What 1 lucky Seattle immigrant’s case can teach politicians

Former state Senator Ken Jacobsen

When I think of the need for immigration reform in America, one man in particular comes to mind: Jose. In 2008, a friend who works at a Northeast Seattle school called me looking for help for a parent of two students there. The man, a cook, had just been taken into custody for not having documentation and he was sent to Tacoma to sit in a federal detention center, awaiting deportation.

I learned that Jose was a shy, reserved man who was his family’s sole breadwinner and who came every day to volunteer at his children’s school. He spoke little English, but was a productive worker and an engaged and caring parent who was beloved by the school community.

His arrest plunged his family into fear and turmoil. His undocumented wife moved out of their Seattle apartment to stay with relatives in Federal Way while she took her children back and forth to school in Seattle on the bus, with their toddler sibling in tow, for several weeks.

I connected the family with a well-regarded Seattle immigration attorney, Margaret O’Donnell, who helped Jose beat the odds by becoming one of only 4,000 people in the entire country that year to receive what’s called a cancellation of removal. After documenting his work history, lack of criminal record and his meeting of the federal standard of showing “extraordinary and exceptionally unusual hardship” if he was deported, the government gave him a green card allowing legal residence for five years, with the ability to apply for citizenship afterward.

Jose is one of the truly few and lucky undocumented individuals who was able to come out of the shadows and find a way to legal status that allows him to continue being a productive, contributing member of society.

Sadly, for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, there is no path to legal status or citizenship, and little progress toward passing sensible immigration reform. In spite of the fact that polls show a majority of Americans believe that our system is broken and needs a major overhaul, the House Republican leadership has cynically and deliberately stalled any consideration of immigration reform, including a bipartisan bill passed in the Senate last year.  

Even Washington’s own Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — part of the Republican leadership — has neglected to do her part on immigration reform. But, while she says Republicans “cannot allow ourselves to be defined as the anti-immigrant party,” she has failed to push for a vote or take a public stance. It’s time for her and the other House Republicans to lead by deed, on behalf of their districts and the country, not just spout empty rhetoric and play partisan politics.

Fortunately for Jose, he found an entire community that advocated for him and his family, including parents, teachers and kids at their school who sent letters on his behalf, and an experienced attorney who knows how to navigate our labyrinthine, illogical system. More productive, upstanding members of our community should have this opportunity, and that won’t happen until political leaders have the moral courage to do the right thing and update our immigration laws.

Now, almost exactly five years to the day after he received a green card, Jose recently returned to Margaret O’Donnell’s office to fulfill his dream. He was there to file an application to become a citizen. 

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