News Column

Immigration Law Will Help Undocumented Students

Sept. 18, 2012

Martin Espinoza, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

mortarboard and diploma

For some, it has become one of those life-defining moments, the ones where you remember the exact time and date, where you were and what you were doing. For Jose Torres, 25, of Rohnert Park, Calif., it was 8:30 a.m., June 15.

Torres -- a Sonoma State University student who has been living illegally in the United States for about a decade -- was at work when his mother called him from Mexico. She said she saw a news report about a new program that offers undocumented students the chance to work legally in the United States.

After years of struggling to pay for college and helping his family in Mexico by working odd jobs and night shifts, Torres had long feared he was about to run into a dead-end. Even though he is set to receive a bachelor's degree in accounting next year, he had little hope of landing his dream job because he is an undocumented immigrant, without a Social Security number.

"I laughed. I said, 'Mom, don't joke with me,'" Torres recalled. "I told her, 'That's not going to happen. It won't happen.' She said, 'Well, you have a computer in front of you, why don't you look it up.'"

He looked it up and then cried.

Three months later, Torres is one of more than 83,000 undocumented young people vying for something called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a new immigration initiative that will temporarily allow those who qualify to go to school and work without fear of being deported.

Since June, when the program was announced by President Barack Obama, local immigration advocates and nonprofits that provide immigration assistance have been swamped with requests for help.

At Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, which operates an immigration services program, "the phone has been ringing off the hook," said Mary Lowe, the nonprofit's naturalization representative.

Currently, about 150 people are on a waiting list seeking assistance with the application process, though some have likely found help elsewhere, Lowe said. The entire staff of Catholic Charities' immigration services program has been working with clients, helping them through the procedure.

"Our whole staff is excited. We're obsessed with this process," Lowe said. "We're thrilled that we're able to help these folks that have waited so long."

But she said the process also involves a great deal of anxiety because there's no appeal process -- after a case is adjudicated, the decision is final.

Under the initiative, illegal immigrants who were brought into the country as children and meet several key guidelines can request deferred action from deportation for a period of two years. Those who receive it can apply for a work permit.

Applicants must prove they:

-- Were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and have been living in the country continuously since June 15, 2007.

-- Came to the United States before they turned 16, and were present in the country on June 15, 2012, when President Obama announced the initiative.

-- Entered illegally before June 15, 2012, or their lawful immigration status expired as of June 15, 2012.

The guidelines also require that applicants are currently in school, have graduated, or earned a high school certificate of completion, or GED. Those who have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or United States military can also apply.

Lastly, applicants must not have been convicted of a felony, a serious misdemeanor or three or more other misdemeanors.

Jose Torres, the Sonoma State student, delivered his application on Aug. 18. Since then, he's been given an appointment to submit his biometric data, which includes getting fingerprinted and undergoing a background check.

Torres grew up in the Mexican state of Jalisco, in a small town called San Jose de Gracia, until he was 12 years old. Accompanied by his mother and sister, Torres came to the United States on a tourist visa in 1999 to visit his older brother, who had entered the country illegally in 1994 to help support the family.

His father, who suffered diabetes-related health problems, died in 1996. His mother is also diabetic and sister is epileptic, so his older brother became the head of the family.

When their visas expired in 2001, Torres' mother and sister returned to Mexico but he decided to stay. Though it was rough the first couple of years, Torres quickly picked up the language and started doing well in school.

Ever since he was a child, Torres pictured himself working in an office building, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. That was his goal for as long as he could remember. He said he never really thought of himself as an illegal immigrant.

Those were the people who crossed the border concealed in trucks, making their way through the desert and mountains. Torres landed at Oakland International Airport. His bags were checked and visa stamped.

It wasn't until he was at Rancho Cotate High School that the truth hit him. Like many other high school students, Torres went to the local Department of Motor Vehicles office to get his driver's license. After he aced the written test, Torres was asked for his Social Security number. He didn't have it.

He went home and called his mother in Mexico and asked if it was in the black leather bag where she kept his birth certificate and other important documents.

"She kind of giggled, then she started crying," Torres said. "She just said, 'Mijo, you don't have one.' That's when it all hit me."

And that's when the doors started closing.

According to a recent analysis of U.S. Census data conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center, there are an estimated 10,710 people on the North Coast in the 1st and 6th Congressional Districts who either now or in the future could potentially qualify for the deferred action initiative.

Nationally, the study, which is based on census survey data, found that roughly 936,930 immigrants between 15 and 30 years old could meet the initiative's requirements. Another estimated 426,330 immigrants between 5 and 14 years old might qualify at some point in the future, if the initiative is not repealed.

In the study, while the majority of those who qualify are from Mexico, a significant number are from other regions including Central America, Asia, South America and Europe.

For example, in Lynn Woolsey's 6th District, there are 1,000 young people from a country other than Mexico who may qualify. This includes 110 people from Europe and 220 from Asia.

In Mike Thompson's 1st District, there are an estimated 590 undocumented immigrants who could potentially qualify. Of these, 240 are Asian and 70 are from Europe.

Peter Boogaard, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the initiative will allow federal immigration officials to focus their attention on people who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety.

Arnold Climaco, 20, entered the United States illegally with his parents when he was 2 years old. He was born in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, a city of more than 1 million people on the outskirts of Mexico City. His father, a construction worker, came to Santa Rosa for "work and to make a better life," he said.

Climaco, who graduated from Grace Necessary Small High School, an alternative school in Santa Rosa, is currently enrolled at Santa Rosa Junior College. He's taking some general education classes and a couple of business management courses.

In June, his father was watching the Spanish-language news when a report came on detailing the deferred action initiative. His father called him over to listen.

"When they were done talking about what you needed to qualify I was happy, because I met all those qualifications," Climaco said.

Climaco said he hopes deferred action will lead to a more legitimate status. When he graduates from school, he would like to start his own business, maybe a restaurant or a convenience store or market.

Torres said his dream of landing a job with an accounting firm in San Francisco now seems possible.

"I can see it. Now, I can see myself in a suit," he said. "Before it was nothing but a dream. I can feel it. I can smell it. It's there ... The feeling is something that I can't really explain. It's like finally being accepted in this country that I love."

Source: (c)2012 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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