SALT LAKE CITY — Activists are pointing to the delayed deportation of a Utah mother and her children as the kind of compassion they hope President Barack Obama will pursue in the wake of his announcement that he'll act on his own to address immigration problems.
Garland resident Ana Cañenquez and four of her seven children were originally ordered to leave the United States and return to El Salvador by March 21. That date was pushed back, and now there's no specific deadline for them to leave.
The extra time allows her to save money to afford a home back in El Salvador, both she and immigration officials say.
Advocates hope that kind of discretion is something Obama will expand.
"Many in the community hope the president will use more prosecutorial discretion," Proyecto Latino de Utah director Tony Yapias said. "It makes sense for ICE (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) to focus on serious criminals rather than to separate families or target people who keep out of trouble here. That is a wiser use of resources."
Cañenquez said her family would face a life of extreme poverty in her native El Salvador, and she fears gangs in that country could mean death for her four sons should they be sent there.
Before she first entered the U.S. illegally in 2003, Cañenquez lived in a two-room shack in El Salvador with her children and an alcoholic spouse. She earned $6 a day by selling treats in a marketplace, struggling to afford food for her family.
After one son died of malnutrition, she came to the U.S. hoping to earn enough for her family.
She spent some time in the U.S. Then, four years ago, Cañenquez and four of her children from El Salvador were caught by Border Patrol agents as they tried to enter the country.
Her partner in Utah, a Mexican national with whom she has two children, won't have permission to go back to El Salvador with her, and she doesn't have permission to go to Mexico. If she returns, he will stay in the U.S. with their two children.
"They told me they are giving us time to save money to afford a home in El Salvador," she told The Salt Lake Tribune in Spanish. "We would have nothing there if we return now."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Andrew Muñoz said the family's case has been reviewed by multiple immigration courts and there's no legal basis for her to remain in the country.
She's now in violation of an order to leave by March 21, but there's no firm date by which she must leave or be forcibly removed.
The federal agency is using its discretion to delay the removal "to permit a reasonable amount of time for Ms. Cañenquez to save money in order to secure housing for her and her family in El Salvador," Muñoz said.
That discretion is something Yapias said many immigrants hope Obama will expand.
"We hope they will look at the threat posed by people on a case-by-case basis and target criminals who have done truly bad things — but not those who maybe didn't pay a traffic ticket, or whose families would be separated," he said.
Obama has not outlined specific plans he has in mind since announcing Monday that he would act on his own to address immigration because the U.S. House of Representatives wouldn't take up an immigration overhaul this year.
Possible actions could include trying to focus deportations on those with serious criminal records, something the administration has seen mixed results with in the past.
Two Cabinet secretaries are expected to present recommendations to Obama by the end of summer.