Melissa McGuire-Maniau ’14 fought to keep her family together—and is now helping others do the same.
There are times when we get so deep in the weeds of important public policy discussions that it becomes difficult to remember that, buried under the statistics and punditry and posturing, there are real people whose real lives hinge on the outcome of these debates.
People like Melissa McGuire-Maniau ’14. On October 5, 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents came to her Winter Park home and took her husband away. He was sent to a detention facility in Pompano Beach. And, were it not for her tenacity and a bit of good luck, he would have been deported.
“The only reason my husband is here is he was married to me, a U.S. citizen,” says McGuire-Maniau, an Air Force veteran.
His story, and the struggles her family faced for years, propelled McGuire-Maniau into a life of activism on behalf of immigrants—and, on May 21, into the Oval Office, where she and seven other activists spent an hour sharing their stories with President Obama and Vice President Biden as part of the White House’s ongoing push for immigration reform. “I got maybe five minutes to tell a 28-year story,” she says.
That story goes something like this: By April 2013, when he finally received his legal residency card, Hector Maniau, whom McGuire-Maniau married in 2005, had spent 28 years in this country, many of them illegally. He arrived with his mother and siblings from Mexico in 1985, at the age of 17, on a B2 visa. Maniau’s mother became a naturalized citizen in 1997, and petitioned for him to become one as well. But because Maniau was 30 by the time his mother to petitioned for him, he was put in a sponsorship catagory with a wait period of more than 15 years for a status adjustment later.
Melissa McGuire-Maniau ’14, a U.S. citizen by birth, with her husband, Hector Maniau. (Photo courtesy of Melissa McGuire-Maniau) But then, like so many immigrants, he got conned. In 1999, a notary approached Maniau and his family and promised that, for a fee, he could expedite the process. It was a scam that, in the end, made things worse: By 2000, Maniau found himself and two of his siblings in removal proceedings; they had, as part of this scam, filed for an adjustment of status prematurely. “My husband didn’t fully understand why that happened,” McGuire-Maniau says.
They met and married in 2005, and soon after had a child together. They contacted immigration attorneys and filed papers asking the government to recognize them as husband and wife and let Maniau remain in the country with his family. Immigration officials balked. “They just said, ‘You were ordered removed, you got married, we don’t care,’” McGuire-Maniau says. The couple wasn’t even granted an interview that immigration officials use to determine whether a marriage is legitimate or a means to bypass immigration law.
Hector Maniau, meanwhile, was self-employed, working as a handyman and mowing yards. It was all he could do, mainly because getting a “normal” job would alert immigration authorities. McGuire-Maniau was the family’s primary breadwinner, going to school full-time while working in the banking and finance sector—for a while at Wells-Fargo, where she worked on a first-time homebuyers’ program. But in addition to being a mother, a student, and a full-time employee, she also began to take on another full-time role: figuring out how to navigate her husband’s immigration case, and the byzantine nature of the U.S.’s immigration system generally.
“In researching his case I discovered how messed up the system was. It’s no wonder you have so many people stuck in this limbo,” McGuire-Maniau says. “It’s almost impossible to do it the right way.”
It was in this research that she discovered a class-action suit in Chicago that involved a similar scam to the one that landed her husband in removal proceedings. In a settlement to that case, immigration officials agreed not to remove the victims of this fraud. Her husband, however, had been ordered to be removed before the settlement was reached, so he wasn’t considered part of it—a technicality, McGuire-Maniau says.
In 2008, she enlisted the help of an immigration attorney, who filed to reopen Hector’s case. Immigration officials came by the family’s house a few weeks later, but Hector wasn’t home. They came back on October 5, 2011—this time he was there, and they took him away, to a deportation facility in South Florida. She got him out two days later; Immigration and Customs Enforcement gave them a year to appeal the removal order. They turned to the office of Senator Bill Nelson, and with a little political intervention, immigration officials agreed to grant them a marriage interview. Their marriage was approved, and in April 2013, Hector Maniau finally received his legal residency card. In 2016, he’ll be eligible to apply for full citizenship.
“How many people are being deported because they don’t know how to do the research?” McGuire-Maniau asks. Both of Hector’s siblings were deported. Hector’s sister left two teenagers behind. “This is just one family,” McGuire-Maniau says. “We’re causing irreparable harm to the children.”
It was this story that she shared with the president, along with a half-dozen others who shared similar stories. After she was done, Obama said her story was “compelling and extraordinary.”
“I think he understands,” McGuire-Maniau says. The question now is whether other politicians on Capitol Hill do. In June, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill. Whether that bill—or any other immigration measure—sees the light of day in the more conservative House of Representatives, however, remains an open question.
While she hopes that her tale will effect a change in public policy, it has undeniably already changed her.
McGuire-Maniau, now a Hamilton Holt student studying international affairs, has quit working in banking to follow her newfound passion—organizing as a volunteer on behalf of immigrants and immigration reform. She joined the board of the Florida Immigrant Coalition and began getting more and more involved in the movement.
“This is where I need to be,” she says. “Where I can help other families stay together.”