TOPICS > Nation > immigration

The almost American family

BY Elizabeth Summers  March 12, 2014 at 8:57 AM EST

family-illo

Meet the Fofanas — a Baltimore family facing a constant threat of deportation. Their story, which features three distinct immigration battles within one household, shines a light on the complexities of the U.S. immigration system and the challenges facing reform.

Macky Fofana spends his days flipping pizza dough and his nights searching for news on immigration reform. His soft-spoken younger brother Mohamed is a middle-school basketball star. And then there’s 17-year-old Ramata, fashionista and high school track athlete, who cooks dinner for her two brothers in their three-bedroom Baltimore apartment every evening while their mother and father work.

Macky, who is 21, was recently granted a permit to work here legally under an Obama administration rule issued last summer. Fourteen-year-old Mohamed is, for all practical purposes, without a legal status. Ramata has permission to stay in the U.S. temporarily, due to a judge’s ruling that if she were to return to her native country, she’d almost certainly be pressured to undergo female circumcision. And this year marks the tenth time — but not the last — that parents Coumba Konte and Aliou Fofana must reapply for permission to continue raising their three children in the U.S.

For an individual, attaining U.S. citizenship can be like groping through a maze. For the Fofana family, and the 16 million others living in mixed-status families in the U.S., becoming part of the American dream requires navigating several different mazes, the paths of which are constantly changing. The family arrived in the U.S. more than a decade ago, and while each family member’s goal is the same — to achieve American citizenship — their roads to get there are strikingly different.

Defying  Tradition

Coumba, 50, remembers the precise moment her daughter’s secret was discovered. It was 1998. Her mother-in-law was bathing then 2-year-old Ramata, in their rural town in central Mali, when she realized the girl’s clitoris was still intact.

Her relatives were furious, Coumba says, and accused her of shaming them by going against tradition in a country where more than 80 percent of women across all swaths of social stature and education levels undergo female genital mutilation, most of them at a young age. The most common form involves cutting off the clitoris with a saw-toothed knife, and Coumba, who was circumcised herself as a child and describes the still-lingering pain as unbearable, says she couldn’t stand to watch her daughter grow up the same way. Instead, she and her husband lied and said their daughter had the procedure done shortly after her birth.

Ramata sits in her room in Baltimore with her brother Mohamed. Photo by Ruth Tam

Ramata sits in her room in Baltimore with her brother Mohamed. Photo by Ruth Tam

Mothers in Mali are often powerless to stop the barbarity. More than half of girls who have undergone the procedure are daughters of mothers who oppose it, according to a recent UNICEF study. In Mali, Coumba explains, children belong to the whole society, not just to the parents. That means any family member “can just come and take your daughter, and just do it,” she says. “There is no law against it; there is nowhere you can go to complain. It’s tradition.”

In Mali, Coumba explains, children belong to the whole society, not just to the parents. Before the discovery, “life in Mali was good,” Coumba says. She had a master’s degree in veterinary science and owned her own business, buying cows and reselling them at a profit after they had been vaccinated and deemed healthy. In addition to Ramata, she and her husband had two healthy sons, Macky and Mohamed.

But after her lie was discovered, life became unbearable. Relatives tried on several occasions to kidnap Ramata to perform the procedure.

On the pretense of taking a two-week vacation, Coumba threw her family’s most precious belongings in suitcases and left for the United States, using a temporary visitor’s visa. She arrived on August 21, 2003, with three children under the age of 12, joining her husband, who had arrived earlier to get settled. No one in the family spoke English.

Eleven years later, husband and wife both hold full-time jobs — Aliou as co-owner of a transportation company and Coumba as a nursing assistant — and pay sales and income taxes. Even so, their ultimate dream of becoming American citizens quickly became tangled in U.S. immigration limbo, with various paths to citizenship and legal statuses that can and do change at any moment.

In Mali, Coumba had a master’s degree in veterinary science and owned her own business, buying, treating and selling livestock. Fofana family photo

In Mali, Coumba had a master’s degree in veterinary science and owned her own business, buying cows and reselling them at a profit after they had been vaccinated and deemed healthy. Fofana family photo

The winter after she entered the U.S., Coumba contacted a human rights organization to try to find a way to stay in the country legally. In the four-and-a-half months since her family’s arrival, she had learned English through courses at the local community college, bringing the total number of languages in which she was proficient to five. She enrolled her children in public school and found work braiding hair in a beauty salon — not her dream career after working as a highly-educated veterinarian, but a job just the same.

The path to secure a place for her children in their new country, however, has been full of twists and turns.

Temporary Stay of Deportation

In 2004, Coumba suffered two life-threatening ectopic pregnancies, both requiring surgery, in less than four months. Once back on her feet, she met with immigration attorney Edward Neufville. She applied for asylum on the basis that her daughter would be subjected to female circumcision if the family was sent back to Mali. In her court interview, Neufville says that although “for all intents and purposes the asylum officer believed her,” it came down to the fact she hadn’t applied in time.

She had missed the one-year deadline after her arrival to file for asylum.

Coumba keeps all of her hospital records neatly stored in a thick, red three-ring binder. Had she known about the deadline, she says, she would have applied sooner — even if she had to crawl. But when you’re that sick, she says, it’s hard to do anything. “And time doesn’t wait,” she adds.

Not everyone sympathizes with her situation. “She didn’t assert her claim on a timely basis,” says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group that favors lowering immigration rates to the U.S.

“Our asylum system has become a fraud-ridden mess, partly because the basis for providing proof is almost non-existent.”

“Our asylum system has become a fraud-ridden mess, partly because the basis for providing proof is almost non-existent,” he says. And when asylum-seekers don’t play by the rules, Stein maintains, they should suffer the consequences.

“You’re asking to jump ahead of a line of tens of millions of other people who would like to live here. We’re within our rights to ask a person to make a claim immediately.”

Despite a supportive letter from a human rights group vouching for her good intentions, the immigration judge didn’t budge. And that’s not rare. According to a 2010 study by Georgetown and Temple University law professors, more than 20,000 refugees who otherwise met the criteria for asylum have been denied due to missing that one-year deadline since it was first established in 1998.

Instead of being granted asylum, Coumba was granted a temporary stay of deportation, known as “withholding status,” along with her daughter and husband. In other words, the judge technically ordered them deported, but allowed them to stay in the country for one year. They must renew the stay annually and report to immigration court every three months.

Coumba says she lives in constant fear of being sent back and wonders why she is always instructed to bring her family’s passports with her when they go for renewal. Any given year, she says, “we could be deported. We don’t know.”

The broader point, Stein argues, is that the longer people remain in the U.S. in some kind of illegal status, the more complex the situation becomes, and the more difficult it is to find solutions.

Coumba Fofana at her home in Baltimore. Photo by Josh Barajas

Coumba Fofana at her home in Baltimore. Photo by Josh Barajas

Indeed, Coumba’s two other children were not covered through the measure. “The judge said for the sons, there was nothing really we could do,” says attorney Neufville. “They couldn’t ride on top of the sister.”

But the family accepted the withholding offer, deciding it was better to have half the family covered than none. The Department of Homeland Security put the two brothers under an order of supervision that allowed them to stay in the country, temporarily, for the cost to the family of about $700 per son each year.

“If you’re under supervision, you can apply for employment authorization, but it’s not a status. It’s much more of a limbo,” Neufville says. Technically, “they had no status.”

Individuals with withholding status, like Coumba, Aliou and Ramata, do not have the same rights as refugees who have been granted asylum. They cannot apply for legal permanent residence or travel outside the United States. And, though it happens rarely, if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials determine that conditions in an immigrant’s host country have become safe, they can re-open the case and try to revoke the stay. Immigrants with stays of deportation can work in the U.S., as long as their work authorization is renewed annually. Similar to those with asylum, Coumba is eligible to receive welfare, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps and certain government housing subsidies for up to seven years, although her family has never taken advantage of these programs.

Death of a Senate Bill 

Meanwhile, recent high school graduate Macky, who had begun attending community college with the goal of transferring to a four-year school and eventually studying criminal justice, discovered he was eligible for a new kind of work permit. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program announced by the Obama administration in June 2012 cost him $465 to apply, less than the $715 he had been paying for the supervision status he shared with his little brother.

He was approved in December, one of roughly 522,000 people to be accepted since the program went into effect. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that some 1.1 million young people are eligible. After two years, Macky can apply to renew his temporary status. But he hopes that by then, there will be another option for him.

And that’s where Congress comes in.

In June 2013, the Senate, after months of heated rhetoric from both sides of the aisle, reached a bipartisan agreement on a comprehensive immigration reform bill. It included a $46 billion plan to ramp up security along the U.S.-Mexico border and established a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who passed the necessary background and criminal checks, paid penalties and fees and learned English, among other requirements.

Republican leaders in the House insist they are open to immigration reform, and Speaker John Boehner gave positive signs after a GOP retreat in January, releasing a list of Republican principles for enacting reform in a piecemeal fashion.

But the following week, Boehner walked back his earlier optimism, stating in a Feb. 6 news conference that many Republicans couldn’t “trust” President Obama to implement changes to the law, and casting doubt on the prospects for any kind of agreement this year.

Many Republican strategists think that’s fine. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, dismisses the argument that a lack of action on immigration reform will hurt his party’s reputation in a country whose demographics are changing rapidly.

“I think doing nothing won’t have much in the way of consequences,” says Kristol, who isn’t convinced that Democrats are as committed to reform as they claim to be.

“I’ve been around politics for a long time,” he says. “If something is a good issue, the Democrats would be talking about it. But what are they talking about? Not immigration reform — minimum wage. It’s because they know people like it. They feel that’s more of a winner than immigration.”

Macky, who in his spare time volunteers with a Maryland advocacy group to promote immigration reform, is trying not to lose hope as he follows the developments on Capitol Hill.

He considers himself a citizen of this country, even if the law doesn’t. He grew up here, but his first language is French. “I don’t even speak it anymore, so imagine … where would I begin if I went back home? It doesn’t make sense.”

Macky knows he is safe for the next two years because of his work permit, but says that until actual legislation passes, it’s impossible to know what the future holds for him or his family.

“A path to citizenship, that’s what I’m hoping for,” he says.

What would change for Macky and his family if a bill that included a path to citizenship became law? For one, they could stop living in fear.

“From my read of what came out of the Senate, they’d have an option to apply and have that provisional status for 10 years,” says Neufville. “This is a woman who speaks French, English and Russian and has her degree in veterinary science. What’s holding her back is if she applies for work, people say, ‘How long can you work here for?’”

Under Coumba’s current stay of deportation, she has no path to citizenship. “You’re kind of stuck,” says Neufville, “unless your circumstances change. If her daughter were to, for instance, marry a U.S. citizen, she could come back and reopen her deportation proceedings and potentially get her residence status through that.”

For Ramata, who fears deportation “all the time,” citizenship is appealing for a more pressing reason: the prospect of financial aid.

Ramata’s high school guidance counselor called the house recently to ask Coumba why her daughter hadn’t applied for aid to the colleges she was pursuing. Under current law, undocumented students are not eligible for state or federal financial aid, although they can apply for private scholarships.

“I explained our situation,” Coumba says, adding that it just feels “wrong” to be “left to the sidewalk.”

Another drawback is that those under withholding status are not permitted to travel outside the U.S. For Coumba — who in addition to her parents in Mali has a sister in Paris — that hurts. When her father died recently, she couldn’t travel to her home country for his funeral, for fear of not being allowed re-entry into the U.S.

“It’s really hard, but what can we do,” she says, tearing up as she recalls comforting her mom, whom she hasn’t seen in more than 10 years, over Skype.

“On the one hand,” says her lawyer, “you’re allowed to work and remain here, but it’s also kind of a dead end, as long as the situation back home remains the same.”

And that situation, as Coumba sees it, is not changing anytime soon.

“I cannot imagine my daughter going back home,” she says. Female circumcision can be performed at any age, and “there are some people waiting for the moment the girl is getting married to perform it.”

A 2004 letter sent to Coumba by her relatives in Mali supported this fear, accusing her of committing “sacrilege” with her “unpardonable” behavior, and warning: “Ramata must pass this way like all the others. She is not going to be an exception to this tradition.”

Meanwhile, Macky has a routine at the end of every day. His shift at the pizza place ends around 2 a.m., and by the time he gets home, showers and heats up leftovers from the refrigerator for a late dinner, it’s usually close to 4 a.m. No matter how tired he is, just before he collapses into bed in the room he shares with his brother Mohamed, he searches the Internet for news on immigration reform. And then he turns out the light.

Additional reporting by Rachel Wellford. Video of the Fofana family shot and edited by Josh Barajas. Photos by Josh Barajas, Ruth Tam and compliments of the Fofana family.