Update on June 23, 11:32 a.m.: The Supreme Court has ruled in a 4-4 tie vote, which leaves in place a lower court decision blocking President Barack Obama's DAPA immigration program.
Marie*, 21, has a lot on her mind.
“I worry. I worry all the time,” she said.
She said she worries that her parents will be deported, leaving her and her two younger sisters behind in their suburban Atlanta home.
“If they leave, it’s just – it would hurt the family,” she said.
Marie’s parents came to the U.S. from Peru over a decade ago on tourist visas. Her dad, Santos, arrived first.
“I came to the United States looking for work because my country was in a recession,” he said.
Santos said he found a job in Georgia and saved enough money to bring his family over. Their visas have since expired.
Marie’s parents are part of a group of millions of unauthorized immigrants in the country who could be affected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling expected this month on President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Georgia and 25 other states have sued to stop the deferred action programs announced in November 2014.
The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Permanent Residents (DAPA) program would give parents of U.S. citizen children and green card-holders temporary permission to work and to stay here. In Georgia alone, the Migration Policy Institute estimates there are about 125,000 parents who could be eligible for DAPA.
While Marie and her 19-year-old sister have temporary relief from deportation under another deferred action program announced in 2012, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), their youngest sister, Camilla, is a U.S. citizen, which would make their parents eligible for DAPA.
Marie said she wants some sort of protection from deportation for her parents.
“DAPA means safety for me, for everybody in the Latino community so that we just don’t live in fear,” she said.
If the Supreme Court agrees with the Obama administration, those parents who’ve been in the country since 2010 could be protected from deportation for at least three years. The city of Atlanta has supported this move, signing onto a brief in support of the actions, but the state of Georgia has opposed it.
Georgia is part of a 26-state lawsuit against the federal government to stop the plans, arguing the president didn’t have the authority to act without Congress.
“The critical question in this case is: Did the Obama administration actually change the law here or is it simply exercising its discretion in how the law is applied?” said Shana Tabak, a professor of law at Georgia State University.
She said the executive branch does have discretion in how to apply immigration law, partly because funds to fully enforce the law may not be available.
“Congress has not allocated the money to deport all the people in this country who are subject to deportation,” she said.
“Any president is going to have to make priorities, make choices about who are the top candidates for deportation and that is what the Obama administration is arguing that it’s doing,” she said.
In other words, Marie’s parents are not as high on the list of those the Obama administration has said it wants to deport, such as people who’ve been convicted of felonies.
But David Hancock, co-chairman of the United Tea Party of Georgia, argued it’s about the principle of law. He said he’s not opposed to a family wanting to live in the United States.
“I would say that’s fantastic but I would like for them to go through and abide by the laws that we have,” Hancock said.
He said he believes the President’s actions on immigration were another example of the Obama administration overstepping the bounds of the executive office.
“It is more of a pathway to amnesty than it is a pathway to enforcing immigration laws,” Hancock said.
If the Supreme Court ruling is divided 4-4, a lower court decision stopping the DAPA program would stand. If that happens, Marie’s parents say they hope to remain in the country until their U.S. citizen daughter turns 21.
Under current immigration law, U.S. citizens age 21 and older can petition for their parents to get green cards. (This is not an option for children who are legal permanent residents, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.)
But it’s not that simple for many parents to have their children petition for them, according to Atlanta immigration attorney Peter Hill.
“In essence, the problem that many of these families have if the parents entered the United States unlawfully, the fact that they’re children turn 21 will be of no help to them at all,” Hill said.
He said for parents who entered the country unlawfully, unlike Marie’s family who came on visas, those parents would have to leave the country first to process their green cards. Then, they would be barred from entering the country for 10 years if they’d been in the country unlawfully for more than a year.
For now, people like Marie’s family continue to live in limbo and hope that DAPA will offer them temporary protection from deportation and permission to work in the country legally. Her mother cleans houses, meaning she drives a lot without a valid license to get to her job.
Her mother said she drives with fear in her heart and is always on the lookout for police. She said she doesn’t want to be detained and taken away from her family if stopped.
Santos said if DAPA is upheld, it would be a dream come true.
“It would allow [us] to come out of the shadows of obscurity and into the light,” he said in Spanish.
Marie hopes the ruling will not be against DAPA.
“I would personally be heartbroken,” she said.
She said she’s wrestled with the idea of having to take care of her youngest sister in case her parents are deported. For now, she is enrolled as an international student at a private university in Atlanta where she hopes to graduate by next year.
“If it doesn’t come out, I think it would destroy the hopes of many families – I think for a long time they’ve waited for some kind of relief,” she said.
*The last names of Marie and her family have been omitted out of concern for her parents’ legal status.