No more than one percent of the small city’s 8,000 residents are Asians. Jojo and Emilyn kind of stood out.
Emilyn, 34, found a job as a lab tech at the Gonzales Healthcare Center, while Jojo, 38, a college professor back in the Philippines, stayed home because, as a dependent, he was legally prevented from working.
Despite the challenges, the Nanez family was thriving, especially after the birth of their first child, Almira Isabelle. But in March 2013, following the birth of their second child, Emilyn suffered a stroke.
This was followed by another stroke in June.
In an interview with the Gonzales Inquirer, Jojo Nanez remembers his wife coming home from work one night saying her blood pressure was high, and he thought she would just sleep through it and be OK.
But around 10 a.m. the following day, Emily began screaming in pain and asked him to get her some Tylenol.
“So I went to the kitchen to get it,” he says, “and when I got back she was slurring her speech. I called 911 and EMS got here minutes later.
“I haven’t been able to work since the stroke,” Emilyn says. “Now I am on short-term disability.”
Her working visa is expiring in July, but unless she gets back to work, which is uncertain because she remains partially paralyzed, the family may be deported back to the Philippines.
Jojo says they have enlisted the services of an immigration lawyer from New York, but their case remains uncertain.
A short cut to prevent deportation is a petition currently gathering signatures that would designate the Philippines with a Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
A TPS designation provides a variety of benefits to Filipinos living in the United States, including a hold on deportation and faster adjustment of immigration status.
A country may be designated for TPS if it has been afftected by a natural disaster that has “result[ed] in a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions” such that the country is “unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return” of its nationals currently in the United States.
The US has provided the TPS designation to countries hit by disasters in the past, including Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Filipino-American leaders say a TPS designation would allow Filipinos like the Nanezes to continue working in the United States and send money to their families in the Philippines, instead of being an additional burden if they were sent home.
The TPS petition comes on the heels of super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda that killed more 6,000 people and rendered more than four million homeless.
However, the online petition drive for the Philippines’ TPS is having difficulty in gathering the 100,000 signatures needed for the White House and the Obama administration to act on the proposal.
As of Jan. 26, the petition on the We the People website has generated only 80 signatures.
Another We the People petition was started by a Filipino-American in Houston, Texas, on Jan. 8, but so far it had garnered only 376 signatures as Jan. 26. The deadline to gather 100,000 signatures is Feb. 8.
An online petition started by San Francisco lawyer Rodel Rodis is posted on the change.org website and essentially proposes a similar request.
It is asking President Obama to extend TPS to the Philippines for “Filipinos in the United States who are out of status and who lost their homes, offices, jobs, businesses, friends, families and communities when Yolanda struck their neighborhoods, their towns, their islands.
“(This) will provide temporary relief that will allow them to remain in the United States where they can work to earn income to remit to their families in the Philippines.”
President Benigno S. Aquino III threw his support behind the TPS proposal. Aquino said it would be a big help for the Philippines' rebuilding and reconstruction if Filipinos could remit additional funds, instead of becoming a government problem if they were sent back home.
In addition, U.S. legislators have endorsed the idea of providing a TPS designation to the Philippines. New York's Chuck Schumer led a bipartisan group of senators in favor of granting a TPS designation.
Rodis and other Filipino-American leaders say, however, that the online petitions should be only one way of pushing the proposal.
He said state legislatures and city councils throughout the US have endorsed the TPS. “We’re dealing with it on multiple fronts, the White House petition is only one of them,” he said.
Another Filipino-American leader behind the TPS drive, Arnedo Valera, said a more effective way to gain TPS is direct political pressure on the Obama administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
“Raise our demand to a high level,” said Valera, co-commissioner of the Washington, DC-based Migrant Heritage Commission. “Keep sending your letters.”
Valera said that with political pressure and the support of some members of the US Congress, and the endorsement of President Aquino, the Obama Administration would relent.
But for the Nanez family, time is of the essence.
While Emilyn battles with her illness and keeping the family together gets harder every day, there does not seem to be a solution in the horizon.
"We don't know what do," Jojo says, as he cuddles his second baby, one-year-old, Arwen Faye.
Jojo says they hoping for some breaks: “Under his discretion, the [immigration] director could make an executive decision saying certain people could stay, based on their situation.”
The fact that their daughters were born in Texas and are therefore U.S. citizens may be considered in their immigration status.
In a way, Jojo says they are thankful that Emilyn was here in the U.S. when she had her strokes.
“Had it happened in our country, she might not have survived because hospitals there demand down payment before treatment,” he says. “But here, you get treated and receive the bills later.”
So sad. But so true.
A journalist for more than 25 years, Bert B. Eljera has extensively covered the Asian Pacific American community in California, Florida and Nevada. His expertise in ethnic culture, political empowerment and issues that impact minority communities provides depth and nuance to his writings. He has written for top newspapers in the Philippines and the United States, including the Los Angeles Times, Florida Times-Union, Vero Beach Press-Journal, Stockton Record, Asian Week, and The Manila Bulletin. He resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.