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In Mass., Obama’s order creates fault line for thousands

Executive immigration action announced on Thursday won’t help Sione da Silva (left).
Executive immigration action announced on Thursday won’t help Sione da Silva (left).(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

President Obama’s historic executive order Thursday marked the biggest victory for illegal immigrants in more than a quarter of a century. But it also created a fault line among the 11 million people in this country illegally. Roughly 5 million immigrants are expected to win relief from deportation, but 6 million will not.

The fault line also runs through Massachusetts, home to as many as 185,000 immigrants here illegally from Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other nations, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

The president’s controversial order only applies to immigrants who meet his criteria. It grants work permits to the parents of American citizens or green card holders who have lived here for five years or more and expands a 2012 program for immigrants who arrived before they turned 16.

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Still others, such as the undocumented sons and daughters of US citizens, could apply for waivers to shorten the time it takes to gain legal residency. All applicants must pass criminal background checks.

In Massachusetts, Obama’s order could lead to driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for these immigrants, though Governor-elect Charlie Baker, a Republican, has not yet said what he will do.

Here are some of the stories that emerged last week.

Cairo Mendes, 21, and Sione da Silva, 41

The year 2010 was a dark time for Cairo Mendes. His father “self-deported” for Brazil, tired of 80-hour work weeks and living in the United States illegally. A high school friend in Marlborough — also undocumented — plunged into depression and hanged himself.

Mendes fought the same impulses. Here without papers since age 9, he faced a bleak future. He was ineligible to work, get a driver’s license, or pay in-state tuition. His dreams of attending college were slipping away.

One night that year, Mendes’s mother sat beside him on the couch and told him he would go to college. Whatever it takes, she said.

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After high school, he worked in a factory feeding scrap metal into a powerful grinder 10 hours a day. At night, he went to college, paying three times the cost of in-state tuition. His mother paid the bills by cleaning houses. She grabbed meals in the car between jobs, always fearful police would stop her and she would be deported.

Later that year, Mendes volunteered at the Student Immigrant Movement, an advocacy group, to fight for changes to US immigration laws.

In 2012, he cheered when Obama granted temporary work permits to immigrants who arrived here as children, who call themselves Dreamers. A friend texted Mendes, “Your life is about to change.”

He paid $465, got a work permit, social security number, and a driver’s license and bought his first car. He qualified for in-state tuition and now studies political science full time, with dreams of becoming a lawyer.

Last week, he had hoped for another immigration victory, for his mother.

Sione da Silva did not want to come to America, but her husband insisted. He had arrived first and had not seen his children for two years. She packed up Mendes and his sister, then 4, and in 2002, they flew to Massachusetts and overstayed their tourist visas. But the marriage soured, and he remarried and returned to Brazil.

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The family’s hopes soared when Obama vowed to issue an executive order for immigrants this year. Then Mendes learned his mother would not qualify.

“I’m really sorry,” he told his mother.

For years, Mendes has feared that his mom would return to Brazil after his sister, now 16, graduates from high school. Da Silva loves living in America — the people, the seasons, and the ability to progress. But emotionally, she said, she suffers. Being an outsider is humiliating, she said, and she misses her own mother.

“Can you imagine I have been living here for 12 years? I have never had a vacation, not even a week. I have to work all the time,” she said. “All the money that we get, we save.”

Mendes cannot imagine life without his mother, calling her “the root of the family.”

Last week, it was Mendes’s turn to comfort his mother as she wept.

“We’re not going to stop,” he told her. “And we will win this fight.”

Zoila Lopez, 44

When President Obama spoke about mothers here illegally in his speech on Thursday night, Zoila Lopez of Waltham shouted back at the television screen.

“That’s me,” she yelled as happy tears ran down her face. “That’s my life.”

She has lived in the United States illegally for 25 years, since she was 19. Now, she is a 44-year-old mother of seven, eligible for a work permit for the first time.

Lopez is one of 13 children raised in a dirt-floor house outside of Guatemala City by an alcoholic father who beat her mother. She married as soon as she could to leave home. And when her husband insisted they cross the border illegally to live in the United States, she went.

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“I was looking for a better future,” she said.

Lopez arrived three years too late to apply for the 1986 amnesty under President Ronald Reagan, and Congress has not passed a similar bill since. Her marriage failed, and so did the next relationship and the next, which turned violent.

When she was pregnant with her seventh child, she said her boyfriend punched her in the head until she blacked out. At first, she did not call the police, fearing he would be deported and harm her family back home. But when he hit her again, she called for help and he was deported.

Zoila Lopez became eligible on Thursday for a work permit for the first time in her 25 years in the United States.
Zoila Lopez became eligible on Thursday for a work permit for the first time in her 25 years in the United States.(Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)

When he sneaked back across the border, she hid. A nonprofit and the government helped her and her children move.

“They saved my life,” she said.

The type of government aid she says saved her has been a flashpoint in the national immigration debate.

Lopez said she was granted assistance because her life was in danger, and she noted that six of her seven children are American citizens.

She said her family wants to contribute to the United States. One son is at a state university studying to be an engineer. Another son volunteers at a Boys and Girls Club. She is active in her church, attends meetings at her children’s schools, and volunteers for a group that aids domestic-violence victims.

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Now that she can apply for legal papers, albeit temporary, Lopez plans to find a job and drive a car and perhaps go to school. In Guatemala, she never made it past third grade.

She said she favors the continued deportation of criminals but said she hopes the government will stop separating families.

“Once you have a family, you don’t go back,” she said. “You stay and you try to survive.”

Keylin Chicas, 22

As the reigning Miss El Salvador Massachusetts, Keylin Chicas earned the chance to compete for the Miss El Salvador USA title earlier this month in Los Angeles. As second runner-up in that contest, Chicas was to join the top two finishers at Carnaval de San Miguel this Saturday, considered to be one of El Salvador’s largest, most popular festivals.

Instead, she is back home in Revere, the reigning state title holder representing a country to which she can’t return, lest she risk not being able to reenter the United States.

Chicas arrived in Massachusetts in 2009 at the age of 16 to join her mother. El Salvador’s difficult economy led her mother, just 19 at the time, to leave her newborn behind in the care of a 17-year-old aunt so she could try to make money in the States. The two communicated first by letters and, when the family moved to an area in El Salvador with telephone access, over the phone.

Keylin Chicas should have been in a pageant in El Salvador on Saturday, but she feared not being able to return to Revere.
Keylin Chicas should have been in a pageant in El Salvador on Saturday, but she feared not being able to return to Revere.(Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)

“Practically, when I arrived, I met my mother for the first time,” Chicas said.

After graduating high school, Chicas enrolled in Quincy College to pursue her passion for photography and videography. Having narrowly missed the eligibility requirements of Obama’s 2012 action for young arrivals, Chicas struggled to find work and did not qualify for financial aid to continue her college education.

For a month and a half, Chicas worked as a waitress but quit after never receiving a paycheck from her employer. Tired of the indignities that come with being an undocumented worker, Chicas launched her own photo and video business catering to the Latino community.

The undocumented life, she said, is exhausting and frustrating.

“My mom and my family in El Salvador keep me strong. And particularly my grandmother, who tells me not to lose hope and that everything will turn out fine,” Chicas said.

On Thursday, Chicas’s patience was rewarded, at least temporarily.

“I can get a driver’s license. I can go back to school,” Chicas said after Obama’s announcement. “As soon as I can, I’m going to apply for a work permit. As soon as it goes into effect, I’ll be ready.”


Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.