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Immigrant parents of US citizens anxiously await Supreme Court ruling

Isabel Medina of East Los Angeles and her husband have saved bags full of receipts, bills and other documents to prove their long-term residency in the United States. Both hope to obtain temporary legal status under Obama's executive immigration plan as the parents of U.S. citizen children.
Isabel Medina of East Los Angeles and her husband have saved bags full of receipts, bills and other documents to prove their long-term residency in the United States. Both hope to obtain temporary legal status under Obama's executive immigration plan as the parents of U.S. citizen children.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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On a recent Friday night, Felipe Ortiz kicked a soccer ball around the driveway of his family's small rental house in East Los Angeles with his two youngest sons.

His wife, Isabel Medina, cheered them on, shouting out "Gooooaaaal!" in Spanish, like a pro-soccer announcer.

The family's fun masks the fact that Medina and Ortiz are on pins and needles, and they have been for weeks. The couple and other immigrants are anxiously awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision due shortly that will determine if the Obama administration can offer temporary legal status and work permits to certain immigrants living in the country illegally — specifically parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and immigrants who arrived as minors.

Medina and Ortiz have lived in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years. They have three kids and their 8 and 9-year-old sons are U.S. citizens. Their situation makes them ideal candidates for what is known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, DAPA for short.

"We're excited," Medina said. "We are ready. We have our documents, lots of bags of documents that prove our residency here, that prove how long we have lived here.”

The couple has saved up shopping bags full of bills, receipts, school records — all to prove their U.S. residency since before January 2010. That’s the requirement applicants must meet to show they are qualified for DAPA, provided the court approves the plan. If it does, those qualified would be eligible to apply for work permits and protection from deportation for three years.

DAPA stems from one of two executive orders issued by President Obama in November 2014. The first benefits parents of American citizens and those who live here legally. The second calls for expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA.  

That program, initiated in 2012, provides temporary legal status and work permits for immigrants who arrived as minors under age 16. An expansion of DACA would lift the age-30 cutoff for current applicants, allowing older adults to apply for deportation protection and work permits, also for three years.

Between the two programs, officials estimate more than 4 million immigrants nationwide could qualify for the temporary relief.

DAPA and extended DACA have been held up in court since last year. In Feburary 2015, when Obama's executive actions were about to take effect, the state of Texas filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Obama’s orders. Twenty-five other states then joined the suit.

The case wound up in the Fifth District Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel ruled 2 to 1 last November in favor of Texas and other states. The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Medina and Ortiz are among an estimated 400,000 immigrants in Los Angeles County who could benefit from DAPA, but only if the court rules in favor of the Obama administration. If it doesn't, or if the court is split 4-4, then nothing much would change. They would just keep working and living in the shadows, as they have for years.

But Medina and Ortiz live in California, which for them is a good thing. "By and large, California is the national leader in our immigrant integration policies," said state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens who has sponsored several immigrant friendly-bills.

Thanks to one 2013 law that allows unauthorized immigrants to apply for California driver's licenses, Isabel Medina can now drive legally.

Immigrants without legal status in California can also receive in-state tuition and financial aid for college. They can apply for professional licenses in dozens of industries, including health care and legal services.

Lara also authored a recent law that allows children under 18 who lack legal status to obtain full health coverage under Medi-Cal. Unauthorized adult immigrants can't access full-scope Medi-Cal. But Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a second Lara bill that lets the state seek a waiver from the federal government to allow unauthorized immigrants to sign on to Obamacare, so long as they pay their own way.

Some counties also offer benefits. Uninsured immigrants in Los Angeles County can receive free, basic medical care at community clinics.

Given the benefits available, what would a court-approved DAPA mean for people like Medina and Ortiz? Isabel Medina said it would change their lives, first by providing work permits. 

“I don’t have one, so where am I going to find a job that pays well?" said Medina. "I hope I can get one in the future, a Social Security number, so that we can have a better quality of life.”

While she's earned an associate's degree from a local community college and was able to land work in medical offices, she said her pay has not exceeded minimum wage.

DAPA would also bring them peace of mind, she said, just knowing that she and her husband would be protected from deportation, even temporarily.

 “We have all these big plans, but they all come down to one thing," Medina said. "To be able to have the peace of knowing that our family will stay together."

As a practical matter, people like Medina and Ortiz are not high priority targets for deportation. The Obama administration has focused its efforts on people with criminal records, and on more recent arrivals. Still, observers say there are no guarantees.

"Even with a driver’s license and a clean record, an unauthorized immigrant in California could still be deported, and this happens on a regular basis," said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at University of California, Irvine. "So the fear remains.”

DeSipio also points out that anything can happen after the November presidential election. A new administration could change previous immigration policies — even upending a plan like DAPA. 

If the court decides against DAPA, Medina and Ortiz said they aren’t giving up their hope for a better life.

“We don’t have a choice," said Ortiz, who works at a vegetable-packing plant. "We'll just keep hoping for something else to come along.”