Last June, an undocumented, single mother and tamale peddler named Juana Reyes spent 13 days in Sacramento County jail for trespassing. She was arrested for selling tamales in front of a Walmart Superstore on Florin Road.
Those charges were dropped almost immediately, but Reyes remained in jail on an immigration hold, terrified that she was about to be deported. For the nearly two weeks Reyes sat in jail, her two American-born children, ages 10 and 7, were placed in foster care.
This week the Obama administration issued a new rule that will help some illegal immigrants obtain legal permanent residency. It allows illegal immigrants who can demonstrate that time apart from their American relatives a husband, wife, parent, or child would create an "extreme hardship" to apply for a visa without leaving the United States.
Eventually the immigrants covered under the new rule will have to return to their home country to pick up their visa. But an expedited process will help ensure they do not get stuck away from their American families for months or even years, as is frequently the case now.
The new rule attempts to address the predicament many undocumented immigrants confront, although it doesn't go far enough in addressing those faced by Reyes and others. In her case, Reyes entered the country illegally 16 years ago. She worked hard, led a crime-free life in Sacramento and bore two children, both U.S. citizens. When she and her husband split up, Reyes began selling tamales door to door to support her children and pay the rent.
Deporting her not only would cruelly separate mother and children, it would saddle the state with the cost of caring for parentless youngsters.
The new rule, unfortunately, may not help Reyes for many years, since it doesn't allow children to petition for their undocumented parents until they are over 21 years of age. Reyes' child is currently 10 years old. That is why a comprehensive federal immigration law law is needed, one that likely would apply both compassion and common sense in preventing the break up of families.
You could argue that from the standpoint of political optics, it might have been smart for President Barack Obama to hold off on this executive order until the 113th Congress had been given a chance to act on immigration. Yet haven't the children of illegal immigrants waited long enough as their parents sit in legal limbo?
Congress has had decades to deal with these kinds of situations, always promising some "grand compromise" that never arrives.
The country needs comprehensive immigration reform. After the last election, even Republicans appear to have gotten that message. But while the nation waits for Congress to get its act together, Obama is right to act on behalf of innocent victims of our outdated and overly punitive immigration system.