Deferred action gives hope to young immigrants, activists

Nathaly Uribe, center, spent most of the day Wednesday answering people’s questions about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals process before they committed to standing in the long lines that formed outside of the Casa de Maryland multicultural center. (SHFWire photo by Matt Wettengel)

“To some people it’s just a policy change. To us it’s promise; it’s hope; it’s a future. It feels like we’re finally being accepted by the country that we call home.”

Also: Without documents, immigrant students struggle

Matthew Wettengel

 Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

LANGLEY PARK, Md. – Hundreds of young undocumented immigrants and their families swarmed the headquarters of Casa de Maryland’s Multicultural Center this week, eager for permission to remain in the country legally.

The crowd gathered at the organization’s office in a Washington suburb to learn about and in some cases submit their applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. President Barack Obama said immigrants who came to the U.S. as children who are in school or the military may apply to stay in the US and avoid deportation.

Data source: Migration Policy Institute analysis of 2006-08 and 2008-10 census data. (Graphic by Matt Wettengel)

People of all ages were present. Families came to support their eligible relatives, and some groups of friends accompanied each other, with their folders of paperwork in hand.

Nathaly Uribe, 17, an immigrant who lives in Glen Burnie, Md., was part of the crowd, but she was volunteering and answering questions about new program as best she could.

Uribe, who came to the US with her parents from Valparaíso, Chile, when she was 2, believes that the challenges her family faced as she was growing up helped her develop into the person she is today. From the 6 miles she would sometimes walk to her mother’s workplace, to nights the family spent sleeping on playgrounds, she said that the adversities will soon be validated through her application for the deferred action process.

“To some people it’s just a policy change. To us it’s promise; it’s hope; it’s a future. It feels like we’re finally being accepted by the country that we call home,” Uribe said.

As she nears the age of 18, when unlawful presence begins for undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors, Uribe said she’s relieved to have a way of attaining some security in the country she grew up in, even if only for two years.

Gustavo Andrade, director of the organizing department at Casa de Maryland, directed the scores of young immigrants who assembled Wednesday and coordinated the event, manning the speaker system for most of the evening. (SHFWire photo by Matt Wettengel)

Uribe’s volunteer shift began at about 10:30 a.m. She talked to undocumented immigrants and their families about the process all day. Though the US Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting applications for the program Wednesday, the meeting was largely to inform people about the process – the criteria applicants must meet and the required documents – and to provide legal advice.

For those who qualify, deferred action means many things: the ability to get a job, the possibility of affordable schooling, the opportunity to get a driver’s license in some states and the chance to live without the constant threat of deportation.

These will help them to develop stronger ties to the US and improve their chances of attaining a green card and citizenship in the future, Marco Saavedra, 22, of New York, said in a phone interview. The program specifically does not provide a path to permanent legal residency.

Saavedra, an activist with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, left his hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico, with his parents at age 3. Nineteen years later, Saavedra is a graduate of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, who has had trouble finding a job that will allow him to use his sociology degree.

Though he is bilingual and still has extended family in Mexico, Saavedra said that staying in the US is the best option for him, and he isn’t the only one.

For Joel Sati, 19, and other undocumented immigrants who have lived in the US for most of their lives, their native countries are foreign to them. Sati, of Silver Spring, Md., is a sophomore at Montgomery College.

“For these past 10 years, I’ve lived the American way and just known how it is to be American,” said Sati, who came to the US from Nairobi, Kenya, at age 10 to join his mother. “Getting citizenship is my goal, so I can actually have that validated from a paper’s point of view.”

Casa de Maryland has its own goal of helping 10,000 people in the Washington metro area attain work authorization, Executive Director Gustavo Torres said. He said the organization will work quickly to help as many eligible people as possible file applications before the end of the year, in case the next president discontinues the program.

Even though any future president could revoke the policy, which Obama invoked through executive privilege, immigration attorney David Bennion of Philadelphia said he doubts anyone would. He said that the growing political power of the young immigrants will pressure the president to maintain the policy.

Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, began the Wednesday evening event with a press conference outside of the multicultural center in Langley Park. Torres praised those who planned to apply for deferred action and work permits, calling them the future of their community. (SHFWire photo by Matt Wettengel)

Not everyone believes this is the case. Dan Stein, president of the Federation for Americans for Immigration Reform, said Obama overstepped his authority. Similar legislation known as the DREAM Act has failed twice in Congress. By using his executive privilege, Obama showed disregard for representative government, Stein said.

Stein said a lack of assessment of the effects of the program could take college financial aid and jobs from legal residents.

Bennion said the effects of this program are mitigated by the highest deportation numbers in the nation’s history during the Obama administration.

With the program in its infancy and scores of young illegal immigrants hoping to take advantage of the deferred action, Saavedra said, while Obama may have made a political move by offering deferred action to young undocumented immigrants, more work still needs to be done.

“It’s definitely the more sympathetic narrative, but we still have parents who also want to be able to work legally,” Saavedra said. “Hopefully this program can serve as a starting point for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Reach Matt Wettengel at matthew.wettengel@shns.com or 202-326-9867. 

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