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This Lawmaker Had Dinner With An Undocumented Family. He Wants Republicans To Follow Suit.

Don Beyer (third from right) dines with the Pintos, an immigrant family in Arlington, VA. CREDIT: ESTHER YU HSI LEE
Don Beyer (third from right) dines with the Pintos, an immigrant family in Arlington, VA. CREDIT: ESTHER YU HSI LEE

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — When Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) sat down as a dinner guest on Monday night, his hosts had a clear agenda beyond sharing a meal together.

Beyer’s companions were the Pintos, a Latino family of five with varying immigration statuses who live in suburban Virginia. Borrowing an immigrant advocate’s house on this night, the family passed around a take-out platter with fajita ingredients around the table of six, no cell phones in sight, eager and nervous to dine with Beyer. They wanted to make clear to him that their lives could be upended by a knock on the door from federal immigration authorities.

Palpable tension hung over the meal as the family explained that their youngest son, 8-year-old Christian, is the only family member with U.S. citizenship. Christian could be the only one left in the country if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency officials came to the Pinto home with final deportation orders.

The conversation broke into natural laughter with Christian leading many of the jokes about hoverboards, video games, planets — all topics on which he was an expert. But even he stopped smiling and began pushing around the food on his plate when his father, Jerry Pinto Sr., told the congressman about his journey across the southern U.S. border in 2004 in search of better economic opportunities for his family. Now he’s a construction worker — but he lives his life cautiously, afraid of getting pulled over by local law enforcement who may choose to turn him over to the federal immigration agency. His wife is in a similar boat, living in fear of being reported to immigration officials.

It’s gotta be hard for you because you’re hiding all the time.

“It’s gotta be hard for you because you’re hiding all the time,” Beyer said after the family shared their story. “That’s a long time for you to be in legal limbo.”

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Since they arrived a decade ago, the Pintos have had more opportunities in the United States. Twenty-two-year-old Ambar was able to pay for a college education after she was granted temporary legal presence under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, which allows some qualified undocumented immigrants like herself to receive temporary work authorization and deportation reprieve. Her brother, 15-year-old Jerry Jr., will soon follow suit once he qualifies for the initiative next year.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) and the Pinto family CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) and the Pinto family CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

The dinner, sponsored by the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights, allowed the Pinto family to highlight how they could contribute more to American society if the president’s executive action on immigration formally announced in November 2014 were allowed to take place.

That two-part plan — including an update to DACA and the implementation of a similar initiative known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Residents (DAPA) — was Obama’s signature executive action on immigration during a time of congressional inaction on a permanent immigration reform bill.

But soon after Obama announced the DAPA initiative, a group of Republican-led states filed suit to challenge the president’s authority to take this action, halting plans for people like the Pinto family to live in the country without the constant fear of deportation. A Texas judge issued an injunction last year, blocking the government from implementing DAPA and DACA, and the case made its way to the country’s highest court. Oral arguments in U.S. vs. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court case that could impact millions of families like the Pintos, are set for later this month.

If my parents were in deportation proceedings, my family would completely break apart.

The Pinto family is hoping that the Supreme Court will uphold the executive actions, ensuring that their family can stay together.

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“If my parents were in deportation proceedings, my family would completely break apart,” Ambar told ThinkProgress, her eyes welling up with tears. “If it was my dad, I would be the one responsible to sustain my family because my mom doesn’t have access to a driver’s license and she works from time to time. I don’t know what would happen to my brothers. It’s important that we have DAPA so that my parents won’t be deported for at least two years.”

The Pintos are also wary of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has built his campaign on anti-immigrant rhetoric and has called for the deportation of the country’s entire undocumented population.

“If Donald Trump wins, I’m glad I have a passport,” Christian told the congressman, explaining that he would have to visit his parents in Latin America after they got deported.

Like Christian, an estimated 4.5 million U.S. citizens have at least one undocumented parent. Those family connections aren’t enough to keep them together. More than a half-million immigrant parents of U.S. citizen children were deported between 2009 and 2013, an Urban Institute study found. Studies show that the deportation of at least one parent can inflict lasting trauma on children. Children also often go hungry when they lose their parents.

Although Beyer is supportive of immigration reform, and the Pintos didn’t need to change his mind on the subject, the congressman does hope that the dinner could model a way forward for other politicians who support mass deportation. He thinks anti-immigrant politicians should follow in his footsteps and spend some time with immigrant families.

We make this false differentiation that because they weren’t born here…they’re not as American as you and I.

“I would say that they just don’t understand the problem,” Beyer told ThinkProgress after the dinner. “It shows no compassion at all. As with this family, the youngest is a U.S. citizen born here. Another one has deferred action status. The parents have no papers. And yet we don’t want to break them into three or four different pieces, or even two pieces.”

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Beyer added that the young undocumented immigrants that he’s met in his district are “indistinguishable from my children, my nieces and nephews who were born in this country.”

“We make this false differentiation that because they weren’t born here, their parents weren’t born here, that they’re not as American as you and I,” Beyer said.