Jesus Manolo Donis, firefighter and top responder, fights for his dream to become a legal immigrant in the country he calls home— the United States.
Every day Jesus Manolo Donis tackles a full agenda.
He takes his 3-year-old son to school and makes sure his stepdaughter makes her therapies. He cooks for his fellow neighbors. He is active in the PTA.
And, with palpable pride, Donis serves as captain of the fire department in Rocky Hill, where he is a volunteer and has been the top responder for two years.
“Whether it is our July 4th celebrations, raising money for Haiti, or just pumping out our residents' basements during the big storms," says Rocky Hill Mayor Edward P. Zimmerman, "Jesus is always there and always the first to step up and help."
Something else sets Donis apart -- he is one of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and one of more than 300,000 who are slated for deportation.
For the past two years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has fought tooth and nail to expel him from the country he says is the only one that is really home.
But Donis, 32, is emblematic of the kind of immigrant who advocates say deserves to be considered for permanent lawful U.S. residency -- or more commonly, a "green card."
And he is the kind of immigrant who stands to benefit from a new, albeit controversial, policy by the Obama Administration that calls for suspending deportations while federal agencies review each case and identify "high priority" ones -- such as those involving convicted criminals or people linked to terrorism.
His attorney, Stephen Traylor, sees Donis as testimony to the immigrants that advocates of policies that would allow some undocumented immigrants to legalize say are assets to the United States and should not be showed the door.
“I have never seen someone with these credentials," said Princeton-based attorney Stephen Traylor, who represents Donis.
“He speaks perfect English, goes out and helps out the community, and he’s been filing his taxes for eight or nine years now.”
“I think that he would be the ideal candidate for this policy because of his fireman work,," Traylor said. "He takes care of his kids. He’s very articulate, a very smart guy.”
Traylor feels confident that someday the United States will officially be Donis's home.
At the very least, Traylor is hopeful that Donis will get his deportation order canceled and get his work permit.
"He has it going for him," Traylor said.
But Donis's case is moving the court system as nation debates what to do about the large population of undocumented immigrants already in the United States, and as conservative groups want the U.S. to get tougher about deporting them.
Like many proponents of strict immigration enforcement, Ron Bass, founder of United Patriots of America, believes that undocumented immigrants should not be permitted to become legalized while continuing to live illegally in the United States.
"I just don't have sympathy for people who come into this country illegally and break the law," said Bass, whose group is based in New Jersey.
"If he likes this country he should go back to Guatemala, present his story to the consulate and I will help him get his citizenship," Bass added.
Building a Life
As ever-present as the fear of deportation is, many undocumented immigrants just go about the myriad activities of daily life.
Few have built their lives, however, as visibly as Donis.
Since arriving, Donis has made it his mission to embody the American Spirit—the American Dream.
He steeped himself in quaint, affluent, overwhelmingly white Rocky Hill — two miles from Princeton University. He became fluent in English. He worked odd jobs. With the help of Jenna Keyman, who employed and sponsored Donis for U.S. residency shortly after he arrived, he pursued legal immigration status in 1999.
“Jesus became like family to me,” Keyman said. “He’s put himself in a situation to be a part of this community. He has the drive and the initiative. He wants to learn and he is not waiting for someone to give it [residency] to him.”
In the tight world of firefighters, with its family feel -- its self-view as a brotherhood -- the passion and loyalty that Donis brought to his work at the firehouse won him the adoration of his fellow firemen.
“He has been our top responder two years in a row now,” said Rocky Hill Fire Chief Todd Harris. “I saw an individual who wanted to get involved…a dedicated hard worker who put himself through the academy and became captain last year.”
His family -- in Guatemala, and now here -- is what drives Donis and what keeps him looking forward, though the deportation ax perpetually hangs over his head.
The oldest of 10 children of a poor couple in rural Guatemala, Donis decided to come in 1997 to help his family. He made the harrowing two-month journey to the U.S., traversing two countries, six cities, and four states. All the while, he endured muggings, harsh conditions, malnutrition and emotional devastation.
“I appreciate that at least we can come here and work, send money and support our families back in our countries,” said Donis, who has a work permit issued by immigration authorities while his case is pending. “We need people to understand that we don’t come here just because we want to have fun. I think of my son, and I want him to be somebody good in life.”
He knows, too, that his step-daughter, whom he has raised since she was a baby, would not get the help for her learning disabilities that has enabled her to overcome many obstacles.
Donis fears, also, being sent back to his native country because of the increasing violence there—violence that he does not want his children exposed too.
“A lot of things are going on in Mexico and in Central America. In those places you feel really insecure,” Donis said. “It’s completely different from the freedom you have… where I live. You can walk around anytime in the morning and know that nothing will happen to you.”
The Community Gives Back
Now, the suburban community of Rocky Hill is standing with Donis in his fight to stay in the United States.
Without hesitation, the men of Rocky Hill Firefighting Ladder Company 1, along with Keyman, Donis's former boss, and numerous community leaders and organizations have packed hearings for Donis's immigration case. Many of the firemen took the stand in his favor.
“It has been an education for the members in the firehouse,” Harris said of the nuances of immigration law and how complex it can be to obtain legal permanent residency. “It was an eye opener.”
Keyman recalls the intensity at the trial, where all his supporters -- and Donis himself -- thought they had provided enough evidence of his contributions to his adopted homeland -- including his willingness to put life at risk to rescue others -- to grant him legal status.
“We all burst out crying, we thought we were presenting a case, we thought the court had everything,” said Keyman.
“The prosecutor wasn’t convinced.”
A judge set a new trial for Donis for May of next year. She wants to give Donis a second chance by postponing his deportation.
“In this community I am just amazed at how many people have been supporting me, especially in the last six months when I was going through a really rough time,” Donis said.
“I am amazed at the people that I find in the supermarket or that come to my job and tell me, ‘Whatever you need, let us know.’ I didn’t expect it to be that way.”
Bass, of the United Patriots of America, feels the United States needs to draw the line on immigration enforcement firmly, even it means obstacles for undocumented people like Donis.
The borders, he said, and demanding obedience of the laws meant to secure them, should come above all else when it comes to immigration cases.
"The survival of our country is more important that one individual," Bass said. "No country will survive with open borders."
"The important thing is if our politicians had any brains they would send the military to the U.S. border and close our borders."
Miles south of Bass, toward Central New Jersey, Maria Juega, founder of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF), says that the United States cannot realistically deport the estimated 11 million -- some say the real figure is closer to 20 million -- people who live here without proper documents.
"Manolo is a perfect example of the millions of immigrants this country should put on a fast track to legalization," Juega said, "those with deep roots in our communities, who have become American in every way but legally, who have built famlies, careers and businesses and who will be free to come out of the shadows and contribute their full potential, for the benefit of us all."
Memories of a Giving Son
Back home, on a Guatemalan farm, Donis’ mother reminisces about her son’s contributions to his 10 brothers and sister throughout the years.
Donis helped put two of his younger sister through college, sisters who today are professionals in their respective fields of social work and finance.
“Since he was a little boy, my son has always been very giving,” Melinda Del Cid told Fox News Latino. "He used to get all his brothers and sisters ready for school.”
Despite missing her son terribly, Del Cid says she hopes her son’s deportation will be dropped.
“He has already made his life in the United States,” she says. “He has made many friends over there.”
For now, Donis keeps his hopes high.
“I was really close with my father and my mom and not having them with me is very hard,” Donis said.
“Kids here, they have the parents—they have the dad, they have the mom and sometimes they are out there doing wrong things and saying how much they hate their parents," he said. "I would give anything for 10 minutes with my dad now. I have not seen him for 14 years.”
But all he wants is to visit Guatemala -- here is where he wants to stay. Here is what feels right, what feels like home. Here is where he helps his community by rushing out of the firehouse -- without stopping to think of what danger may befall him -- when an alarm is pulled, or a call for help comes in And here is where he sees his children thrive, and have the opportunities that were impossible in Guatemala.
“Firefighting is one of my passions, I love being a volunteer and I love helping the community. I don’t want to let my family or the fire department down.”