Undocumented residents across the country are flocking to legal offices to discuss and apply for Deferred Action status, a recently approved administrative program that temporarily protects young immigrants from deportation. Congress has repeatedly rejected the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the United States illegally before age 16, so in June, the Obama administration began implementing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Many teenagers and young adults—mostly Mexicans brought to the U.S. as children who would have qualified under the DREAM Act—are jumping at the chance for temporary driver’s licenses and work authorization. But others are worried about the risk of admitting their undocumented status to the government.
Arnol Ramon, a 9th grader from Honduras, plans to apply for Deferred Action as soon as he is old enough. When asked why he wanted to apply, Roman’s answer was simple. “I want a job,” he said. “I want to buy a car.” Roman is an active participant in Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college readiness system offered to elementary through high school students. If he qualifies for Deferred Action and keeps his grades high enough to remain in AVID, he plans to work his way through high school and be the first in his family to go to college—preferably UVA or Standford University.
Charlottesville has a significant population of Latinos who have come to the U.S. illegally. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that Charlottesville and Albemarle are home to about 7,000 Latinos, and locals familiar with the Hispanic community say 40-60 percent of the adults being undocumented.Many of them want to stay, and last Thursday, local Latino advocacy and educational group Creciendo Juntos hosted one of a series of workshops intended to help them navigate the new federal program.
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Legal Aid Justice Center’s Doug Ford led the presentation, providing step-by-step explanations of the application process and answering questions from immigrants and service providers. A great concern among applicants is that submitting personal and family information would reveal the status of their parents and result in their deportation, even if the youth are protected under the policy. Ford tried to assure the audience that was not the case.
“There is that fear out there,” Ford said. “But you don’t need to involve your parents in the process.”
Qualifying applicants must be students, graduates, or GED recipients between the ages of 15 and 31, have arrived before their 16th birthday, have continuously resided in the U.S. for five years, and not have been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanors. Younger children cannot apply, Ford said, because they don’t yet need a driver’s license or work authorization. Ford emphasized the fact that Deferred Action is not a path to lawful permanent residence or U.S. citizenship; it is a recognition designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that gives qualified immigrants permission to remain in the country and work for two years.
A Mexican immigrant mother who attended the workshop and asked to remain anonymous because of her legal status said she wanted her son, a high school graduate, to apply so he can attend college and begin a career.
“I want him to have a job that will continue to improve his life,” she said.
The first time her son came to the U.S., he was caught and sent back to Mexico, so she feared that his history of deportation would negate his eligibility and the government would turn him over to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Ford encouraged applicants to seek legal assistance if they had criminal records or other questionable pasts, and said there are ways to work around those “red flags.” The mother left the presentation feeling confident that with some help from local attorneys, her son would qualify, and is already planning on pushing her younger daughter to apply in two years.
She’s not the only parent who is making such plans for younger children, but the future of the policy is a question mark. The Department of Homeland Security has said that the program will be renewable for qualifying individuals after two years, but Ford said there’s no telling how long the policy will actually last. Because it is a recent creation of the Obama Administration, it could be changed or eliminated depending on the outcome of the upcoming Presidential election.
If elected, Republican Mitt Romney could discard the policy, which some fear would result in thousands of immigrants revealing undocumented status under no protection from ICE. Retired immigration attorney Stan Braverman supports Deferred Action, and said even if the policy sinks, it’s still worth the risk.
“From an economic point of view, it’s probably worthwhile,” he said.
Braverman’s Latino clients have jumped through hoops for work authorization, with intent to stay in the country permanently. He said if they are able to save a few hundred dollars a month, even if they end up leaving, at least they’ll go back with something.
“If they get $10,000 saved up and get deported, they’re going home rich,” Braverman said. “And the education they’ll get here is also going to be valuable back home.”
Going home is not on Roman’s radar, though he said he is scared of being rejected by the program. But his record is clean and his grades are high, so if the policy remains intact, he could be on his way to California in a few years.