Three years ago, David Soto and his brother Jorge sat in a basement courtroom in Bloomington, Minn., wearing orange jumpsuits, leg shackles and handcuffs attached to chains around their waists. Snared by federal immigration authorities, they feared being deported to Mexico.
Today, David Soto sits behind a desk on Lake Street in Minneapolis, where he works as a bilingual financial empowerment coach for CLUES, a social service organization that serves Latinos. Thanks to a new policy by President Barack Obama that allows young people whose parents brought them to the United States as children to apply for temporary relief from deportation, he can stay, for a time.
"[It's] still kind of hard to soak in the fact that I have an office, but it's kind of a milestone to say the least," said Soto, 27.
A SHIFTING LANDSCAPE OF IMMIGRATION POLICY
Soto is one of more than 350,000 young people in the country without permission who have won a temporary reprieve from deportation because they arrived as children, are educated and have clean records.
Through grit, money, patience and luck, Soto's odyssey through the immigration system didn't land him back in his native Mexico, a country he left at age 6.
When Soto found himself in the courtroom in 2009, he hoped to avoid placement on a flight that left the Twin Cities every Wednesday for Laredo, Texas. To many, it was a stark reminder of the growing number of deportations by federal officials in recent years.
Soto came to the United States with his parents and older brother. When the family arrived in California, they mistakenly applied for asylum from Mexico, which doesn't exist. Federal officials responded with a deportation letter mailed to their California address. By that time, the family had moved to Minnesota.
David and his older brother Jorge graduated from Farmington High School. When Immigration and Customs agents arrived at the family's door in Burnsville, Minn., federal authorities deported their father.
Immigration officials detained the brothers in the Ramsey County Jail and put their mother on an electronic monitoring program so she could continue to care for her youngest son, who was born in the United States.
When attorney Mary Baquero took the family's case in 2009, she said David Soto's case was the weakest in the family. Their mother has a U.S. citizen child. Jorge was the father of three children born in the U.S. But David Soto didn't have a citizen spouse or child, so there seemed little chance the student studying graphic design at Dakota County Technical College would avoid deportation.
"It wasn't frivolous," Baquero said in a recent interview. "He had some type of case maybe if his mom won, but it was a very weak case."
Soto spent 41 days in jail, and three years on an electronic monitoring program while he pressed his case. An overburdened immigration court meant years of delay.
Then, last summer, the Obama administration announced Deferred Action, a temporary status that allows young people brought to the United States by their parents before they were 16 to live and work in the country for two years if they are not older than 30. To qualify, they must be in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained general education development certificate, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or armed forces.
The action fell short of the DREAM Act, blocked by the Senate in 2010. The proposed legislation would have given young immigrants like David Soto a path to citizenship.
When federal officials announced the Deferred Action program, Baquero said Soto was the first client she thought of.
"He was a strong person," she said. "You and I don't know what it's like to be in jail. But if you talk to someone who's been there and who can describe the lights never go out, it's always cold, you have no control of when you're going to wash your hair or do anything.
"And as a young person, I think it changes who you are. He survived it and yet he still has a positive outlook."
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
When federal officials notified him that his application for deferred action had been accepted, Soto called his father in Vera Cruz, Mexico.
"He literally cried when I was speaking to him," Soto said. "He was someone that always kept telling me, 'Just keep thinking everything is going to be good, you're not going to end up down here like me, you're going to have your life where you choose to have it."
Soto's older brother, Jorge, was too old to qualify for the program, so he's still fighting his case.
David Soto said he is relieved and grateful to be able to move on with his life.
"My mindset was just, 'How are we going to stay in the country? And what if it doesn't happen, what are we going to do? How long, how much more time do I got before they decide to deport me?' That was going through my mindset every day," he said. "Now I can start thinking more long-term. More, 'where am I going to be five years from now?"
That's a good question.
President Obama has said he wants to sign a comprehensive immigration overhaul in 2013 that would include a path to citizenship for immigrants not legally in the country. Republicans have signaled a willingness to take up the issue.
The three Republicans in Minnesota's congressional delegation: U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann, John Kline and Erik Paulsen did not respond to multiple interview requests.
David Soto said he's going to keep believing his future lies in the United States. These days, instead of a jail jumpsuit, he's wearing a dress shirt.