Twenty-year-old Bryan Rivera didn’t know where to turn. His mother, a victim of domestic violence, had been turned in to immigration authorities for deportation by her ex-husband — the man who abused her, even while pregnant — as revenge for asking for owed child support payments.
Held for nearly a month at a Henderson facility, Thelma Martinez Soto would soon be shipped backed to Mexico, a country she left 24 years ago for greater opportunity in the United States. A ball of nerves, she could barely sleep.
Out of options, Rivera attended an immigration hearing Monday night in North Las Vegas and asked for help from U.S. Reps. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas.
Soto, 49, was released the next afternoon and reunited with her only son after Gutierrez and Horsford appealed to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. She’s now preparing her case to try and stay here legally.
“I was so scared,” Soto said Wednesday. “I still can’t sleep. My blood pressure is up. It was a nightmare.”
Mother and son went to church to thank God. Then on Wednesday they thanked Horsford during a Hispanics in Politics breakfast meeting, where he introduced them as an example of a broken immigration system that needs to be fixed.
“I have never given up and neither has she,” Rivera said, adding his story is not unique. “I’m speaking on behalf of … hundreds of thousands of children and families who are being separated from one another.”
Horsford, a primary co-sponsor of a House comprehensive immigration reform bill, said the case illustrates how the law is being abused and how the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. live in constant fear of deportation, even if they have never been in trouble with legal authorities or committed any violent crime.
“When you live in the shadows the law cannot protect you, but it can be used against you,” said Horsford, who teared up after Rivera told his story to about 50 diners at the breakfast inside Dona Maria Tamales Restaurant in downtown Las Vegas. “It can be used in some ways to blackmail you.”
In Soto’s case, she was married for only five years but the father of her child continued to torment her and threaten her even after they were divorced, according to her and Rivera. He now lives in Chicago, she said. Beaten during pregnancy, she gave birth to her son after seven months and he was born deaf in his left ear because of the abuse, her son said.
“Brian told us that his father said one time, ‘Remember that your mother’s an illegal immigrant and I can get rid of her,’” Horsford recounted. “And, unfortunately, that’s what he did, in part because of a broken and backwards immigration system. … She was detained at the hands of her abuser. That’s perverse. It’s disgusting and it’s absolutely wrong.”
Now, Rivera can continue his education, studying at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas. Until Tuesday when his mother was released, he said he didn’t know whether he was going to continue his education, he worried that he might end up homeless on the streets and he didn’t know how he was going to pay for his next meal, he said.
His mother works at a local sandwich shop, earning enough to support them.
“We feel blessed to be alive,” Rivera said, smiling and standing next to his mother.
Horsford said he has called on President Barack Obama to halt deportations of undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record. He said the president has responded by announcing last week that his administration would review its policies. So far, the Obama administration has deported nearly 2 million immigrants, far more than past presidents.
Horsford also said there is enough bipartisan support in the House to pass House Resolution 15, a version of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last year. He said 200 House Democrats support it, while 27 Republicans back it, which is more than the 218 votes needed for passage.
He blamed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, for not scheduling the bill for a vote.
“Speaker John Boehner decides whether or not we get a vote,” Horsford said. “And that’s why it’s so frustrating when I hear my colleagues say I support it but I can’t get the speaker to do anything about it.”
Still, Horsford said he expects Congress will pass immigration reform this year, although it’s an election year, making the topic even more divisive. Some Republicans, however, fear a backlash at the ballot box if they don’t fix the system.
“Immigration reform is our generation’s civil and human rights issue of our time,” Horsford said.
“This is an issue that affects all communities,” not just Hispanics, he added. “It is well past time for us to change the system that is largely broken, that is tearing families apart and that is forcing millions of immigrants to live in the shadows.”
Horsford argued that updating the nation’s immigration laws to allow undocumented people to openly join the workforce will create economic growth of about $1.4 trillion over the next 20 years in the United States. He said it also will help businesses that need more international workers to study and work here, particularly in the high-tech industry.
“I’m going to get things done for people like Bryan and his mother,” Horsford said. “That kid’s life is changed forever.”
Contact reporter Laura Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.