Facing Deployment While Fearing That Family Members Will Be Deported
Enoch Orona is unsure when he'll be dispatched for his third tour of duty. But the Navy sailor's greatest fear is not combat — it's returning home to find that his mom isn't there.
Orona, 30, is paying close attention to the news, checking his phone often for any updates on immigration raids that President Trump announced could begin any day now. He can't help but imagine men with guns surrounding his parents' home in Virginia.
"It would be like the world crashing down if I come back home to find out that my mother's been deported," Orona said. "She's been pretty much my support this entire time. She supported my dream of going into the military when I was younger. She supported me when I was on deployment when I called home."
Orona, a Navy petty officer, hoped his military status would allow him to help protect his mother, who entered the country illegally 35 years ago. His lawyer told him he qualifies for a program designed to prevent the deportation of undocumented residents whose husbands, wives, sons or daughters are fighting overseas for the United States.
As NPR first reported in June, the Trump administration is now looking to end or scale back the program as part of its crackdown on illegal immigration. Government lawyers have been told the program protecting family of active duty service members and veterans is "being terminated," which the families and lawmakers fear could harm military readiness.
The first known cases of discretionary parole were granted under President George W. Bush, but President Barack Obama formalized the "parole in place" program in a 2013 policy memo to ensure those fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere wouldn't worry about their relatives while on duty.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledged that officials are now "reviewing the categorical use of parole."
"Under the law, parole is to be used sparingly on a case-by-case basis when there is an urgent humanitarian need or significant public benefit," a USCIS official told NPR. "At this time, USCIS has no new announcement on this issue as it is still in review."
The Pentagon did not respond to specific questions about the program being scaled down.
The United States military has historically depended on immigrants in times of battle. Many immigrants who join the military go on to become U.S. citizens. Nearly 130,000 troops have been naturalized from more than 30 foreign countries since Oct. 1, 2001, according to USCIS statistics.
Service members aware of the proposed changes to the parole in place program say their anxiety has increased as the Trump administration announced plans to carry out immigration sweeps in 10 major cities.
Lewis Ramos, 22, an operations specialist in the U.S. Army National Guard, already had his deployment orders to a combat zone when he heard the immigration raids would likely include Chicago, where he lives with his mother and family.
Worried about his mother, who arrived illegally 30 years ago from Mexico, Ramos contacted a lawyer who was able to quickly file for parole in place. Ramos was lucky. He recently learned she would receive the protection by the time he leaves later this month. But he thinks about fellow soldiers and what could have happened.
"It would always linger in the back of my head," Lewis said. "I do not want to cause anybody to lose their life because I'm thinking of home. But in times off, or when I would get homesick, it would really hit me hard."
Ramos' attorney, Michael Jarecki, said the United States should be "rolling out the red carpet" for service members instead of threatening to end protections for the loved ones of the people "who are serving our country going to the farthest reaches of the world to protect those of us who remain at home."
The possibility of its termination has caught the attention of many in Washington, including several top Democratic presidential candidates.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California called the action "beyond cruel."
Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York charged the administration with trying to cut off a "critical lifeline" for undocumented family members of service members.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who is not running for president, told NPR the program is a matter of national security and wrote a letter to the acting heads of the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security asking them to keep the parole in place program going.
"He's going to be focused on his family. He's not going to be focused on his job, which puts him in danger, puts his squad in danger, puts his unit in danger of attack," said Duckworth, a combat war veteran.
House Democrats are trying to block Trump from ending the program. Rep. Mark Takano suggested adding a provision to the annual defense authorization legislation that would ensure immediate family members of the armed services would be eligible for parole in place under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
While the House is expected to approve that provision, the issue will still need to be negotiated with the Republican-led Senate, which is working on its own version of the defense bill.
Supporters of Trump say it's time to curtail a program that the Obama administration should never have formalized.
RJ Hauman, the government relations director at FAIR, which advocates for stronger immigration enforcement, said Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he bypassed Congress and formalized the program, much like when he created DACA, the deferred action program for those brought to the country illegally as children.
"Throughout our history, military personnel have fought to preserve and protect our constitutional form of government," Hauman said. "A core principle is that the president must abide by laws, not override them with policy memos and executive orders."
Orona's mother, Maria Teresa, said she wouldn't know what to do if forced to return to El Salvador. She hasn't been back since she left 35 years ago. Her husband is a pastor of a local church. She says her life now is in the United States.
"It's very difficult," she said. "There are a lot of people who live day by day unsure whether they'll be arrested. And to be sent where we don't have anything or anyone."
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney who represents the family, said Orona has been denied parole in place once before but that immigration officials have acknowledged that they didn't have all of her correct information. Stock said it's crazy to think Orona is going through this when he could be deployed at any time.
"I think most people can imagine what it would feel like if you were fighting for your country overseas and at the same time the government that's employing you in battle is trying to deport your family," she said.
Orona, the oldest of two children, describes himself as very protective of his family. He says he talks with his mother almost every day.
He keeps them abreast of the news. He gives them updates on reports of immigration sweeps. But mostly, he says, he just waits.
He hopes the call will be positive that his mom will be protected. And not that she's been taken into custody.
"Like, there's nothing that I could possibly do right," he said. "And that's very scary."
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