For young illegal immigrants, a day of hugs, smiles, joy ... and qualms

Young illegal immigrants began applying Wednesday under Obama's miniature DREAM Act, which offers exemption from deportation for at least two years. There was rejoicing among them, but also apprehension.

Joanne Ciccarello / Staff
Jorge Acu–a is an undocumented immigrant who is applying for citizenship through the Dream Act which allows certain children of undocumented immigrants the possibility of citizenship. Acu–a is from Germantown, Md.

For DREAMers, Wednesday was a long time coming.

It is the first day that the federal government is accepting applications for President Obama's miniature DREAM Act program, formally known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Young undocumented immigrants eligible for the program – those who are pursuing an education or are serving in the military – are a jumble of emotions: excited about the opportunity but also anxious about whether the government will keep its word and whether their applications will pass muster. 

“For so long, we have been attacked. There has been nothing but anti-immigrant bills, and now we have something like this," says Daniel Rodriguez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who is pursuing a law degree at Arizona State University. "It’s the first time that I’ve been in this movement in Arizona that we’ve had a win, something to celebrate.” 

Some compared the feeling Wednesday to the moment two months ago when Mr. Obama announced DACA.

“It’s like another June 15,” says Jorge Acuña, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Germantown, Md., as DREAMers shared their joy via social media and in text messages and phone calls to one another.

Mr. Rodriguez had thought he'd reach a day like this sooner. Back in 2010, he had high hopes for the DREAM Act, legislation that would put young undocumented immigrants pursuing an education or military service on a path to US citizenship. For a month that fall, he camped outside the office of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a one-time DREAM Act supporter, to urge the senator to support the bill. The bill, approved by the House, died in the Senate. Senator McCain opposed it.

“There was a lot of crying,” recalls Mr. Rodriguez, a regional leader in a national network of DREAMers called United We Stand, in a recent phone interview. “We lost a lot of people [in the DREAM movement] after 2010. A lot of them gave up hope.”

After Obama's announcement about DACA in June, Rodriguez again saw tears – joyous ones this time. For successful applicants, the program offers renewable designation good for two years of deferred deportation, a Social Security card, and the ability to apply for a work permit.

“The meaning [of Mr. Obama’s June 15 speech was] the first major relief for our community in over 25 years," says Rodriguez. "It has really ignited this movement.”

Who are the DREAMers?

As many as 1.76 million DREAMers are eligible for the president's program, estimates the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). That includes at least 1.2 million who are eligible for the program already and another half-million who are too young today but could qualify in the future. Nearly 3 in 4 are concentrated in four states: California, Texas, Florida, and New York.

While 85 percent are from Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts south, 11 percent hail from Asia.

To qualify for the DACA program, applicants must be under age 31, have lived in the US for five or more years consecutively, served in the military or be pursuing an education or have graduated from high school, have come to America before age 16, and have no significant criminal record. Applicants must pay a $465 fee and submit to a biometric scan and background investigation.

Nearly 60 percent already have jobs. Of the estimated 80,000 potential DACA applicants who have completed a college degree, 6,400 have achieved a degree beyond a bachelor’s, according to MPI.

DACA may also spur more of the eligible population to go back to school. Twenty percent of the total DREAMer population isn’t enrolled in school and lacks a high school diploma, MPI estimates. Now that immigration authorities say enrollment in high school or GED classes qualifies as proof for the program’s education requirement, dispirited potential DREAMers have a powerful incentive to return to the classroom, say immigrant advocates.

“They are getting education for a reason: to get a job,” says Scarlette Kim, an undocumented Korean immigrant currently studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a phone interview. With a work permit now dangling at the end of the education ladder, “they’re running toward it,” says Ms. Kim, who works with a local Korean-American organization to educate undocumented immigrants and who plans to apply under DACA.

And in running toward legitimate employment, immigrant advocates say, DREAMers not only will be able to realize their ambitions, but also will be able to show what they bring to the nation.

Mr. Acuña, for example, took enough Advanced Placement classes in high school to finish two associate’s degrees in the span of one. Acuña hopes to study at the University of Maryland and eventually become a neurosurgeon, but that depends in part on whether Maryland affirms a state version of the DREAM Act allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. 

A study released Tuesday finds that immigrants have been a driving force for entrepreneurship in recent years. Immigrants started more than one-quarter of all businesses last year, according to the report from the Partnership for a New American Economy, more than double their share of the population. One in 10 Americans, the study continues, works at an immigrant-owned business.

That enterprising spirit is something immigrant advocates say they see among the DREAMers.

“We have some amazing DREAMers that have been so influential and have law degrees and PhDs and all kinds of things, so it’s really exciting what they’re able to accomplish,” says Wendy Cervantes, vice president of immigration for First Focus, a children’s advocacy group.

What keeps DREAMers up at night

Still, DREAMers and their allies must navigate a difficult application process amid a tumultuous political climate.

Within a few hours of Obama’s June announcement, calls started pouring into the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) from DREAMers, teachers, principals, and parents looking for guidance. They haven't stopped since.

“There was a sense of overwhelmingness” for the DREAMer community and immigrant advocates, says Marielena Hincapie, executive director at the NILC.

And so, a first order of business was for the DREAMer community to flesh out the program’s details. A network of DREAMers led by the United We Dream coalition, elected officials, and immigrant advocates have been holding workshops on the subject across the country in the past two months.

Even so, getting reliable information to potential applicants is a tall order.

“How do we reach 1.4 million people in 60 days? How do we do outreach to the community and let them know what this is and what this is not?” says Ms. Hincapie.

Ensuring that applicants have correct information is important, given the structure of the DACA program. There is no process for appealing a USCIS decision – an applicant who races into the process without understanding it, some fear, risks losing the opportunity forever.

Second, general fear of outing oneself to the immigration authorities needed to be addressed. USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said last week his agency has taken that fear into account. It will not refer rejected applicants to immigration enforcement unless the applicant poses a national security threat, the information filed with USCIS can be used in a criminal investigation, or the applicant misrepresents himself or herself to the agency, according to USCIS guidelines.

Third, some DACA applicants worry that they may jeopardize their existing jobs by outing themselves to their current employers – by asking for employment records or other documentation, perhaps.

Fourth is the fear of fraud. Prospective applicants risk being ripped off by irreputable “notarios,” as they are known in the Latino community, who may pocket large fees and then disappear or who may endanger applicants' chances by providing shoddy advice.  

Immigrants seeking to apply “should be really careful of the people that they are working with. There are a lot of bad people within our community and a lot of people who are trying to rip people off,” said Acuña. On Tuesday and Wednesday alone, he said, he discouraged several friends from pursuing offers from lawyers making impossible promises.

And what if Mitt Romney is elected president in November? Would the DACA program continue? Mr. Romney has not said he would support it, but neither has he said he would short-circuit it.

Each of these concerns needs to be addressed quickly, immigration experts agree, because if the early returns in the program are problematic, potential DREAMers may opt to pass it by.

“Those who are waiting in the shadows are encouraged to apply based on [what happens during] the initial run” of applications, says Charles Wheeler, a senior attorney with Catholic Legal Immigration Network in San Francisco who has three decades of experience in immigration law. “I would say a lot of people are playing a wait-and-see game.”

If DREAMers don’t show up in droves for DACA, Rodriguez fears, enthusiasm for it will flag. And with less energy, young immigration activists won’t be able to push as strongly for the biggest prizes: the full, legislative DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform.

“Politically speaking,” he said, one-time DREAMer allies might ask themselves, “ ‘Why should we waste any sort of power on this? Why should we devote so many resources and time if people aren’t taking advantage of what they have already?’ ”

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