SMYRNA — Three times, Fani Gonzalez packed a suitcase, clutched her daughters in a tearful goodbye and begged the Virgin of Guadalupe for a miracle — anything, just anything, that could keep her from being deported back to her violent home city in Mexico.
And three times, she traveled back from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Nashville to her neat little mobile home in Smyrna, an emotional return to her all-American life as wife, mom and top Mary Kay cosmetics sales director.
Gonzalez was coloring signs for a rally to stop her deportation, in a room packed with other immigrant women doing the same, when her cellphone rang. The call came from ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C. Using the director's prosecutorial discretion, the agency would allow her to stay in the country indefinitely.
Sometimes, when the Virgin answers a prayer, it's with a flair for the dramatic.
Gonzalez's goal was to stay in the United States long enough for immigration reform to catch up with her status. She came here in 2009, slipping across the Rio Grande with no immigration paperwork, determined to improve life for her four children. Now, for the first time in four years, she believes real reform is on the way for the nation's estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants — 6 million of those from Mexico, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project.
Last week, President Barack Obama stood in the White House's East Room and urged the House of Representatives to take up a reform bill that passed the Senate in June. It would strengthen security along the nation's borders while providing a lengthy legal path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants already here.
Both of Tennessee's GOP senators voted in favor of it. U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, said he'll support reform in the House. But it faces a tough road there, with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the bill's original authors, backing away from comprehensive reform in favor of a piecemeal approach.
The Senate bill goes for it all, said Brookings Institution analyst Jill Wilson. A massive piece of legislation, it has suffered by being compared to the Affordable Care Act, which is off to a troubled start and was nearly derailed by the Republicans' tea party wing. The immigration bill is huge, Wilson said, because voices on all sides were heard for the first time.
"The number and different types of coalitions that support it this time around is the difference, as well as the lack of strong and numerous voices against it," she said. "There's not as much of the talk radio, Lou Dobbs, anti-immigrant voices out there. Support of the faith community, business and other groups that tend to be more conservative has helped.
"It will not go away. Worst-case scenario, immigrants just keep waiting."
The push is empowering undocumented immigrants nationwide to announce their status in an effort to draw public support. In the past, even a name was hard to come by — most hid from public view and, if they were caught, slipped out of the country without drawing attention.
Gonzalez did just the opposite, bringing a tribe of fellow immigrant women and sometimes a television camera to her meetings with ICE.
But in the quiet hours with family, when her home city of Monterrey is just a setting in the soap opera on the flat screen — "Porque El Amor Manda," Because Love Rules — damage from Gonzalez's yearlong fight is evident on the face of her youngest daughter, Ingrid Aimee, 12.
For a split second, it looks like she can answer a question about the constant threat of losing her mother. Instead, she collapses into tears.
Stopped for speeding
The Gonzalez family is among an estimated 110,000 to 140,000 undocumented immigrants in Tennessee, according to the Migration Policy Institute, but their status makes firm numbers impossible.
Their children are protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. A presidential order signed by Obama last year, it allows children who had no say in being brought to the U.S. illegally to stay here.
They left Monterrey, Fani Gonzalez says, because it wasn't realistic to believe one could safely raise children there. She'd been in the U.S. before but went home voluntarily to be closer to family.
"We drove back in a truck, and when we got there, people told me, 'Don't drive that truck,' " she said. "I was wondering why that would be. They said, 'You don't know what the situation is. How the violence is. They will rob you and kill you.' "
Her brother was kidnapped. Gangs robbed busloads of people, then lit the buses on fire. Murders on a corner near her house weren't rare.
It became clear to Gonzalez that to make a better life for the kids, they'd have to be in America — in American schools, with American opportunities.
Her husband picked Tennessee because jobs seemed plentiful here. And so they settled in Smyrna, but then it all unraveled in a December traffic stop.
Driving home one day, Gonzalez was caught speeding. Her Mexican driver's license had expired, said Smyrna Police Chief Kevin Arnold, and because of at least one other factor in her arrest she was turned over to the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office. Arnold wasn't sure what the other factor was — there are eight that can trigger detention, he said, as opposed to a simple traffic citation — but said the officer followed protocol in flagging Gonzalez's case.
Gonzalez sat for four days in the Rutherford County jail on an immigration hold, frantic about who was caring for her children. She had to wait that long for ICE officials to show up and say what to do with her. When they arrived, it was with a document to sign.
"I was thinking I would have to talk to a lawyer and all that, but when the officer told me I was going to be able to see my family, I just had to sign this document," she said. "I thought it was something that said I had been there and I was being released."
Instead, they told her she had a month to buy her own bus ticket back to Monterrey. She consulted with the Nashville-based Immigrant Women's Committee at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who told her to go back and say she couldn't afford a ticket right now.
ICE gave her 30 more days, but instead of bringing a ticket, she came back with a stack of letters of recommendation from people at her church — St. Ignatius of Antioch Catholic Community on Bell Road — and a request for prosecutorial discretion. They gave her 30 more days. She asked for an appeal. They gave her six months.
Asking for help
The women's group never stopped helping.
Forced to keep opinions to herself in her job as a professional interpreter, Mayra Yu, the women's commitee's co-founder, was darned if she'd sit by and watch someone get deported if she could do something to stop it. Too many times, she said, she watched friends separated from their children by deportation. Too many times she saw women become victims of domestic violence or sexual harassment, only to be asked by authorities, "What did you do?" Too many times, she wanted to yell, "Don't sign that!" but couldn't.
"It's hard when you see how they suffer," Yu said.
So she celebrated with Gonzalez when the miracle phone call came from Washington.
ICE issued a statement about it last week, couching its reasoning in official language. A thorough review of Gonzalez's case led to the prosecutorial discretion, it said. The agency is most interested in deporting criminals, recent arrivals and those who have final deportation orders but slipped away from authorities.
Gonzalez's daughters have a simpler but more heartfelt explanation.
"When my mom was gone, I missed her a lot," Jaqueline, 14, said. "I love her a lot. I'm happy they stopped the deportation so she can stay with us."
Fani Gonzalez said she told her story to get people to unite behind the cause of immigration reform.
"If it's just one person, nobody notices," she said. "If it's 10, a few will notice. If it's a large group, people will notice we are productive members of society. We are working here, united."
Ingrid wants to teach math when she grows up. Jaqueline wants to teach English to those who struggle with it. Their mother wants to be here long enough to see a change in the law that would allow the whole family to achieve its American dreams.