News Column

Young Immigrants Wary of Reprieve

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A year after the Obama administration granted a reprieve from deportation to hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought illegally into the United States as children, less than a third have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Concerned about exposing themselves and family members to government scrutiny or raising the money needed to apply and hire a lawyer, 1.2 million of the country's 1.8 million potentially eligible young migrants have chosen to remain in the shadows, according to statistics from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Immigration Policy Center.

And in Texas, those numbers are even lower, with just more than 28 percent of the nearly 300,000 eligible youths applying.

But those who have sought government recognition through the controversial program -- known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA -- say it has inspired a newfound sense of civic responsibility and opened doors they'd long thought permanently closed to them.

"The future has never looked so clear to me before," said Fernando Alquicira, a 25-year-old medical student who, thanks to deferred action, has begun applying for hospital residency programs. "That was something I had given up on in the past."

As Congress considers the most wide-ranging change to the nation's immigration laws in decades, the impact of the deferred action program offers a glimpse of how a broader overhaul could transform the lives of the other 9 million immigrants believed to be in the country illegally, while also exposing potential barriers that could keep many from pursuing legal status.

To qualify, immigrants must prove they arrived in the country before age 16 and have lived here continuously since then. Applicants must be enrolled in high school, college or military service or have completed one of the three.

The deferred action program does not grant legal residency, but accepted youths receive a two-year reprieve from the threat of deportation, temporary authorization to work in the country and, in many states, the ability to apply for drivers' licenses.

But the program has drawn ire from critics, who labeled the president's plan -- announced at the height of his re-election campaign last year -- as an unlawful and naked play for Hispanic votes.

Several immigrants interviewed last week said they had held off or chosen not to apply for fear such debate could sink the policy's prospects for permanence and leave them vulnerable to deportation in the future.

Recent events have given them more cause for concern.

The Republican-held House of Representatives voted to shut down the program earlier this month in a party-line vote to an amendment to a Homeland Security spending bill.

The Senate hasn't approved its version of the spending bill yet, but any move to kill the program is likely to fail in the Democratic-controlled chamber.

And in April, a federal judge in Dallas suggested the president had overstepped his authority in implementing the plan without congressional approval -- though Judge Reed O'Connor noted in a provisional ruling that he was unsure he had jurisdiction to block the program.

"People are fearful that this isn't real -- that it might go away," said Paul Esquivel, a San Antonio immigration attorney. "They worry if I have given them my name, are they going to come take me and my family."

Barriers include cost

Johana De Leon, whose parents emigrated from Mexico's Coahuila state 13 years ago, described her hesitancy to apply as less rooted in fear than in principle.

"I feet like DACA just reinforces stereotypes of good immigrants and bad immigrants," the 22-year-old said. "My parents made the sacrifices that helped me become a 'good immigrant.' It didn't feel right to do this, when there is nothing yet for them."

Other potentially eligible youths cite cost as a barrier. With the application alone costing $465 before attorney's fees are included, the price tag alone delayed 20-year-old Jessica Yanez's decision to pursue deferred action until she could save up enough money through working $7-an-hour shifts as a baby sitter.

"I feel so blessed," she said Thursday, while showing off the work authorization card she received in the mail last week. "I prayed about it. I said, 'God, please make this happen.'"

But Yanez acknowledged that for families like hers with multiple undocumented children, the costs quickly add up. That burden is only magnified in the comprehensive immigration reform bill approved Thursday in the U.S. Senate.

That measure would offer a 13-year pathway to citizenship for many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants and a five-year fast track for those who meet the criteria of the current deferred action program.

Those who sign up would be required to pay thousands of dollars in fees, under the current proposal.

And if the cheaper price of deferred action application already has proven too steep for many, the high cost proposed for citizenship may bar many from access, advocates worry.

Out of shadows

But Carlos Aguilar, who moved at 14 from Guanajuato with his mother and siblings, believes that given the chance, most immigrants will opt to pursue legal status, no matter the cost.

"I've talked to a lot who say if they could just buy their citizenship, they would find a way to do it," he said. "For a lot of people, it's not about the money. It's about a chance at a job and the security for your family."

Now 22 and working as a clerk at an immigration law firm in San Antonio, Aguilar's deferred action approval has changed more than just his employment status, he said.

It has emboldened him from his days growing up in conservative Kerrville, where he was often too nervous about his status to even talk to teachers. Now, he's eager to talk about his life here without legal residency.

Working with clients preparing paperwork for their own immigration cases, he said he now aspires to pursue immigration law or a graduate degree in psychology, to counsel children of deported undocumented parents.

Others echoed his new ambitions.

"Sometimes, I thought there was no reason to do well and go to college if I couldn't get a job afterward," said Michelle Mancha, 17.

But since applying for deferred action, she has enrolled at San Antonio College to study biology and begun looking for jobs to help pay her tuition.

Alquicira, the medical student, also has dedicated himself to his studies with new vigor. Earlier this year, he joined hospital rotations in the Rio Grande Valley, a part of the state he never dared travel before thanks to border checkpoints.

For Yanez, though, deferred action has brought more than a chance at a career.

She reluctantly came to San Antonio in 2002 with her brother after the death of a younger sibling in Mexico. At the time, she recalled, it felt like they had only exchanged their grief with a new set of overwhelming problems.

But as she looked toward the future during an interview Thursday, the 20-year-old could not stop herself from beaming.

"I've grown used to this life now," she said. "I have so many dreams I want to accomplish here."

jroebuck@express-news.net

Twitter: @jeremyrroebuck

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