THURSDAY, NOV. 20 — When you think of immigration reform, you likely
think of people sneaking over the borders illegally.
You don’t think Fulbright scholar.
You don’t think key innovator in digital mapping technology.
You don’t think local favorite soccer coach.
But Oscar Castaneda, a
Lansing Guatemalan immigrant, fits that picture, and he’s in danger of having
to leave the country. That’s why he will be glued to every word President
Barack Obama has to say has to say when he addresses the nation at 8 p.m.
Obama’s executive action could prevent deportation for
5 million people living illegally in the U.S. The White House immigration
web page also says Obama supports streamlining the legal immigration process by
establishing “a simple and efficient legal immigration system that rewards
anyone willing to work hard and play by the rules.”
“If he helps families that have American children, it won’t
help me,” said Castaneda, 52, a high-tech Fulbright scholar who had to leave
his job in the Geography Department at Michigan State University in March
because his work permit expired. “If he throws a line into the stream, it will
help me. If he throws a wide general blanket I might benefit from it. I’m not
holding my hopes too high though.”
Castaneda has lived in the U.S. since 1993 when he attended SUNY Buffalo
as a Fulbright Scholar. He’s had visas and even applied for his green card. But
his application has been stalled and his work permit expired. He’s lost his job
and his house and now is working his way through his savings. His fate carries
the fate of his wife and two daughters as well. If he gets a work permit, they
can too. If hee is denied, they are denied too.
Castaneda’s 23 years in the U.S. has been permitted in increments of two
and four and one-year applications, documentations and fees.
He says he’s spent more than $45,000 over the years for lawyers to help
him with his applications, not counting the application fees themselves, which
are nearly $200 for each member of his family.
Castaneda’s daughters were ages 1 and 2 when they came to the U.S.
The process is thick in bureaucracy, acronyms and “i’s” and “t’s” to
“Even if (Obama’s executive order) benefits me, it’s temporary relief,”
Castaneda said. “Those guys in Congress don’t do anything. The worst thing is a
system that doesn’t work and no one moves a finger to fix it.
Republicans have already vowed to try to overturn Obama’s action.
Castaneda’s friend, Daniel Foster, created an online petition to raise
awareness about his problem and try to get legislators to support a waiver to
keep him here. There are more than 1,600 signatures on the site as of this
The goal is to take the petition to Sens. Debbie Stabenow, Carl Levin and Rep. Mike
Rogers to seek their help getting a waiver.
Castaneda's research in Geographic Information Systems
has helped bring millions of dollars into the Cities of Lansing/East Lansing,
the State of Michigan, and the U.S. economy, and improve the online maps we use
every day in our smartphones and GPS devices,” the website says. “He serves the
mid-Michigan community by coaching and promoting youth soccer with CASL,
has been an active member of University Reformed Church for 15 years, and
befriended countless international students and scholars at Michigan State
University. Now, after 20 years of contributing to our country and communities,
legally living and working here, our government plans to kick him out and send
him back to Guatemala along with his wife and daughters. This, despite a letter
from the government of Guatemala stating that they have no objection to Oscar
staying in the U.S.”
Foster, a longtime family
friend, said Castaneda is “trying to do the right thing in the process.”
He continued, “What’s really puzzling is there doesn’t seem to be a good
reason why this two-year requirement isn’t being waived. It was so long ago the
document that they want, those departments don’t even exist … . It’s been a big
amount of time. The process is so drug out. It feels like Keystone Cops.”
Castaneda said he would not likely return to Guatemala because he has
high-tech skills and his country isn’t a high-tech country. He said he would
consider Canada, New Zealand or Australia.
He doesn’t like thinking about leaving at all.
“The day I lost my house I was deeply embarrassed,” he said. “I had
never not had work a day in my life. What do I tell the people in my
neighborhood? I put letters in my neighbors’ mailboxes. People started coming
to me saying, ‘So you’re not an American? How come you never applied for
citizenship? How come you didn’t become an American?”
“You don’t know how extremely convoluted the system is,” he said.
Foster said he’s learned a lot about what it takes to come to the U.S.,
and not to take it for granted.
He said the comments on the petition drive website are humbling.
“Look at all the comments — soccer, church, community,” he said. “All
the amazing ripple effects of someone’s life you don’t usually get to hear that
until someone dies. Why would we want to give up this family? It would be
needless. It’s a dislocation that doesn’t have to be.”