For several months, four generations of Oscar Campos Estrada’s family have been able to spend time together in Pierce County as he continues to seek legal residency in the United States.
And they will stay gathered for the foreseeable future after efforts to deport the 41-year-old father of five were canceled recently.
That action – coming thanks to progress Campos Estrada made in seeking a green card – has brought him as close as he’s ever been to legal residency in the United States.
“It’s another step closer,” he said Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to get a green card,” which would give him legal permanent residency in the United States.
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The encouraging news has come with a price tag. His family paid a $10,000 bond to get him released from the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s Tideflats in 2011.
Campos Estrada – interviewed by The News Tribune for a 2012 series about the detention center – was held after Tacoma police arrested him for driving with a suspended license that year.
Federal immigration officials then placed a detainer on Campos Estrada and sought to deport him.
As a Mexican man and a minor offender, he represents the majority of detainees who go through the center. He’s also not alone in struggling to pay to make bond and for the green card process after his release, immigrant advocates say.
“There’s a lot of people, literally they’ve been there years, because they don’t have nobody out there to help them pay the bond,” Campos Estrada said in a recent interview. “I was fortunate to have a family.”
While deportation proceedings have been stopped, Campos Estrada still lacks legal permanent residency. That meant he couldn’t visit his father, 76-year-old Salvador Campos, when he fell ill in the peasant village of Tzintzuntzan in Mexico this year.
Instead, the family brought the elder Campos, an American citizen, to Tacoma several months ago.
It’s been fun to get the extended family together on a regular basis, and everyone is doing well, Campos Estrada said.
Now his biggest hurdles to lawful permanent residency and the life he wants are largely financial, he says.
A WIN FOR NOW
Campos Estrada is a Mexican national who has lived illegally in Pierce County for more than half of his life.
He illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana more than 20 years ago and built what he calls his "dream" life in America.
He’s worked itinerant jobs and raised a family that includes five American children, the youngest now 19 months old.
Over the years, he largely managed to avoid an immigration reckoning despite brushes with the law for misdemeanor crimes, including two drunken-driving convictions.
He petitioned the government at least twice for the right to apply for a green card. Both were disqualified because he married his long-term girlfriend and unwittingly changed his eligibility status.
Since then, he obtained a federal employment authorization card and Social Security card, so that he can work legally until his immigration case is resolved.
His daughter, America, submitted another green card petition on his behalf several months ago, once she was 21 and legally old enough to do so.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently approved the petition, which helped in court when Campos Estrada asked that his deportation proceedings be terminated, said his attorney Amy Kratz.
When the immigration court learned the petition had been approved, it agreed to stop the deportation proceedings July 29.
“This is pretty much what we expected,” Kratz said. “He no longer is facing deportation.”
The next step in seeking the green card is to file his application for permanent residence, she said. After they do that, she expects it to take six months or so to get a decision.
Should he be denied the green card, he probably again will face deportation, she said.
Now the challenge is the price tag.
Campos Estrada estimates he owes $3,000 for the process up to now.
“All the petitions and filing those applications,” he said. “Medical exam, physical.”
He isn’t sure what the rest will cost, but expects the bill to grow.
He’s still working in construction locally, and said work picked up with the summer season.
“My financial situation, like always, I’m hanging in there,” he said.
‘THIS IS WHAT HAS TO BE DONE’
The fees involved in the green card process vary greatly, depending on the pathway used to apply, said Matt Adams, legal director with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which pursues and defends the legal status of low-income immigrants.
Campos Estrada is not unique in applying for a green card after being released from the Northwest Detention Center, Adams said.
“There are many people who are in removal proceedings who are applying for their papers,” he said. “Even folks who are in front of immigration court, there’s still a lot of different options.
“It’s kind of all over the map, in terms of how much it costs.”
Fees are tied to recouping the cost of the government workers needed to facilitate the process, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says.
“We are what you call a fee-based agency,” ICE spokeswoman Sharon Rummery said. “We don’t run on appropriated funds. The cost to run our agency is paid by the fees that people who are filing pay.”
The standard I-485 application for permanent residency has a filing fee of $1070.
That also covers the cost of applying for a work permit and travel authorization as a person moves through the process, Rummery said. In some cases, she said, waivers are possible.
“We work with folks from the low-income communities,” Adams said. “It’s often a significant hurdle, but for most folks, they’re able through either their own hard work or family and friends to get the money together to pay for that.
“Most folks just know that this is what has to be done, and they figure out a way to get the money together.”
A FAMILY’S EXPENSE
In Campos Estrada’s case, he’s trying to save up to cover the green card costs after his family paid the $10,000 for his release.
His brother and three sisters, who paid his bond, live in the United States and have citizenship or a green card.
Brother Cesar Campos Estrada, 38, said it was difficult for the family to find the bond money.
“It was really, really tough,” he said. “One family member has issues, then those issues go toward the whole family. If something happens to any one of us, it’s going to have a reaction on all of us.”
Cesar Campos Estrada has a wife and two daughters, ages 4 and 9, and opened his own automotive repair shop not long after his brother’s release.
When his family almost lost their home, they lived in the shop and rented out their house.
But doing everything they could for his brother was never a question, he said.
“That’s a big part of our culture, at least in our family,” he said. “Our dad and our mom, before she died, she always tried to have the family sticking together. And that’s what we do.”
Oscar Campos Estrada understands the financial strains on his extended family and their worries that he wouldn’t be able to reimburse them for paying his bond.
“They’re kind of afraid of losing the money,” he said. “I’m trying to tell them there’s no worries. It doesn’t matter if I win or lose the case. They get the money back.”
And with the removal proceedings stopped, the family can start the paperwork to get the bond money back from the government, he said.
Campos Estrada said he’s happy with his progress toward permanent legal residency, but it doesn’t feel as though he’s at the finish line.
“Of course I was happy, but at the same time, what’s going to happen next, at the next process, the next application?” he said. “It can go either way.”