longer support their children is not going to wait around 20 years to get the okay to go reunite with family members in the United States. It's just not logical. So when people say, 'If you skip the line, if you want to come, you've got to do this the right way,' right now, there is no right way," Carrillo said.

Carrillo has worked with a variety of grass roots organizations and is currently director of Mission Impact for the McLean County YWCA.

She said the U.S. should recognize many of the undocumented immigrants as "economic refugees."

"Oftentimes we think of refugees as only being from war-torn countries,"  Carrillo said.

Profound changes in the Mexican agricultural economy following the North American Free Trade Agreement, she said, made it difficult for people like her parents to maintain a living. They felt they had no choice but to seek economic opportunity north of the border.

Even as a child, Carrillo said she was profoundly aware of the family's tenuous situation.

"I remember my parents saying somebody could come to the door, or it could be a letter in the mail telling us we have to leave within a certain amount of time or they are going to put us in jail. They would send me to get the mail and I would feel anxiety and my stomach would churn just thinking, 'is this the day we get the letter.'"

In the 16 years she has lived in the U.S., she has not returned to Mexico. "I never imagined I would never see some of my family members  ever again," she said.

Carrillo says undocumented immigrants have become a convenient scapegoat for the economic disparity that exists in America.

A better approach, she said, would be to clear a path for those undocumented immigrants who have lived here a long time -- working, paying taxes and otherwise abiding by the law -- to remain legally.

"For me,  even when it's the case that I have been able to gain a status that has a pathway to citizenship, if the rest of my family is undocumented and at risk for deportation, it throws my life into upheaval. I am not going to be the only person to stay here and watch my family be put into a detention center and get sent back to Mexico," Carrillo said.

The new Trump administration executive order is broadly written. While undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes are the main target, the order also applies to those merely suspected of crime, or who have committed a minor offense.

Already there have been cases of undocumented immigrants with no other criminal background being detained. 

"They have this giant blueprint for mass deportations," Carrillo said.

The Trump order also effectively deputizes local law enforcement officers to serve as immigration agents.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage has said his officers will not actively seek to arrest the undocumented.  

That is of little comfort to those like Carrillo.

"The mechanism for those programs to be activated are right there waiting for someone to flip the switch," she said.

"While the sheriff has stated he won't play an active role in seeking out undocumented people, the problem is that any time an undocumented person has contact with law enforcement, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) might request information or might request that person be detained longer than they would normally be detained in order for ICE to get custody of that person, and our county jail complies," she added.

"The question is, "Will our local officials actually aid ICE?"