News Column

Hispanic Youths Say Future Looks Brighter

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Eleazar Velazquez got a text message from his mother during a Dream Act group meeting before the University of Oklahoma released classes for Thanksgiving.

"I got a letter saying to go in Dec. 10 for my biometrics," he announced.

Everyone understood that jargon and gave him hugs and high-fives.

With a shaky voice and a smile spanning his face, the 22-year-old undocumented immigrant said that means he may get a chance to stay in the U.S., his home since age 3.

"That means I'm almost at the end -- fingerprints and my photo for a worker's permit," he said. "After that, I'm official."Velazquez, an architecture student at OU, is among at least 10,000 immigrants in Oklahoma expected to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That gives a two-year reprieve from deportation to youths such as Velazquez who were brought to this country by their parents as children.

It is not a pathway to citizenship or residency.

It is for this reason Velazquez and his fellow Dream Act group members, called Dreamers, will be holding a vigil at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the south oval of the OU campus. It is a first-of-its-kind event for Oklahoma -- one where young illegal immigrants will publicly acknowledge their status, their struggles and their determination to become Americans.

The group includes students studying everything from the arts to business; fraternity members; pageant contestants; and students in a variety of activities.

"I'm undocumented by circumstance, Mexican in origin and American in my future," Velazquez said. "That's how I define myself. I'm definitely not 'an illegal.' I did not choose how I came here."

Dream Act nonprofit groups, named for the decade-old pending legislation in Congress, have popped up to push for passage of immigration laws to help undocumented youths. Oklahoma has three groups -- in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Norman -- with 60 members.

The deferred action directive mirrors many of the Dream Act points but is only temporary, leaving youths in a limbo-type status.

About 1.76 million youths nationally are expected to be eligible, and about 300,000 have applied since mid-August, according to the Office of Homeland Security.

Velazquez said he is coming forward with his story to let others know they are not alone.

"You go through struggles the typical American youth doesn't go through," he said. "There is a network here. You can't do it without support."

Velazquez crossed the border illegally as a 3-year-old, remembering his parents coaching him to tell guards that the stranger with him was a grandfather.

Growing up in the U.S., he moved frequently as his parents sought manual labor jobs. They lived in poverty, in some places without running water or electricity.

Settling in Oklahoma in 1996, he went to Millwood High School as his father worked at nearby Remington Park.

At one point, the family lived in dormitories connected to the horse stalls.

"I wasn't allowed to go anywhere," he said. "I couldn't get a driver's license or even go to an R-rated movie or out at night because they were afraid of something happening to me. They said not to go out and don't tell anyone about my status."

School is a passion, and it was frustrating planning a future without a way to gain legal residency, he said.

"I didn't know I was undocumented until the eighth grade, when we were told to apply for OHLAP (a free college tuition program) and scholarships," he said. "I did well in school, had a high GPA and was third in my class.

"I thought, 'So this is it? This is the end of the road for me?' "

For immigrants in his situation, there are no options other than return to Mexico and wait at least a decade for a chance to apply for a visa.

"I've never been to Mexico, have no ties there other than a cultural awareness, and I have a hard time speaking Spanish," he said.

Oklahoma colleges and universities do allow undocumented students to apply and attend if accepted. For many, including Velazquez, paying for school is made more difficult because they are not eligible for government-backed loans and scholarships.

Velazquez made it into his third year of the architecture program before finances dried up last year and he stopped enrolling in classes.

As a student, he co-founded Dream Act Norman and was active in a multi-cultural fraternity and President's Community Council.

"I'm not in school now, but I'm still active on campus and will continue to make my mark," he said. "I can't stop now."

Deisy Escalera, Miss Hispanic OU and co-founder of Dream Act Norman, will be sharing her story at the vigil.

Escalera, 23, entered the U.S. from Mexico with her mother at age 6 on a tourist visa. Her mother, who worked as a court clerk in a Mexican courthouse, overstayed her visa. She wanted to give her daughter a chance at a better education and avoid the growing violence in Mexico.

In the United States, her mother works manual labor jobs from meat packing to motel housekeeper.

"Yes, she did it illegally, yes she didn't follow the rules," Escalera said. "But would you have done the same thing or tried it if it was your child's future?"

Escalera went to Putnam City West High School and didn't know her status until junior high. "I was always scared but you get used to it," she said. "When you see a cop car, your heart starts racing until he leaves. You always have some fear.

"There are little things in life you value I cannot have, from driving to getting a job. But my mom taught me to value what I have."

After earning an associate's degree, she is now studying energy management at OU.

But she is finding no opportunities for employment without a Social Security number.

"There is nothing different about us," she said. "I'm a step behind everyone else because I have nothing on my resume. I have no internships because I can't get them."

She has applied for deferred action and is waiting for a response.

Tears well up and fall when she speaks of her mother's sacrifices.

"It's sad to see the person who left everything she had to give me everything not be given a chance," Escalera said. "She doesn't dream or have hope. All she does is work. I don't want to leave this world until I've tried to change things."

Escalera and her fellow Dream Act group members say they hope the next Congress will seriously look at creating pathways for education and citizenship for law-abiding immigrants.

"We are growing in Hispanic numbers but not in education," she said. "Our ultimate goal is immigration reform, to help everyone." Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals This is a form of prosecutorial discretion made available in August to a specific group of immigrant youths. It is a tool prosecutors can use to drop a deportation case.

Qualifying immigrants have their cases closed but not dismissed. That means their cases could be re-opened for deportation if the immigrant commits a crime or a new immigration violation.

Immigrants whose cases are closed are allowed to remain in the U.S., but they are in legal limbo. They are not granted legal status or given a path to residency or citizenship.

To be eligible, an individual must be younger than 31, have arrived in the U.S. before age 16; be enrolled or have completed school or be a military veteran; and have no felony or significant misdemeanor convictions.

If approved, it gives immigrants a two-year reprieve from deportation and a chance to obtain a worker's permit.

DREAM Act The legislative measure was first proposed in 2001 and is an acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. Various versions have been proposed during the last decade. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the act in December 2010, 216-198, but it failed in the Senate. It has been re-introduced in both chambers, keeping the measure alive.

The 2010 version would have given a "conditional nonimmigrant" status for at least two years. Eligibility requirements would include the following:

Enter the U.S. before age 15; earn a high school diploma, receive a GED or be accepted into a college; live continuously in the U.S. for at least five years; be no older than 29; undergo several background checks to be deemed of "good moral character" by the Department of Homeland Security; and undergo a medical exam.

Limits on "conditional nonimmigrants" include not sponsoring extended family members to the U.S. and not being eligible for federal benefits such as food stamps or Medicaid.

After completing two years of college or military service, the student would be eligible to apply for permanent immigrant residency.

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