Born in Mexico and brought here illegally as a child, Pilar Molina turned 29 Friday. The 2003 graduate of Norristown High School didn't feel much like celebrating.
In January, her husband of more than a decade, Israel Resendiz Hernandez, 34, a construction contractor, was arrested by immigration agents in Norristown. Imprisoned in a county jail, he faces deportation on charges of repeatedly crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, including a trip for his father's funeral last fall.
As she was seated amid the packed shelves, bright piñatas, rosaries, phone cards, and delicacies of Tortilleria la Familia, the grocery Molina and Hernandez opened in Norristown in 2011, her eyes welled on what she called her "saddest" birthday.
She said the couple's two daughters, Caitlin, 9, and Ariana, 3, both U.S. citizens because they were born here, ask about their father every day.
The case has galvanized the growing Latino population of Norristown, seat of Montgomery County, where Juntos, an immigrant-rights group, and Dream Activist-PA, a resource network for undocumented youths, have rallied and written letters urging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release Hernandez to his family.
After refusing food for 19 days to throw a spotlight on his case, Hernandez resumed eating Feb. 28. Represented by a lawyer, he is seeking asylum and awaits a "credible-fear" interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
When that happens, probably at the end of March, he is expected to cite gang-fueled violence in Mexico and his fear of persecution if forced to return.
When Hernandez was in Mexico for his father's funeral, Molina said, a gang threatened to kidnap him for ransom.
"They know we have two businesses" in America, she said. "That's where they think the money will come from."
Under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama administration program that gives administrative relief to immigrants who were brought here illegally by their parents, Molina became eligible for a reprieve from deportation in 2012. That gave her legal standing to remain in the United States.
The Molina-Hernandez union is what immigration experts call a "mixed-status" family - one in a growing category that includes the thorniest moral and legal issues.
"When your 9-year-old tells you, 'I wish I could be my sister's age so I wouldn't know what is happening,' " Molina said, "you come to realize she is very affected by this. . . . His case is also my case. I'm fighting for him to stay here with his kids, but also fighting for our very future."
As with most matters of law, the devil is in the details.
After living here for eight years, Hernandez was in Maine in 2005, helping a friend move, when he was encountered by U.S. Border Patrol agents and placed into removal proceedings. A judge allowed him to leave voluntarily rather than be expelled. He left in 2006, but returned at some point to join his family. In October 2013, he went to Mexico for his father's funeral.
On his way back to the United States, he was stopped by the Border Patrol in Arizona, placed into "expedited removal," and deported without a hearing. He sneaked back to the United States and was nabbed in Norristown on Jan. 27.
Because he returned after a formal order of deportation, his reentry could be charged as a "felony," even though his supporters see it as a civil infraction born of the natural urge to rejoin his family.
"Effective immigration enforcement ... prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens," said ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas, "including those that illegally reenter the United States after having been removed."
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research organization that favors reduced immigration, said the federal government must be firm with repeat violators.
"There are all kinds of white-collar felonies," he said. "That's how you should think of it. If you lie to Social Security, or cheat on your taxes, that's a felony.
"Immigration law means something or it doesn't. Not everybody gets to stay. If we are going to have limits and rules, some people are going to be excluded."
With immigration-reform efforts stalled in Congress, activists want President Obama to grant relief for mixed-status families similar to the deferrals he engineered for undocumented youths.
"The GOP has made it very clear they don't intend to take up immigration-reform legislation this year," said David Bennion, an immigration lawyer in Philadelphia who works closely with Dream Activist-PA. "President Obama will have to decide whether to keep up the current pace of deportations" - two million since he took office - "or extend administrative relief to families like Israel and Pilar's."
Advocates of strict border controls, including Krikorian, say families should not be rewarded for flouting our borders, and should leave the United States as a family unit if they want to stay together.
Molina said that option is not as viable as it sounds.
Her extended family, including her mother, who helps out at the tortilla shop, all live here, she said. Her daughters do not speak Spanish and likely would be bullied in Mexican schools. The jobs she and Hernandez need to support the family are in America, with no chance of equivalent employment in Mexico.
With her husband in custody, Molina speaks for him.
He was 18 when he left Queretaro, about 130 miles north of Mexico City, seeking work in the United States, she said. He came to Norristown, where he had a family connection, caught on in construction, and became a specialist in concrete and waterproofing. Before long, he was an independent contractor.
Norristown, a city of about 34,000, has experienced a huge influx of Latinos, predominantly Mexicans, since the start of the 21st century. In 2000, Mexicans made up 10.5 percent of all borough residents; a decade later, they accounted for 22 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The couple met in 2002 at the quinceanera for the 15-year-old daughter of a mutual friend. They began dating in 2003; a year later, they were living together and Molina was pregnant.
Hernandez's only other brush with the law, Molina said, was a 2004 arrest for DUI. He completed the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition Program. The case was closed without a conviction.
Barred from obtaining a Social Security number because of he lived here illegally, Hernandez was eligible for an individual taxpayer identification number.
"We do our taxes every year," Molina said. "He uses his ITIN for everything."
Molina has picked up Hernandez's chores - shopping for the store; taking Caitlin to school. She feels most alone, she said, tucking the girls in at night.
"There are a lot of people who break the rules," Molina said. "But we all come here for the same reason, to have a safer, better future."
Although she speaks to her husband by phone, she hasn't visited him in prison.
"If I see him, I will start crying," she said, "and he will start crying. I don't want to do that."