Washington, DC – Jose Luis Piscil stood on a hill overlooking the Potomac River, his face turned toward Washington’s grey November sky.
With his black wool jacket buttoned to the top and his dark hair cropped close to his face, Piscil – an undocumented immigrant from Mexico – had traveled about 500 kilometres that morning to arrive outside the headquarters of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“Ni una más deportación! Not one more deportation!” Piscil shouted as he led dozens of protesters in a march towards ICE’s offices inside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on November 13. Just a day earlier, Piscil, along with five other undocumented immigrants and the non-profit National Day Laborer Organizing Network, filed a lawsuit against DHS for failing to respond to a rule-making petition filed in February.
“I have lived day to day with anguish,” said Piscil, a father of two, who has been fighting a federal deportation order for more than two years. “The time passes much more quickly. You are thinking that at anytime, they are going to send you back to your country. We come here looking for a better life, not because we expect them to toss us out like animals.”
The 26-year-old carried with him a photo of his wife and two children; both his son and daughter are US citizens.
A recent announcement by President Barack Obama that he may take executive action on immigration – which could help millions of people such as Piscil who are facing deportation – has given Piscil hope.
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According to a Migration Policy Institute analysis, Obama’s executive action could provide as many as 3.3 million immigrants with US-born children work permits to stay in the country legally.
But it is unclear whether Obama’s proposal will be offered to immigrants who have lived in the US for at least five years, a category that would include Piscil, or to immigrants who have lived in the country for at least a decade.
Since entering into deportation proceedings two years ago, Piscil – who does not have a criminal record – said he had promised his family he would do everything within his power to stay in the US – including suing the federal agency tasked with deporting him.
Piscil said he has lived in the United States for the past seven years, but his case began in 2012 when his cousin called the police on him during a fight over rent payments in New Haven, Connecticut. The misdemeanor charges against Piscil were dropped, but police had already shared his fingerprints with ICE as part of the Secure Communities programme.
ICE said Secure Communities “prioritises the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety, and repeat immigration violators”. Piscil’s fingerprints were already in ICE’s database from when he had previously attempted to illegally cross the border from Mexico into the United States.
Piscil said he was housed in a detention centre in the US state of Massachusetts until his wife, with the help of community advocacy groups, could come up with $5,000 to bail him out. Since then, ICE has twice denied his appeal to halt the deportation order. The appeals stated he is the sole economic supporter of his family, and his son requires serious medical care for a heart condition.
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“There are times when my wife and I, we just cry, together with my daughter,” Piscil said. “My wife is also undocumented, and she doesn’t want to leave. She says: ‘If they send you away, I won’t go with you.’ I don’t want my children to grow up without a father, and because my son is sick, I want us all to be together, healthy and happy, and not suffering.”
Outside of ICE headquarters, Piscil and one of the other plaintiffs, Anibal Fuentes Aguilar, attempted to hand the lawsuit to an ICE agent stationed in front of the building.
The civil suit, filed in the US District Court in New York, demands that DHS respond within a reasonable time to the original rule-making petition under the Administrative Procedure Act.
Piscil and the other plaintiffs’ original petition sought a “temporary suspension of deportation for the millions of undocumented immigrants who would likely benefit from near-term congressional action on immigration”, as well as deferred action for qualifying undocumented immigrants and “reform of harsh immigration enforcement practices”.
But an ICE agent refused to accept the papers, and Piscil and the other protesters were blocked from entering the building.
“I don’t know why you don’t let us come in. I’m not armed, I don’t have anything with me,” Piscil told the agents outside as he placed the lawsuit on the ground in front of the building. “I never knew the US government was afraid of a piece of paper.”
Who gets deported?
ICE declined to be interviewed for this article, but ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in a statement: “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference. ICE remains committed to sensible, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on its priorities, including convicted criminals and other public safety threats.”
The president has incredible discretion to stop deportations. And he could have done that yesterday, or a year ago.
Cox added nearly 60 percent of the 368,644 individuals removed by ICE in 2013 “had previously been convicted of a criminal offense”, and 82 percent of the 133,551 individuals “removed from the interior of the country had previously been convicted of a crime”.
But Salvador Sarmiento, legislative director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said ICE is deporting the wrong people. Sarmiento added the lawsuit is a way to legally hold Obama accountable on his promises of immigration reform.
“The president has incredible discretion to stop deportations. And he could have done that yesterday, or a year ago,” Sarmiento said. “There is no excuse. He needs to start dealing with the injury, the harm, the pain, of two million people taken from our families and our communities.”
For Piscil, who could be deported in the next few weeks, such action cannot come soon enough.
“In my mind, there is always the idea to be with my children – to take them to school, to share my life with them. But these ideas are just dreams that are erased with everything that is happening to me.”
Al Jazeera’s Lister Lim contributed to this report