Jessica Dominguez Keeps Families Together

In 2012, immigration was an incendiary issue that dominated the Republican primaries and may even have swung the election. The President now seems prepared to spend political capital to achieve reform. But for Jessica Dominguez, a Los Angeles lawyer who was once undocumented herself, keeping deportees from being separated from their children isn’t political football—it’s very, very personal

by Margy Rochlin
jessica dominguez image
“I say to my clients, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up,’” says Jessica Dominguez, photographed in the California desert.
Photograph: Alessandra Petlin

They begin recording, and it turns out Dominguez has a surprise up her sleeve. What she hasn’t told her clients is that she has secured the holy grail, the green card that will give Stephanie permanent residency and put her on the road to full citizenship. When Dominguez slides the certificate across the wooden table, Marta and Stephanie spontaneously leap from their chairs and rush to hug her. Their cheeks wet with tears, they finally untangle themselves from the embrace and settle back in front of their microphones. Dominguez reaches for the box of tissues and gently tips it in their direction.

Seventy-two percent of the foreign-born population in the United States is here legally, and 28 percent is unauthorized, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Of the roughly 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living here today, says Pew, an estimated 58 percent are from Mexico. Last year the Obama administration spent $18 billion on policing immigration, more than on all the other major federal law—enforcement agencies combined, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Republicans and Democrats alike admit that the immigration system is broken, but few agree on how to fix it. Reform is a stated priority for President Obama in 2013—and it helped tip the scales for him in the 2012 election. More than 71 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, perhaps influenced by the Republican platform, which argued for harsher policing of the borders and “self-deportation.”

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, and their voting power—23.7 million Hispanics were eligible to vote in the 2012 elections—is heating up the immigration debate. Feelings run hot on both sides. “Let’s take the California public school system as an example,” says Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors what it calls robust enforcement of immigration laws. “California spends about $10,000 a year on each kid in school. If you have a situation where there are a million kids from illegal immigrant families in the public schools, well, now you’re looking at $10 billion.” People who describe themselves as anti-immigration also say undocumented workers take jobs from citizens, commit crimes and cost taxpayers money, draining resources not just from schools but also from hospitals and police and fire departments. Proponents of this view tend to favor tighter border security, faster deportation and a limited path to citizenship.

People who support an easier path to legal status argue that welcoming those who want to make a better life here is essential to who we are as a country. They say these workers do jobs that citizens don’t want, like picking strawberries and mowing lawns; statistics show that illegal immigrants provide at least 25 percent of the labor in construction, agriculture, groundskeeping, meat processing and clothing manufacture. In addition, many illegal immigrants pay state and federal income taxes using an invalid Social Security number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which the IRS gives to foreign workers (taxpayer ID numbers are issued regardless of immigration status). The total amount of payroll and Social Security taxes collected from undocumented workers is estimated to be $8.5 billion a year. Yet these noncitizen taxpayers are unable to claim Social Security or Medicare benefits or other services paid for with that money.

Those statistics are the big picture. But Dominguez lives in the heartbreak of the day-to-day. One of the most draconian elements of the law involves millions of so-called mixed-status families, in which some members, often children, are citizens because they were born here and others, usually parents, are not. This means that when parents are deported, they face the agonizing choice of leaving their children behind in the U.S. or taking them to live in a country with far fewer opportunities. A measure of relief came in January, when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that waivers would be granted to some immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens. But that just scrapes the surface of the problem.

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