The passage of sweeping immigration legislation would mean "everything" to the 16-year-old girl from El Salvador who can't forget the image of her father's arrest and subsequent deportation, nor her own fear of being unable to pursue her dreams without so much as a green card.
She dreams of studying for her nursing degree at Towson University, of seeing her parents again, of simple teenage pleasures like being able to get a driver's license and a car.
Having legal status would mean "I would have the chance to become what I've always wanted to become," said the girl, who lives in Baltimore County with her sister and asked that her name not be printed for fear of deportation. "I know I'm not the only one going through this."
On Sunday afternoon, she met Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who came to speak at a town hall meeting on immigration after the Senate passed historic legislation last week that would offer a path to citizenship to as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows.
Cummings, who spoke at St. Patrick's, a Roman Catholic church in Southeast Baltimore with many Spanish-speaking parishioners, said the bill will face a tougher challenge in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, predicting it will be "not an easy struggle" to pass the legislation.
Yet Cummings spoke plainly of the importance of passing "humane" legislation that would keep families from being torn apart by deportation. The Senate bill would provide a 13-year path to citizenship and direct $46 billion toward border security over the next decade.
The congressman recounted how five years ago he came upon a man from Guatemala who had just been stabbed in a botched robbery at a gas station, putting a human face on both the way immigrants can be targeted in crimes because they may fear reporting them to the authorities and how many of them work to create better lives for their families.
The man, Carlos Adolfo Santay-Carrillo, 19, had stopped to fuel up on his way to the hospital after his wife went into labor when he was attacked by a 17-year-old who was later convicted in his murder. Santay-Carillo's wife gave birth to their son later that day as Santay-Carrillo lay dying.
Cummings said he held Santay-Carrillo's head in his arms and tried to keep the man from sitting up, as every time he did so, blood spurted from his chest. Cummings, whose words were translated into Spanish by an interpreter, said he believes the man was struggling to get to his wife and unborn son. Cummings said it was "a struggle for life so intense I felt my own breath taken away."
He prayed over the man until ambulances arrived, Cummings said, and Santay-Carrillo, who did not speak English well, squeezed his hand when he recognized the word "Jesus." Cummings said the man's killer later admitted he targeted a foreigner for the robbery because he felt such a person would be less likely to report it to police.
"So he died because he was an immigrant, he died trying to have a better life for his family and his future child, he died trying to reach out, to live the best life that he could," Cummings told the crowd of dozens, who gave him a standing ovation as he concluded his remarks. "Our country is better than that."
Several other people who would be affected by the legislation spoke at the town hall, organized by CASA in Action, a sister group to CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights group. One man spoke of bosses who would shortchange him for the hours he had worked. A woman said her mother longed to work again as a music teacher but did not have legal status and could not find someone who would hire her.
Missael Garcia, who works for CASA in Action, asked people in the crowd to raise their hands if they knew someone who had been deported. More than half the people in the room raised their hands.
"We are here to remind our elected leaders that keeping families together should be the primary goal of immigration reform," he said.
The Rev. Robert Wojtek of Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Patrick's supports a path to citizenship, as does the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which endorsed immigration reform earlier this month.
"Certainly, we want to see families stay together," he said. "We want to see justice for hardworking people with values ... so they can have a future for their children."
The 16-year-old girl from El Salvador came with her parents to the United States in 2008 after gangs in their native country burned the buses her father owned and drove for his livelihood. She said she feels the legislation would give her life normalcy.
Her father was pulled over in a routine traffic stop in Baltimore County and taken into custody because he lacked a driver's license. He was later deported.
"That was an image that I'll never forget," she said of witnessing the arrest. "They treated my dad like a murderer."
She could go to college in Maryland without legal status, but said she could not get a job as a nurse even if she got her degree. None of her friends know about her immigration status, she said.
"I've had opportunities," she said. "But my status is always there so I can't apply to any."
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