Last July, Maura Romero’s husband had a heart attack at a construction site in Coney Island, but he didn’t tell anyone at work. Romero said her husband finally mentioned the pain in his chest when he arrived home in Sunset Park that evening.
“He said he felt ill and that he couldn’t breathe,” said Romero. “We immediately went to the hospital where he was taken in at the intensive care unit.”
Her husband’s health wasn’t Romero’s only worry—she was afraid the hospital might discover that she and her husband were undocumented immigrants. The 35-year-old mother feared being asked too many questions by medical employees when she applied for a temporary Medicaid card to help pay for her husband’s weeklong hospital stay.
“Luckily, they only asked for a letter from his employer and our daughters’ birth certificates,” said Romero, of Tlaxcala, Mexico. Their daughters are 11 and 4.
Romero is part of the large population of Mexican immigrants living in Sunset Park that will be affected by the outcome of immigration reform, a topic addressed by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Obama said bipartisan groups in the Senate and House of Representatives are working to draft an immigration reform bill he is ready to sign right away. A comprehensive immigration reform bill would include a pathway to American citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants that would depend on progress made in securing the borders —reducing illegal crossings — and ensuring that foreigners leave the United States when their visas expire, the president said.
Mexicans remain the largest group of unauthorized immigrants in the United States, accounting for 6.5 million people, or 58 percent of the total, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. New York’s estimated undocumented immigrant population is about 625,000, according to the latest U.S. Census data. That is a decline from an estimated 825,000 in 2007. In Sunset Park, a diverse community with a large Mexican population, many, including the Romeros, face fears of deportation and separation from their families.
“The legislators need to concentrate on solutions that are real, that are human,” said Leticia Laniz, executive director of La Union, a 600-member organization that works with immigrants in Sunset Park. “If the U.S. defends human rights in other countries why not start at home and give all these (undocumented) people who do not have rights their rights.”
Deportations have more than doubled over the past decade, reaching almost 400,000 in 2009, the Pew reports. In 2009, more than 70 percent of deportees were Mexican, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Other reasons for the drop could be attributed, according to the Pew report, to fewer immigrants coming into the country, more migrants leaving voluntarily or because many now have legal status.
Isabel Herrera is an undocumented mother of three who hasn’t seen her family in Mexico for the past 20 years. Herrera, who lives in Coney Island, commutes to Sunset Park to help La Union with educational workshops for the immigrant community. The group covers topics such as deferred action and parents’ rights in their children’s public school education. La Union occupies a small office in the St. Jacobi Lutheran Church on 4th Avenue.
“The most difficult part about living in the U.S. is being undocumented,” said Herrera, who is the mother of three children. “Not knowing what will happen and having a doubt whether I’ll be here tomorrow. For me that’s my biggest fear.”
Herrera ‘s daughter Prisma, 16, plans to attend Smith College but she worries about what might happen if her parents are deported. She isn’t convinced Obama will pass a comprehensive immigration reform since there have been more deportations during his tenure than when George W. Bush was president. The Pew Hispanic Center reports the deportations under Obama are about 30 percent higher than the annual average during the second term of the Bush administration and about double the annual average during Bush’s first term.
“I am very scared that my parents are undocumented because I never know whether they’ll be detained by immigration officers or the police and then get deported,” said Prisma. “Who will my siblings and I go live with?”
Among children with at least one undocumented immigrant parent, 70 percent have parents from Mexico, the Pew Hispanic Center reports.
Meanwhile, Romero and her family still hope that their situation will improve. She says her husband’s health, thankfully, has improved significantly since he had the heart attack almost seven months ago.
But the temporary Medicaid coverage expires in the summer. He continues to work in construction earning $10 per hour and Romero works as a babysitter and volunteers at La Union. If Obama’s plans become law, she says, she would be able to apply for medical insurance and make sure her husband is permanently covered in case there is another medical scare.
Romero also has other dreams pinned on Obama’s plans.
“I would be able to travel to Mexico and see my mother, who I haven’t seen in 13 years,” Romero said. “I would learn English and be able to get a better job. That is very important.”