By Laura Vazquez, Senior Immigration Legislative Analyst, NCLR
When we talk about the need for President Obama to grant administrative relief to qualifying immigrants, we often focus on the families who lose cherished loved ones. But there is more to the story. The approximately 11 million aspiring Americans in our country are woven into the fabric of communities. Nearly 10 million have lived in the United States for five years or more. They are volunteers, breadwinners, and skilled workers.
Take, for example, the story of Benjamin Nuñez-Marquez, a 38-year-old man living and working in Orcas Island, Washington. His story was recently reported in the Seattle Times.
For 15 years, Benjamin was solely responsible for operating the antique circular saw at West Sound Lumber. His skills and knowledge were indispensable to running the mill—no one else knew how to operate the saw that he used to craft furniture and other goods. The company’s owner, Jack Helsell, considered Benjamin essential to his business’s success, as Benjamin did the same work that two men used to do, and he did it twice as fast. Benjamin was not only a reliable worker, he was also virtually irreplaceable. Before he came on, no sawyer had stayed on the job for longer than a year, given the tough, physical nature of the work.
In 2008, however, Benjamin ran afoul of immigration authorities while driving his sick and elderly neighbor to the hospital. Benjamin met his 80-year old neighbor Natalie White in 1998. In exchange for English lessons, he helped Natalie with odd jobs around the house and took care of her cats, dogs, goats, and guinea pigs. When Natalie suffered a stroke, she thought to call Benjamin first rather than dial 911. Benjamin drove her to the closest hospital and they encountered a Border Patrol checkpoint on the way, where he was apprehended. He was detained, granted a hearing, and then ordered to be removed from the country.
Meanwhile, the Helsells worried if their business would survive. West Sound Lumber is a small, family-owned company that couldn’t afford to upgrade its saw, and even after recruiting for two years, the business could not find a replacement for Benjamin. The company wouldn’t have been the only business affected by Benjamin’s deportation. Local builders who depend on the mill’s lumber urged immigration authorities to release the skilled craftsman, writing that his loss would be disastrous for their businesses. Local artists also went to West Sound Lumber with special projects for Benjamin and the saw.
The Orcas Island community, like other communities across the country, rallied to make the case that deporting someone who is integrally linked to their community would be devastating and was not in the country’s best interest. The Helsell family, other local businesses and residents, elected officials, and local papers wrote hundreds of letters and made countless calls to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, urging the agency to release Benjamin.
The advocacy paid off.
This past May, Benjamin was granted a one-year stay of removal. Senator Patty Murray (D–Wash.) remarked: “As I told Homeland Security Secretary [Jeh] Johnson, Ben Nunez is exactly the type of person we should not be kicking out of this country. He’s a cherished friend and member of his community, he’s a hard worker who keeps the doors open at a small business, and he’s someone Americans should be proud to call their own.”
The United States is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession and it is incredibly poor policy to spend taxpayer dollars apprehending, detaining, and removing people like Benjamin, people who are integral to both our businesses and our communities. Misguided immigration policies don’t just tear families apart; these policies also impact the communities where aspiring Americans live and contribute. Their neighbors, pastors, teachers, and co-workers feel the effects of the broken immigration system and have advocated for Congress to act.
Since GOP leadership in the House of Representatives has failed to do so, President Obama must now do what is in the best interest of communities across the country.