For young undocumented immigrants separated from their deported parents, real change comes only with legislation

Jose-Antonio Machado Soza wakes every morning and yearns to tell his mother about what he is going to do at school that day or which friends he will be seeing that night.

But Melba Soza was deported two years ago back to her native Nicaragua after falling foul of US immigration rules. It left Jose-Antonio and his 17-year-old twin brother, Jose-Manuel, to face an uncertain future as two of Florida's estimated 140,000 Dreamers, undocumented young immigrants who go to school and grow up as Americans in every way except as a citizen of the only country most have ever known.

As President Barack Obama spelled out his vision for immigration reform in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Jose-Antonio, who came to the US as a six year-old and is now a student at Miami senior high school, listened intently at a watch party hosted by the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

"Congress and the White House have the power to reunite my family, to fix our broken immigration system," he said.

"[Obama's] words sounded beautiful and nice, but they are just words, and they won't bring my mother back. I still have the pain of that. Nobody should have to go through what I went through. I want to sleep in the same house as my mother, to talk to her about my grades and what I'm doing."

Having entered Florida's foster care system, Jose-Antonio is now a permanent resident. And under existing law they both have to wait another eight years before their mother can legally set foot on US soil again.

"It wasn't strong enough; we need action," Jose-Antonio said of Obama's speech. "I liked that he spoke of how immigrants will benefit the economy, but we can't forget that his administration has deported families."

Evelyn Rivera, 24, is another Florida Dreamer, who saw her mother deported, back to Colombia in 2007. Because of the complex rules of the US immigration system she has sisters and a father who are permanent residents, yet because she arrived as a three-year-old and was not born in the US she has no legal status.

"It's hard being the only one who can't travel to Colombia to see my mother," said Rivera, an Orlando-based student who is a campaigner for United We Dream, a group campaigning to open a path to citizenship to young undocumented immigrants.

"I'm still suffering from having my mother deported. Every day we have new families who are suffering from deportation. We are excited to see there is bipartisan work to protect our community and protect our families, but we are also waiting for the action.

"I'm hopeful for a lasting change and to be reunited with my mother and having her back to the country that was her home for 26 years."

Susana Barcielo, policy director of the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, a non-profit group that helps undocumented arrivals – many of them children – plot a path towards remaining in the US, told the Guardian that last year's decision by Obama to halt deportations of most undocumented immigrant children was: "a sea-change, but not the prize".

"When you hear their stories and listen to how smart these kids are, how committed they are, how they want to be able to contribute, you ask, 'Why are we wasting all this talent?'" she said.

"There's a realisation that many people have waited a long time for this. There have been bipartisan efforts in the past that have fallen apart but for the senators to come forward like this and to have a set of principles is an honest effort. This is a breakthrough. We may not agree with everything that's being proposed but it's a hopeful sign that there's going to be an honest debate and that good things will come from it."

© Guardian News and Media 2013