The Salvadoran green card-holder and mother of six saw son Brian, 18, deported to Honduras last year when police learned he was undocumented after an incident at a high school party. Officers turned him over to federal authorities even though he was not charged with a crime.
"For me, he's my boy," Reyes, 50, said in an interview at her home. "It's so difficult. Brian's not here; because we're a family that's united, very tight."
While national attention focuses on a new Arizona law that would require local law enforcement to act on "reasonable suspicion" to investigate and detain illegal immigrants, police officers in many communities already assist in the enforcement of federal immigration laws during the course of their daily duties.
Section 287(g) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act gives selected, trained police officers in 63 U.S. cities the power to stop, question and detain suspected illegal immigrants. And the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Communities initiative, used in 22 states, allows police officers to check the immigration status of anyone booked into their jails.
Virginia on Monday also granted broad authority to its state law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone stopped for any reason. Previously, state police were only required under state law to perform checks of people arrested for a crime.
The partnerships between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been credited with helping to contribute to the detention and deportation of a record 387,790 illegal immigrants in 2009, up 5 percent from the year before.
Santos Reyes and many immigrant advocates say the practice, however well intended, breeds mistrust between immigrants and community police and unfairly divides families.
"The immigration system in the U.S. is very just for some people but unjust for other people," said Reyes, who sought and received asylum in the United States in 1994 during the civil war in her native El Salvador.
But supporters of tighter immigration controls have widely praised the involvement of local law enforcement in upholding federal immigration laws.
"As the name of the program implies, the program is intended to make communities safer by enhancing the identification of criminal aliens being sought by federal authorities for deportation. Why would any community not want to do that?" said John L. Martin of the conservative Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform. "The charge that the Secure Communities program would lead to profiling or disrupt families by placing peaceful illegal aliens in jeopardy of deportation is deliberately misleading."
Family Hopes Immigration Overhaul Will Provide Path to Reunite
Sitting proudly in a worn office chair in the living room of her humble third-floor apartment, Reyes clutched a collage of photos of her youngest son and insisted he is no criminal. She said he had hoped to serve in the U.S. military.
"That's him, there," she said, pointing to a teenage boy in a JROTC Air Force uniform. "Even if he didn't have any papers, wearing a uniform was enough for him."
Reyes' children, including Brian, were supposed to follow their mother in her asylum bid to the United States. But a paperwork delay, combined with the family's impatience, led them to come before their visas were approved, she said.
Now undocumented, they must leave the country and wait 10 years before reapplying for visas in order to obtain legal status.
"Hola," Reyes said, picking up her cell phone. Her face lit up with the answer on the other end: It was Brian, calling from Honduras, where he has been living for nearly a year, continuing with high school and working as a carpenter.
"It's so hard, you know, to leave behind a life and my entire family," Brian said.
Asked if he would to try return to the United States without waiting the requisite 10 years, he said, "I don't want to go illegally now. I don't want to get deported again. It's such a horrible experience."
Meanwhile, Santos Reyes clings to the hope that Congress and the Obama administration will enact a comprehensive immigration overhaul that will allow her family to be united under the "umbrella" of asylum, as she originally hoped.
"I don't want to talk to a first lady, I want to talk to a mother," Reyes said of her desire to reach Michelle Obama about her plight.
"Because I know nothing is worth more to her than her two children. I work very, very hard to give the best to my children like she has. My children are the most valuable things I ever have."