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By Jayna Omaye, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — As the immigration debate heats up in Washington, several Central Florida groups are banding together to push President Barack Obama to follow through on his pledge to take executive action to save millions from deportation.

Obama said he would focus on easing certain restrictions on undocumented immigrants, drawing strong opposition from Republican congressional leaders who warned doing so would “poison the well” and hinder further legislation.

The local groups seeking movement on immigration, including the Florida Immigrant Coalition and Mi Familia Vota, hope to secure a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 825,000 undocumented immigrants in Florida and the nearly 11.7 million in the U.S.

“It is not a matter of politics. It’s a matter of humanity,” said Jose Luis Marantes, state director of Mi Familia Vota, a national nonprofit with state offices in Orlando, Poinciana and Tampa that promotes social and economic justice in the Latino community. “Immigrants are interconnected within every part of our economy, our system and our families.”

Marantes added that the group hopes reform policies will “cover a broader set of folks” so immigrant families would not be separated.

In Lady Lake, a Lake County town of about 14,250, a 16-year-old boy named Diego and his mother, both undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. in 2001, are among those who could feel the effect if Obama uses his executive powers to address the divisive issue.

The teen, who was diagnosed with epilepsy and autism, recently underwent brain surgery to alleviate weekly seizures including compulsive attacks that cause him to lose control of his body and drop to the floor. His family and doctor said the teen wouldn’t have received the same level of medical care if Diego, who is covered under a state-run insurance plan for kids, were in Mexico.

“I’m scared. I don’t want to be deported,” Diego’s 39-year-old mother, who didn’t want to be identified or use her son’s last name out of fear of deportation, said through a translator.

While Diego is eligible for a green card issued to certain undocumented minors, the future remains unclear for his mother. Immigration reform could have a major impact to countless others in Florida, where about 19 percent of the state’s population is foreign born, census figures show. In Central Florida, the numbers are highest in Osceola at 20 percent and Orange at 19 percent.

Last year, a bipartisan group of eight senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., unveiled an immigration bill that would combine improvements to border security with a conditional pathway to citizenship. While the then-Democrat-controlled Senate approved the sweeping bill, the measure became mired in conservative backlash and the Republican-led House has not voted on it yet.

Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, who represents parts of Orange, Seminole, and Volusia counties, said he wouldn’t support reform that “attempts to reward an illegal act” by granting a pathway to citizenship, according to a statement on his website. He said policies should center on improving border protection and immigration enforcement.

But Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson backs action by Obama.

“You leave the president with no choice but to try to go ahead and address the problem,” said Grayson, who represents Osceola and parts of Orange and Polk. “These are human beings and they deserve consideration like anybody else.”

Marantes said undocumented immigrants are “in the shadows” and are always threatened with deportation.

“The fear is real,” he said. “All it takes is one wrong turn and before you know it, they’re shipped to an immigration center and deported.”

But some critics say undocumented immigrants put a burden on local and national economies and argue that states, including Florida, need to stop offering immigrants incentives to come and stay illegally. For example, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill in June that allowed children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.

“We understand and empathize with the aspiration of people who want to come here,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national nonprofit that seeks to improve border security and halt illegal immigration. “It (a pathway to citizenship) would basically be like ringing the dinner bell. The inevitable response is that people around the world would take this as a signal to come.”

Last year, deportations hit 438,412, an increase of 13 percent from 2011, according to Pew Research. While the number of deported immigrants with criminal convictions has stalled, the number of immigrants without past criminal backgrounds has increased, Pew found.

In Diego’s case, his family says remaining in the country is vital because sending him back to Mexico would “honestly mean death” for the teen, who attends a special-needs school in Leesburg.

“He’s not the worst we’ve ever seen but his seizures were not doing very well,” said Diego’s neurologist, Dr. John Kevill of the Florida Epilepsy Center in Orlando. “It’s pretty severe.”

Kevill said Diego probably wouldn’t have had access to the same type of brain surgery in Mexico, where epilepsy and psychiatric care are not “anything close” to the treatment Diego underwent in Orlando.

To allow the teen to stay in Florida legally, his legal guardian, Alba Alonso, a U.S. citizen and fellow Lady Lake resident, is working with Groveland attorney Bridgette Bennett to secure a green card. Alonso, 44, became the teen’s guardian because his mother didn’t understand how to care for the teen by herself.

“When you come to a foreign country, you can’t do it by yourself,” said Alonso, a single mother of two who home schools her son who struggles with learning disabilities. “His life depends on him staying here. We all deserve a chance at freedom. … Humanity has no boundaries.”

Bennett, who is fluent in Spanish and English, said the portion of the law she’s trying to tap into is not widely used — only 3,434 undocumented immigrants last year were granted the special status, which allows minors to legally remain in the U.S. while applying for permanent residency.

“We are not going through this process just to get Diego ‘papers,’ ” said Bennett, who added that she handles two to four of these types of cases per year. “Every day someone is here without documentation they are at risk.”

AFP Photo/Christophe Archambault

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