(USA Today) PHOENIX -- Antonio Velasquez sat in his home on the west side of Phoenix glued to his computer screen. The U.S. Senate was voting on a monumental immigration reform bill that was months in the making. Velasquez was so excited he took the day off from work to watch the proceedings live on C-SPAN.
One by one, the senators cast their votes. The outcome wasn't close. The bill passed by an overwhelming 68-32 majority, with 14 Republicans, including Arizona's two senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, joining 52 Democrats and two independents. It was June 27, 2013.
Velasquez was thrilled. His dream of one day gaining legal status, after having lived here illegally for almost a quarter of a century, seemed closer than ever. The bill included a provision calling for millions of immigrants such as Velasquez living in the U.S. illegally to gain temporary legal status, followed by green cards and eventually U.S. citizenship.
But Velasquez tempered his excitement. He knew the bill still faced an uphill battle in the House before it could be sent to President Obama to sign.
"At that moment, I was overjoyed. There is no question it was a huge step," Velasquez said. "But at the same time, I felt trepidation. We still needed to wait to see what would happen in the House."
As it turned out, nothing happened.
Now, a year later, Velasquez has lost hope that Congress will pass an immigration bill — ever. As a result, Velasquez believes he may never have the chance to gain legal status through an act of Congress.
"We realize now that this is a big game in Washington between Democrats and Republicans, and the ball is the immigrants," said Velasquez, 40, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala.
Velasquez has lived in the U.S. since 1990, but he has not been able to gain legal status through any other channels. He fled civil war in Guatemala as a teen and has struggled to support families here and there. He thought immigration reform might transform his life.
But he has given up on Congress, instead pinning his hopes on Obama. Velasquez wants Obama to use his executive power to protect undocumented immigrants like him from deportation and let them get work permits, similar to his 2012 deferred-action program for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
"If Congress doesn't do something, the great responsibility lies with President Obama, because he is the one who promised that he was going to achieve immigration reform," Velasquez said.
Other longtime undocumented immigrants share his pessimism.
Immigration reform "doesn't have a chance. It's stuck. There are only excuses," said Rudy de Hoyos, 60, an undocumented immigrant from Nogales, Sonora. The Mesa resident has lived in the U.S. without papers for 23 years.
"I have more hope that President Obama is going to do something than (Congress)," said Pedro Sanchez, 46, an undocumented immigrant from Zihuatanejo, a coastal city in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The Mesa resident has lived in the U.S. illegally for 26 years.
Quagmire of politics
Experts say many immigrants have lost hope that Congress will pass an immigration-reform bill because the issue has become so mired in politics.
"I don't think anybody thinks that Congress is going to act. At least none of my clients have any hope that Congress is going to pass anything," said Delia Salvatierra, an immigration lawyer in Phoenix. "Their hopes are with Obama."
José Peñalosa, another Phoenix immigration lawyer, agreed.
In addition to meeting with undocumented immigrants through his law practice, he hosts a weekly call-in radio program Monday mornings on Radio Campesina.
"All the folks that call in, that is exactly the point they make, 'Hey, that's done with, and no matter what I do, the Republicans and the president, their word is useless,'" Peñalosa said. "There is immigration fatigue that has set in."
That immigration fatigue stems from nearly a decade and a half of hopes for immigration reform being repeatedly dashed, beginning in 2000, when President George W. Bush promised to make overhauling the nation's immigration system one of his top priorities.
Since then, Congress has considered major immigration bills that included legalization programs for the undocumented in 2006, 2007 and then again in 2013. All failed.
Last year, momentum for immigration reform seemed the strongest after Obama trounced Mitt Romney among Latino voters by 44 percentage points in the 2012 presidential election. That prompted Republicans to rally around immigration reform as a way to win back support from politically important Latinos.
But the Senate bill, which McCain and Flake helped craft, stalled in the House, where Republican leaders who supported immigration reform caved in to pressure from conservatives opposed to any bill that included a legalization program for the undocumented.
As recently as early June, there was some hope the Republicans would try to pass a bill this summer before Congress begins a monthlong recess in August.
But those hopes died on June 9, when Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., the second-highest-ranking Republican in the House, was defeated in the Virginia Republican primary by Dave Brat. Brat, a university professor and conservative Tea Party-style candidate, had accused Cantor of supporting "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants. Cantor opposed a broad legalization program for undocumented immigrants but was involved in drafting a limited bill to allow young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to gain legal status.
"I certainly understand the frustration," said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California-Irvine. "The rhetoric from the election to a year ago was very positive toward some comprehensive form of immigration reform."
DeSipio said the high expectations that Congress was on the verge of passing an immigration-reform bill last year represents a "misunderstanding" of how the government works.
"It's really designed to impede the passage of major legislation rather than to encourage it, particularly in an era like this one, where we have high partisanship in Washington," DeSipio said.
DeSipio said he believes Congress will eventually pass a major immigration overhaul.
"There are too many sectors of American society that are dependent on immigration," among them business and labor groups that will keep pushing until a bill passes, he said.
He acknowledges that a bill that includes a legalization program could still be years away.
"It's hard to imagine a scenario where we get a major bill passed until the House of Representatives switches back to the Democrats," DeSipio said.
That may not happen until after the next time congressional districts are redrawn in 2020, which may be longer than many undocumented immigrants are willing to wait.
"Unauthorized immigrants are justified in their concern that their limbo status may go on for a very long time," DeSipio said.
Waiting for years
Velasquez already has waited a long time.
He was a teenager when he walked three days from Ixchiguan, his hometown in the state of San Marcos, to the border with Mexico. At that time in 1990, the Guatemalan government was still fighting a civil war with leftist guerrilla groups that lasted 36 years, from 1960 to 1996.
Both sides were kidnapping teenagers and young men and forcing them to join the war. Those who resisted were often killed. Those who took up arms risked reprisals against their families from the other side, Velasquez said.
"One day the army came to our house. They hit my mother and threw her on the floor. I knew I had to leave," Velasquez said.
After traveling by bus through Mexico, Velasquez arrived in Nogales, Sonora, where he said smugglers hired by ranchers in Arizona offered to help him cross the border illegally into the U.S.
Velasquez said he spent four years working on a farm near Kingman picking lettuce, peppers and other crops for cash.
After returning to Guatemala for a month to visit his sick parents, Velasquez said, he crossed the border illegally into the U.S. a second time in 1994.
He said he paid smugglers $400 to help him get to Phoenix. But once here, Velasquez said, the smugglers threatened to kill him unless he paid them $4,000.
Over the next year, Velasquez said, he paid the smugglers $2,000 in weekly payments from money he earned working at a furniture store. Then one night in 1995 the smugglers came to his apartment on the west side of Phoenix and shot him in the stomach after he refused to pay them anymore. It took him six months to recover.
Sitting now in a room in a church across the street from his house, he lifted his shirt to show a jagged scar near his navel.
That same year, Velasquez applied for asylum, claiming he risked being killed if he returned to Guatemala.
The asylum claim allowed him to get a work permit.
It took eight years for Velasquez to receive a hearing in 2008. By then, the civil war in Guatemala had ended. His asylum case was denied.
Then, in 2010, U.S. immigration authorities gave Velasquez 60 days to leave the country. But Velasquez did not think it was safe to go back to Guatemala. In addition, he and his wife, Margarita, 35, who is also in the country illegally, have two daughters, Anamaria, 10, and Mariaelena, 5. They were born in this country, making them U.S. citizens.
Peñalosa, the immigration lawyer, helped Velasquez persuade the Department of Homeland Security to stay his deportation for one year by documenting the community service work Velasquez does with Maya Chapin of Guatemala in Phoenix. Velasquez founded the organization in 1995 after he was shot to help other Guatemalan immigrants. For years, Velasquez also has worked as a volunteer liaison between the Guatemalan community and the Phoenix Police Department, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Department of Homeland Security has renewed the stay of deportation for Velasquez four times, Peñalosa said.
The stay runs out in January. Velasquez, who works for a company that builds staircases, doesn't know if it will be renewed again. If the stay is denied, he will lose his work permit and be forced to leave the country.
"If Congress doesn't do something (to pass immigration reform) before the end of the summer, then the hope is only with President Obama," he said.