Siblings are first Oklahomans granted deportation reprieve under new immigration policies
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2012
8/11/12 at 7:18 AM
OKLAHOMA CITY - Gabby Tepe was in fifth grade when she discovered she was a Guatemalan immigrant.
In junior high, she found out she was an undocumented immigrant. Two years ago, she and her younger brother, Angel, were ordered out of the country.
Their parents were allowed to stay in the U.S., forced to make a choice between going with Gabby and Angel or staying with their two youngest children, who are American citizens.
Two weeks before last month's scheduled deportation, the 23- and 22-year-old siblings received news they are the first in Oklahoma to have a case closed due to new immigration policies aimed at helping law-abiding youth.
"Our chances were very, very little to zero," Gabby Tepe said. "We have a very strong belief in God, and we just had to put it all in his hands and know that whatever happens, happens."
Prosecutors decided to use discretion to drop the case, meaning deportation is halted. Discretion has only been used in 14 cases during the past year in Oklahoma, according to the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Deferred action does not grant legal status or a path to citizenship. It does mean they may get a chance to obtain a Social Security number, a two-year work permit and a driver's license.
"Literally, I was in shock and in tears with happiness," she said. "So many kids want this opportunity, and we are very privileged and thankful for this chance. There are not enough words to express how thankful we are."
'Thought I had always lived here'
In 1994, Gabby Tepe was 4 when her mother entered the U.S. illegally with her and her 2-year-old brother. Her father had entered the country two years earlier without legal documents to find work.
The reunited family lives in Oklahoma City.
"I have no memories of coming here at all," Tepe said. "I found out about it because of a school project. In fifth grade, my teacher gave us a chart about our heritage to take home and fill out. My parents never talked about it, and I thought I had always lived here."
At that time, Tepe's parents told her she was an immigrant, but they didn't tell her she was undocumented.
"I just never questioned it. Then in middle school things started to change," she said.
It was then state lawmakers started passing laws targeting illegal immigrants. Her parents finally told the family about their legal status.
"It was a stressful time, but I thought we don't do anything bad so nothing will happen to us," she said.
Her family tried to find a legal path to stay, but the immigration court began deportation hearings in June 2005, while she was in junior high.
"When I got to court, I realized how very serious this is," Tepe said. "They could tell us to leave at any time and our lives would change instantly."
'Parents were torn between us'
In December 2005, the court denied their application to cancel the deportation. Oklahoma attorney Doug Stump, who is president-elect of the national American Immigration Lawyers Association, was asked by a local church to help.
Stump appealed the case through the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. A new hearing was ordered in October 2007.
The government split the case into two - one for the parents and one for the children.
In February 2009, the immigration judge canceled deportation for the parents based on the hardship it would cause for the two youngest children, who were born in the U.S. The judge denied relief for Gabby and Angel.
"Our parents were torn between us," Tepe said. "It's something no parent wants to be in - choosing between their children. I was so worried about them, and I know they were worried about us. It was incredibly stressful."
In July 2009, the siblings filed a motion to cancel their deportation. It was denied in May 2010, stating that their parents would not suffer a hardship if they were deported. An appeal was denied on May 3, and deportation was set for July.
Tepe said she has never traveled to Guatemala and does not know anyone living there.
'Lucky and blessed'
A shift in policies during this time gave the Tepes the break they needed.
President Barack Obama issued directives emphasizing the use of deferred action by prosecutors to reduce the high immigration case loads and to focus on dangerous individuals.
"What most people don't see is that the recent policy shift has resulted in the removal of many more illegal aliens who would do our communities harm," Stump said. "As a result of the renewed focus, the overwhelming majority of aliens being deported today are the really bad guys."
Not only did the Tepes qualify for the prosecutorial discretion, but also they are eligible for the recent Dream Act-inspired policy, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
"We're going to get jobs, and it will help us continue college," Tepe said.
After graduating from high school, they started attending Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City and live at home. They pay for college with private financial aid and support from their family.
Gabby Tepe, who speaks three languages, is studying to enter the medical or education field. Angel Tepe is considering a business degree.
"At some point, we want to be citizens," she said. "But right now, we feel more than lucky and blessed to be able to stay here. We were within days of having to leave. So this is beyond anything we could have asked."
Original Print Headline: Pair faced deportation
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Angel (left) and Gabby Tepe enroll for the upcoming year at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. They have been granted a reprieve from deportation and will benefit from a Dream Act-inspired policy to help undocumented youths who arrived in the U.S. as children. SARAH PHIPPS/The Oklahoman
Angel (left) and Gabby Tepe found out in middle school that they were undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, of which they have no memories. The siblings, who were scheduled to be deported in July to their birth country, are the first in Oklahoma to qualify for deferred action. SARAH PHIPPS/The Oklahoman