Deferred Action: Offering immigrant youth a chance
As an 18-year-old college freshmen studying political science, with dreams of going to law school to implement change in the community, Uriel could think of nothing more riveting than attending the Democratic National Convention, held this year in Charlotte, N.C.
“I would love to be there – to see what it’s all about,” he said. “But I can’t travel.”
Uriel (a pseudonym to protect his identity) is one of millions of immigrants who were born in another country, but came to America as young children when their parents sought a better life. Without an American birth certificate or social security number, he can’t obtain a drivers license, work permit or passport – but he’s hopeful the newly passed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law could change that.
“I would get the opportunity to drive legally and maybe travel,” he said.
The new law, which went into effect Aug. 15, would allow undocumented immigrants, who came to this country as children, to apply for work authorization, assuming they meet specific criteria and pose no threat to the country. In some states, including California, the law has been expanded to include drivers’ licenses as well, assuming applicants pass the drivers test.
“One of the hardest things is explaining to families that it’s not amnesty. It does not affect citizenship,” said Maricarmen Reyes-Larios, a family advocate and coordinator of educational programs at La Luz Center, which is working with the nonprofit California Human Development to help Valley residents apply for deferred action. So far, around 60 Valley youth have expressed interest in the program, including Uriel.
“I’ve started the paperwork,” he beamed, adding that the process of pulling all of his records together was challenging. He is now volunteering to help other youth through the process.
To be eligible for the program, immigrants must be able to prove they were under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012; came to the United States when they were under the age of 16; have maintained continuous residency for the past five years; were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time they applied for deferred action; are currently enrolled in school, a high school graduate or honorably discharged veteran; and have never been convicted of a felony, “serious misdemeanor” or three or more misdemeanors.
“They need documentation of everything to prove their case – medical records, school records, baptism papers even bank statements,” Reyes-Larios said.
Kara Reyes, La Luz’s family services director, added, “They need multiple forms – they can’t just have one. The government will be checking everything.”
In the first month since the program launched, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has approved more than 72,000 applications for deferred action, moving much more quickly than predicted. Early estimates from the department cited a time of six to eight months to review an application.
Officials at La Luz said while there is significant interest, there is also a lot of confusion from clients about what the law actually covers. Many think it is the same as the Dream Act, which sought to grant citizenship to any immigrant who came to the country as a child, is of “good moral character,” and is either a fulltime student or a member of the armed services. The bill was defeated in the senate in 2010, but legislators continue to pursue the effort, leading the Obama administration to develop deferred action.
“It’s basically elements of the Dream Act that have been pulled out,” Reyes said.
In addition to confusion, there is also a level of fear from the immigrant community after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced he would repeal the law if elected to office.
Reyes and Reyes-Larios have heard anxiety from clients who fear if they apply, they’ll have a target on their back for deportation.
“We’ve worked with one immigration attorney … he’s recommending his clients wait until after the election (to apply),” Reyes-Larios said.
Reyes added, “We’ve had other immigration experts say go ahead and do it, they’re not going to go after kids, they’re going for criminals.”
As a fulltime student on scholarship at Sonoma State University, Uriel said the benefits of applying outweigh the risks. He said he already risks having his car impounded every day as he drives to class, as there are no convenient bus routes from the Valley to his school. His older brother has had his car impounded twice for driving without a license, costing more than $2,600 in fines each time, and making him ineligible for deferred action.
“He’s been asking for assistance here at La Luz because he wants deferred action too,” Uriel said, adding that there’s nothing the center can do since he doesn’t meet the federal criteria. “I thought that if I become a lawyer, maybe I could help my family with that.”
Ultimately, La Luz Center offers referral services and is not advocating one way or another for their clients when it comes to deferred action. It is focused on assisting those who ask for help by providing information and understanding of what the law means.
“We tell them not to make any decision until they’re informed,” Reyes-Larios said, “but we can’t tell them what to do.”
Reyes said she’s hopeful for a law that does more to provide assistance, especially for immigrants who came to this country as children.
“We certainly hope that (deferred action) is a step towards the Dream Act, and that they don’t abandon the Dream Act,” she said. “Life without a (social security) number, I mean just think of your own life and how often you need identification to do anything. It affects everything.”