A (temporary) pass for children of undocumented immigrants
At first glance, this 14-year-old girl with a soft smile and a round face may seem like the all-American kid.
She’s been in Girl Scouts since the first grade. Her dad works in construction. Currently a high school sophomore, she hopes to work in the medical field some day.
But, that dream could be a long shot. Despite living in Haywood County since she was 4, she is an illegal alien — brought here by her parents from Mexico.
“Since I’ve been living here 11 years now, this is my home,” she said of Waynesville.
She identifies far more with America than her real birthplace. All she knows of Mexico comes from photos, videos and stories her family members tell her.
But now, she and other undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children could get a reprieve from deportation and limited permission to work.
President Barack Obama pushed a new program into law this summer — dubbed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — to help those brought here illegally as children lead more normal lives.
A recent meeting in Waynesville drew more than 25 people to learn about the program — immigrant families from the area shuffled into the Pigeon Street community center to see if they, or their family members, stand to benefit.
It was one of many statewide hosted by the N.C. Justice Center, intended to help people figure out if they qualify before applying, according to Dani Moore, director for the Immigrant and Refuge Rights Project of the N.C. Justice Center. In October, lawyers from the organization will return to help fill out the actual applications in confidential and free workshops.
The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services began accepting applications Aug. 15, and in the first month, more than 82,000 illegal immigrants applied.
Immigration advocates estimate that anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000 immigrants in North Carolina are eligible for the program, or will be in the near future — with about 1,500 or so from the N.C. 11 Congressional District, which constitutes 14 counties in Western North Carolina.
Fear in the community
But fear is still prevalent among members of the local Latino community in WNC whether the program is in their best interests, said Waynesville-based immigration lawyer Melanie Mace.
“There’s a lot of hysteria in the community, too,” Mace said “Some don’t understand it and think they may be put on a Schindler’s list and be first to go.”
In some cases, the risks outweigh the benefits. Once someone applies for the program, even if he or she isn’t accepted, that person’s personal information stays with immigration officials.
In some cases, Mace warned, someone could apply and instead of being granted a two-year working permission, be deported.
Many of the clients Mace has helped apply for the program seem like any other American — they speak and write English fluently, sometimes with a WNC mountain accent.
But after high school, these illegal immigrants are left with few options for work or education. And returning to their native country would be the same to them as moving to a foreign one.
“A lot of people say these illegal aliens just need to get in the immigration line and do this the right way,” Mace said. “But there is no line.”
For example, if an undocumented immigrant wants to attend Western Carolina University they can. But, they would be considered an international student — which means the $17,000 out-of-state price tag instead of $7,500 in-state tuition.
Although the deferred action program does not address tuition prices, some states may move to grant immigrants in the program such benefits. The program does, however, give these immigrants the ability to work legally for two years.
State legal help
Anyone with a criminal record is automatically disqualified. Even for a charge like driving without a license — which is prevalent in immigrant communities because they can’t get a driver’s license.
There are other variables out of the immigrant’s control that could make them ineligible. A change in the presidency could put a halt to the program, in which case all those who applied would have exposed themselves to deportation from the government. Also Obama could reverse his stance on the program, or Congress could push for restricting it.
“The program is a good step forward,” Moore said. “But, it could be better — we would like to see a better program with less risks.”
Many immigration experts say the program is just a temporary Band-Aid to allow these young illegal immigrants to participate in society while something more permanent, such as the DREAM Act, is passed into law.
If passed, the DREAM Act would give illegal immigrants in a similar situation a path to permanent residency, while deferred action program does not offer any path toward residency or citizenship.
Who is Eligible: Undocumented immigrants under the age of 31, who came to the United States before the age of 16. They must have lived in the United States for five consecutive years and have education or military background here. Having a felony, serious misdemeanor or several minor misdemeanors are disqualifiers.
The Benefits: Two-year legal status that protects them from deportation. They can also apply for a two-year work permit and Social Security number. In North Carolina, they can apply for a driver’s license, although that could change. In as many as three states, deferred action participants have already been prohibited from receiving a driver’s license.
To Apply: Applicants for the program must provide proof of the requirements and undergo a background check and fingerprinting. The cost of the application is $465.