A Tucson woman granted a reprieve from a deportation order stemming from an identity-theft case may be among a growing number of illegal immigrants being allowed to stay in the U.S. because they were brought here as children.
Marlen Moreno Peralta was granted a one-year deferred action on deportation orders this week by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The action allows Moreno, 28, a Cholla High graduate who came to the U.S. with her family when she was 13, to work legally and pay in-state tuition for college. The action can be renewed an additional year.
Moreno's reprieve comes just days after a leaked internal memo from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suggested "deferred action" as a way to provide relief for Dream Act-eligible people and promote family unity.
"Rather than making deferred action widely available to hundreds of thousands and as a non-legislative version of 'amnesty,' USCIS could tailor the use of this discretionary option for particular groups such as individuals who would be eligible for relief under the Dream Act (an estimated 50,000)," the memo said.
The Dream Act is a proposed bill that has been on Congress' radar for at least seven years. It would grant legal status to illegal immigrants under 30 years old who came to the U.S. before age 16, have been here at least five years, have not committed a felony and are committed to enroll in college or the military.
Deferrals are rare but are becoming more common for people like Moreno, who face deportation but would be eligible for the Dream Act, said her attorneys, Maurice Goldman and Margo Cowan.
"What we are looking at here is a humanitarian decision," Goldman said. "Our government has finally over the last several months realized that people like Marlen are not out selling drugs, committing horrific crimes and that they are just here for the betterment of the country."
In explaining the decision, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Brian Hale said in a statement that the agency uses its discretion on a case-by-case basis, and "has the authority to grant a deferral of a removal action based upon the merits of an individual's case and a review of specific facts."
He declined to say whether this is part of a new strategy, but said Moreno's case illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform.
"ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on criminal aliens who pose a threat to our communities while we continue to work with Congress to enact reform," Hale said.
If indeed the government is using this administrative tool to allow Dream Act-eligible illegal immigrants to stay, it's a recipe for disaster, said Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based organization that advocates for slowing immigration.
"Politically, it will hurt the president and it will hurt his party," Camarota said. "And more importantly, it only serves to increase public cynicism and dissatisfaction."
If the Obama administration wants to give legal status to people like Moreno, they should work to build public support, not by taking back-door action, he said.
"The biggest impediment to those who want to legalize illegal immigration is public opinion," Camarota said. "Deception only serves to make the public more cynical."
Camarota didn't disagree with providing Moreno with a reprieve due to her situation. But he said there's a risk in giving some people special treatment because it can lead to others feeling they were treated unfairly.
Moreno came to Tucson with her three siblings from Sonora, Mexico. She would like to go to college to become a preschool teacher but couldn't afford the out-of-state tuition she would have had to pay because she was here illegally.
Her husband is a legal permanent resident. Their two sons, a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old, are U.S. citizens.
Moreno was working at Panda Express at 2485 N. Swan Road in March 2008 when she was arrested along with 10 others after a three-month DPS identity-theft investigation. They were booked into the Pima County jail on suspicion of aggravated identity theft, a Class 3 felony that was created under a 2005 law that made it illegal to use a fake ID to get a job.
Moreno pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal impersonation. She served 4 1/2 months in the Pima County jail, Goldman said. Moreno posted bond in July 2008 after being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She's been living in Tucson since.
Goldman fought for cancellation of removal but lost the case and the appeal. That's why Moreno was going to have to leave the country Sunday night.
The family was brought to tears shortly before 4 p.m. Thursday when Moreno learned she could stay in Tucson.
"Now I can be here with my children here, with my husband. I never wanted to be separated from them," she said Friday.
Moreno celebrated the decision Friday alongside local immigration-rights activists who led a nationwide campaign encouraging people, organizations and lawmakers to send petitions, e-mails and make phone calls to Napolitano.
"Thanks to everyone from my heart," Moreno said at Friday's news conference at Southside Presbyterian Church. "And thanks to Janet Napolitano for the good decision she made."
Napolitano's reprieve could help expedite Moreno's path to legal residency because her husband, who now has a green card, can become a U.S. citizen next year. That's key because if he becomes a citizen, Moreno can stay in the U.S. while waiting for her green card.
Of the other 10 arrested in the 2008 Panda Express case, eight have been deported. Moreno is one of three who remain in the country.
Omar Espino Lara was allowed to petition for his green card through his wife, a U.S. citizen, and is now here legally. Araceli Torres Ruiz is appealing her deportation orders, Goldman said.
Espino, Torres and Moreno were all brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
People like them shouldn't be punished for a decision their parents made, argue backers of the Dream Act. Cowan and others plan to continue advocating for the thousands of illegal immigrants who are in situations similar to Moreno's.
"People should not have to put their dreams on hold," Cowan said. "Congress needs to act now and pass the Dream Act."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org