American Dream deferred

Blanca Vasquez laughs during an English class she takes at Our Lady of Mercy Community Outreach Center on Johns Island.

Blanca Vasquez had worked hard that day, baking and delivering cakes to three big events: a birthday party, a wedding and a baby shower. It had been a long Saturday after a long week, and exhaustion crept in.

“You drive,” she told her husband.

With that, their lives would change, seemingly forever. Santos Garcia slipped behind the wheel. It was late, nearing midnight, as they headed home to Johns Island with their three drowsy kids in back.

But at a traffic light, the one in front of Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley, Garcia struck another car, breaking a headlight but not injuring anyone. Both cars pulled over.

Garcia grabbed his registration and insurance and hopped out, promising profusely to pay for the damage.

The other driver picked up his cell phone. And dialed the police.

In that dark, warm August night, terror descended. Vasquez and Garcia lived with the dread that the nation’s estimated 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants know well, the one that accompanies the words: “driver’s license please.”

Garcia held a job, paid taxes and raised his children. But the Mexico native had no documents proving he could be in the country legally, and therefore no driver’s license.

His wife knew what that could mean. As the officer’s blue lights approached, Vasquez panicked. “Maybe,” she thought, “I should tell him that I was driving.”

Instead, as she and her three children watched, as they cried, the police officer handcuffed Garcia, placed him into a squad car and drove away to Charleston County’s detention center.

Five days later, Vasquez received a call: Authorities were moving Garcia to a Georgia jail. Before she could see him again, her husband was gone.

On Nov. 14, Garcia was deported to Mexico.

Six days later, President Barack Obama unveiled his executive action to reform immigration policy.

Parents like Vasquez, undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, would be able to request a deportation deferral for three years. They must have been in the U.S. since January 2010 and pass a background check. Applications could start May 20, the National Immigration Law Center says.

Vasquez thinks she could qualify.

Obama’s action also would defer deportations for people who came to the U.S. as children. They can apply Feb. 18.

The changes could lift the constant worry of deportation for about 5 million of the 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. today, according to Pew Research Center estimates.

Yet, strident criticism came swiftly, especially from Republicans who called the unilateral move illegal. Others argued against rewarding people who had entered the U.S. illegally. And many said it would cost Medicaid more.

South Carolina leaders joined a coalition of 17 states suing the administration over the action.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is among those who support the lawsuit. “The executive action is unprecedented and tramples on the concept of constitutional checks and balances,” Graham said in a statement.

Now opponents want to pull federal purse strings shut to stymie the changes.

Congressional Republicans are trying to withhold funding from the Department of Homeland Security that could be used to pay for the deportation deferrals. Last week, Senate Democrats blocked a similar effort.

In another tack, the House may vote next week whether to authorize leaders to sue the president.

Meanwhile, as lawmakers in Washington, D.C., clashed over immigration reform, Garcia slipped back across the border in a desperate attempt to reunite with his wife and children.

He was caught and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He remains locked up in New Mexico, his wife says.

A 34-year-old with a wise countenance, Vasquez is risking her own deportation to share her story publicly so that others will know the people behind words like “immigration reform” and “undocumented workers.”

To her and their children, Garcia wasn’t a man defying American laws or taking jobs someone else wanted.

He simply was el papa.

Vasquez came to the United States in 2001 when she was 21. She’d been working in a border town, the only place she could find work. But it was a dangerous area, especially for women, and one day she was assaulted.

A cousin who lives on Johns Island invited her to visit, to get away.

Vasquez received a six-month tourist’s visa. When she arrived, she felt safe and easily found work at a local factory, earning in one day what she made in a week back home.

She didn’t return to Mexico.

Instead, she got a taxpayer identification card, for those who aren’t eligible for Social Security numbers, to pay taxes. Eventually, she settled into a better job at a local restaurant and gift shop.

Fear settled in, too.

“I wake up every morning worried if I have to go home,” she says. Then, and now, she drove cautiously to avoid encounters with police over burned-out headlights or speeding. Because then would come the words: “driver’s license, please.”

A year later, she met Garcia. He was nearly 15 years older than her, a man who had grown up destitute, an orphan from a dangerous region of Mexico, one determined to be a devoted father himself. They had three children. Santos is 12, and Christopher turns 11 in a few days.

Last came a baby girl. They named her America.

The family became known for renting out Legare Farm for birthdays, confirmations, any excuse to celebrate.

“All his life was around the kids,” Vasquez says. “He do always for the kids. He tried to do everything. Now with his absence, everything has changed.”

Garcia, who had been in the U.S. for 18 years, worked in landscaping and construction. Vasquez worked part time so that she could be home when their kids were out of school. On the side, she baked cakes.

Life became so comfortable that, at times, Vasquez almost forgot the fear. Almost.

They moved into a house down a stretch of rural Johns Island road, past timeworn trailers and colorful banners blaring: “New Homes!”

Inside their modest house, its roof patched up in spots, a white Christmas tree still sits decorated by a sunny window. Large trees shelter the house from the day’s persistent wind and rain, and inside it’s cozy and warm. America’s tiny wooden chair and table wait near a couch.

From here, Vasquez and Garcia worked and raised their children. They paid taxes. They went to church. They asked for no government aid.

“This country was started with immigrants,” she says. “And they didn’t need permission to come here.”

America started kindergarten this year. The boys both made the Principal’s List at Haut Gap. And Vasquez continues to take English classes at Our Lady of Mercy Outreach on Johns Island. She has logged 468 hours of class time since 2009.

When she arrives at the outreach, she sits amid rows of other unauthorized immigrants also trying to learn English. Everyone knows someone who’s been sent back.

“You hear those stories all the time,” said Maria Gurovich, the outreach’s volunteer coordinator.

When Gurovich met Vasquez, she was surprised how much the woman followed the news, how active she was, how determined she was to learn English.

“She’s very smart and driven. If only she had papers, she could do so much more. She’s just one of those people, but not having documents is such a hardship,” Gurovich says.

Gurovich also knows well the criticisms that dry up sympathies. Unauthorized immigrants have broken the law. They use up resources paid for with people’s hard-earned tax dollars. They take jobs from American workers.

“People have a lot of preconceived notions: ‘Oh, those immigrants!’ ” Gurovich says. “But people are desperate, so they make that journey.”

Vasquez tears up wondering if Garcia ever will make that journey again. What if he never sees America take her first communion? What if he never sees Santos in the Military Magnet uniform he hopes to wear? What if he doesn’t see Christopher graduate from Haut Gap’s magnet program?

And without her husband’s income, Vasquez worries how they will survive financially. The outreach and their church, Holy Spirit Catholic, have helped to keep the lights on. But those aren’t permanent solutions.

“I’m thinking a lot about that,” Vasquez says.

She is working full time and picked up jobs cleaning houses. And she remains stalwart about one thing: Their kids will go to college, get good jobs and have better lives.

“You were born here. You have those benefits,” she tells them. “I do my job, you do yours.”

But Vasquez worries how quiet her oldest has gotten lately, how he doesn’t want to venture out, as if he’s afraid that he, too, might be taken away. Recently, when they passed a police car, he said, “Why the police take my father? I hate the police!”

While she understood, it still shocked her. “I never heard that from my son before,” she says.

Vasquez knows people accuse some immigrants of mooching off the system.

“That’s not true,” she says.

But that has changed now.

Without her husband’s income and health insurance, Vasquez recently applied for and received food stamps and Medicaid for her children. Because of Garcia’s deportation, they now do depend on government aid.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.