Special Reports

Immigrant's Story: Kirkland family hopes new policy will save them from deportation

In the United States, you can get deported for dreaming. At least, that’s the way it feels to Stephany Correa Valenzuela.

Stephany, 15, and her sister, Alejandra, 17, came here seven years ago with their parents, who were fleeing threats in their home country of Colombia. After years of hoping for asylum, however, the family has been ordered to leave. The date was to be July 17.

Then came the announcement from President Barack Obama in June that could change everything.

The president declared a new immigration policy that would allow certain young people who were brought to the United States as children to stay. The family is hoping that Immigration and Customs Enforcement will reconsider their case in light of the change.

In the meantime, everything in their life is up in the air.

For Stephany, that meant recently celebrating her 15th birthday early. A milestone in any teen’s life, it’s a special one for girls from Latin cultures. She and her family had been planning her quinceañera for months. She’d practiced her dance moves on a plywood dance floor her dad had put down on the living room floor in their modest rental house in Kirkland. She’d picked out her long dress with a bright pink bodice, and sparkly silver platform heels.

But the family’s scheduled deportation date fell before her birthday. She wasn’t sure what country she would be in for the rite-of-passage. Finally, her family went ahead and held the party early to make sure she could celebrate with her friends.

For the family, the long wait to stay has been frustrating, and even this new possibility brings hard questions. What if the girls are allowed to stay, but the parents have to go?

Wilmer Correa, their father, shakes his head and says he can’t even think about it.

The elder Correa brought his family here in January 2005, on a visitor’s visa and immediately applied for asylum for his family. An importer of electronics in Colombia, he said guerillas had tried to extort money from his business.

“They told me, if you don’t pay the extortion, I kill the whole family,” said Wilmer Correa, who still grapples with English. His emotions, though are clear. “I have no protection in my country.”

One day, he said, someone shot at him when he was with his young daughters.

So he did the only thing he could think to do, he said. He took his family and he left. He built a new life, in a new country, started a new business, this time as a landscaper in Kirkland. He took on a second job as a janitor at his kids’ school to make ends meet. His wife cleaned houses. His daughters excelled in school. The family welcomed a baby girl, born here.

But being afraid for your life in your home country is not necessarily grounds for asylum, and the Correa’s case has been repeatedly denied. Asylum only applies to threats based on someone’s race, religion, nationality, or political belief. And the threat must come from the government or someone the government can’t or won’t control.

The court agreed their fears were “credible” and deemed the petition “not frivolous” – an important distinction since frivolous claims have serious consequences – but still ordered them removed on the basis they were not among the protected groups.

“This is a family that did everything right,” said their attorney, Elizabeth Hawkins.

On a day last spring – before the Obama announcement – the family huddled in Hawkins’ office and tried to figure out what would come next.

“It puts a lot of stress on us,” said Stephany, who interprets for her family. ‘We don’t want to be mad, but. . .” Her voice trails off.

The family had just come back from an interview with their immigration officer. He’d tried to prepare them for the possibility that the girls might not be able to stay in the United States to finish school. Alejandra had burst into tears. An avid student, she dreams of becoming an optometrist one day.

Stephany wants to study to be a nurse, or maybe an obstetrician.

“It’s frustrating – they don’t know our side,” said Stephany. “It makes us feel like criminals.”

A few weeks later they got word they could stay through the end of that school year.

The school year ended, and the order to leave remained.

A day before the family’s July deportation date, with no word yet from ICE requesting proof of their departure plans, their attorney filed a flurry of new legal requests. She made a last-ditch “deferred action request” with ICE in Seattle as well as the ICE Public Advocate in Washington, D.C. She also made a request for a joint motion to reopen the girls’ cases with the ICE Chief Counsel in Seattle. Last month, the government published the long-awaited guidelines for “Dreamers” to apply. The girls plan to submit their forms soon..

So far, the attorney has heard nothing. Nor has the family.

In the meantime, she says the family is not hiding. She hopes the latest legal requests will give them some protection now that they are technically in violation of their order to leave.

Being in limbo is hard, said Wilmer Correa.  But the thing that matters most to him, is that his family is still together.