Every day after school, Genaro Ramirez headed to the mailbox of his family's modest, pink home. He opened the little black door and peered inside. It was empty. This was his routine for several weeks until one day in January, when a standard white envelope arrived.
It was Ramirez's approval for deferred action, a national program launched in August that allows young undocumented immigrants to remain in the country for two years. It qualifies them to obtain a work permit, driver's license and Social Security number.
In the next few weeks, his brothers, Eduardo, 16, and Bernardo, 19, also were approved.
While the news was a relief for the Ramirez family, the 844-page immigration plan before Congress offers greater hope for the three brothers and 11 million undocumented immigrants who could be provided a path to citizenship.
"You never know when your day might come," said Genaro, 18.
• • •
The brothers were born in Mexico City but wouldn't stay for long.
When Genaro was 3, his mother crossed the Mexican border with him and two brothers. They were searching for a better life from the poverty they experienced in Mexico City, where their father sold beverages from a food stand.
They moved to Pasco County to be near relatives. The brothers' parents, Maribel Hernandez and Higinio Ramirez, worked in restaurants and later had another son and daughter.
As the years passed, the family hoped for a change in immigration policy that never came.
Thoughts of college dwindled for Bernardo, the first to graduate high school. His friends boasted on Facebook about sports scholarships and college acceptance letters.
"I didn't post anything up," he said. "I didn't say anything. ... I had to keep it to myself."
About two weeks after his graduation from Anclote High in 2011, he joined his father in landscaping apartment complexes in Tampa. When his friends visited from college, Bernardo would lie and say he was taking a break from school.
When President Barack Obama approved deferred action last year, Bernardo's boss told him about the new program. The brothers applied, paying nearly $1,500 total for their applications.
Then the waiting began.
• • •
Genaro is the next brother to graduate.
Growing up, he and his brothers and father often watched Mexico's soccer team play on TV. Genaro went on to play soccer at Gulf High School for four years.
He began to think about studying criminal justice and playing soccer in college. Schools like Saint Leo University and Florida Gulf Coast University crossed his mind. In January, two envelopes arrived for Genaro. One was his deferred action acceptance. The other was his work permit.
Then he saw the mistake.
The date of birth on the permit was wrong. His lawyers returned the work permit to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which cleared up the error in a few weeks. In the meantime, Eduardo, 16, received his approval and work permit in March. A Gulf High sophomore, his graduation isn't for another two years.
"They got mad," Eduardo said of his older brothers. "They needed it more than I did and I got it first."
Weeks later, the older brothers were approved. Although Bernardo doesn't know what career path he'll take, he hoped to apply to colleges right away.
• • •
Deferred action allows undocumented immigrants to remain here two years and possibly obtain a work permit if they don't have an extensive criminal history, arrived in the United States before age 16 and have graduated or are attending school or served in the military. In Florida, a work permit can lead to a driver's license. Applicants are also eligible for a Social Security number.
The program protects them from deportation. But after two years, immigrants must re-apply to continue living in the U.S.
The plan before Congress would replace deferred action, protecting young undocumented immigrants like the Ramirez brothers from deportation and qualifying them for a green card within five years with the chance of applying for citizenship.
Although the brothers no longer fear deportation, their parents remain undocumented. If passed, the bill would allow the parents to obtain green cards within 10 years by paying back taxes and about $1,000 in fines, remaining employed, learning English, and passing a criminal background check. The bill also would immediately protect them from being sent back to Mexico.
"At least we will feel more secure," said Higinio Ramirez, the brothers' 52-year-old father. "We've already been here 10 years. What's 10 more?"
• • •
Higinio watched a blur of orange, white and blue uniforms move across a soccer field at the W.H. Jack Mitchell Jr. Park in New Port Richey.
Genaro and Bernardo were playing for Zimapan, a recreational soccer team.
The father and sons were separated in 1998 when Higinio crossed the Mexican border alone. During his journey, he was robbed at knifepoint and forced to scavenge for food. He was crammed into a van with others and concealed with boxes to hide from border agents. His wife and children joined him later that year.
As he watched his sons play, a tear slid from underneath his sunglasses. He swiftly wiped it away with a rough, worn hand.
His struggles, Higinio said, have been worth it. Genaro will begin classes in the fall at Saint Leo University, where he will receive a partial scholarship. Bernardo will apply to community colleges and begin taking classes.
"It's just something," Higinio said, "that leaves me without words."
Laura C. Morel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.