When authorities slapped ankle cuffs on both her legs, Amra Blekic says she felt like a criminal.
“We’re not dangerous to the public. We’re doing everything that’s asked of us. We have no criminal records and pay our taxes. We’re not drug addicts and we didn’t try come across the border illegally,” said Blekic.
And here’s the irony: the mother of two wasn’t trying to go anywhere — she was pleading to stay.
Amra and husband Elvir emigrated with their two daughters — then 8 and 12 — to the United States in 2008. They were granted asylum as Bosnia dealt with the aftermath of its civil war years earlier.
But since they are still considered Bosnian citizens by U.S. law, the Blekics have been ordered by immigration officials to leave the country right after their youngest daughter, Medina, graduates this May from Nease High School.
Seventeen-year-old Medina, who has been a cadet with the Junior ROTC at Nease for the last four years, is on the track team and holds a 3.4 GPA.
Elvir Blekic owns and operates a janitorial service company, his wife manages a successful business franchise.
The way Amra Blekic sees it, she and her family are being unfairly targeted.
If the family does get deported, Medina will return to a land that for the most part is foreign to her.
“I don’t really remember anything before here,” she said.
Even though they arrived on six-month visitor visas, returning to Bosnia wasn’t part of the plan. They’d made lives here, and extended their family — an older daughter has married and started her own family here. They’d planned to make northern Florida their home for good and work toward becoming permanent legal U.S. residents.
Their visas had been approved for renewal through the years. But then, a judge in Miami denied their continued asylum in 2014. The Bosnian war had ended in 1995, he said. They didn’t need to seek refuge any longer.
“He [the judge] said, ‘It’s nicer now in Bosnia. You have to go back,’” recalled Amra.
Elvir’s father, mother and brothers had no problem become naturalized citizens. But then, Amra points out, they arrived here more than 20 years ago.
Even as the legal system seemed to be closing in on them, the Blekics still clung to hopes of remaining in the country. They were granted stays of removal protecting them from immediate deportation approved year after year — until last year. That’s when the ankle bracelets went on.
Amra said she can’t help but notice that more strictly enforced immigration rules conicided with the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 and the political climate it’s created with talk of building walls to keep immigrants from crossing the border illegally and the possibility of rescinding DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival). Medina is not eligible for DACA, since she came to the country after 2007.
“Our attorney, she said not to worry, that it was all going to work out,” said Amra. “Now she’s saying, ‘I can’t tell you that anymore.’”
Stephanie Scarborough, the immigration lawyer representing the Blekics, said that while the Obama administration had looked the other way in approving “discretionary” stays of removal to families who were contributing members of society and focusing instead on deporting criminal aliens, things have changed.
“This administration is anti-immigrant, even legal immigrant,” Scarborough said.
As upstanding citizens and contributing members of society, Amra Blekic said she feels like she and her family should be looked at differently under the law.
“This family has a business here, they employ U.S. workers, they’re hard-working entrepreneurs and their kids have done well in school,” she said.
Scarborough is trying to push for another stay of removal but even that would be temporary.
As Medina’s classmates at school send out college applications, she and her family wait in limbo.
“The seniors, they’re having fun, thinking about college,” she said. “They have no idea what I have to deal with.”
“But we are positive, right, Medina?” her mother reminds her.
Medina just nods.