Dreamers Place Hopes in New Federal Immigration Program

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By Maggie Lee, Audrey Cheng and Amy Li

Juan Sancen was 12 years old when he came to the United States. He’s just finished high school and plans to go to college this fall.

He’s also a so-called Dreamer, a young illegal immigrant hoping to become a secure U.S. resident – at least for a while – under a federal program that opened Wednesday.

Sancen is applying to stay in Michigan under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative announced via executive order by President Barack Obama in June. The order, which drew heavy criticism from many conservatives but elation from many liberals, allows certain undocumented residents who were brought to the country as children to apply for a two-year halt in any enforcement of immigration charges they might face.

“I’ll be able to get a work permit,” said Sancen, who was born in Mexico, finished high school in Detroit and is planning to head to Saginaw Valley State University. 

Sancen said being undocumented has made him feel “incapable” of doing the same things he says everybody can – or should be able to – do. Such as driving and “not being afraid to go to school every day and getting pulled over by cops or making a mistake while driving.”

People who are given the status may be eligible for work authorization, according to a Wednesday announcement from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Securtiy.

“I think it’s a good thing if done well,” said Wendy Sefsaf, communications director at the American Immigration Council. “It will allow young undocumented immigrants to finish their education and people should have a more permanent way to earn legal status.” 

Applicants must be under 31, have been brought to the States while younger than 16, and have lived in the United States since then. Further, they must have a clean criminal record and must either be in high school or have attained or be enrolled  in higher education, obtained the equivalent of a high school diploma, or have been honorably discharged from the armed forces

But it’s not clear that these Dreamers will get the same benefits nationwide. Take Victor Palafox of the Immigrant Youth Leadership Initiative of Alabama, who says his group is not sure that the federal status is going to be enough to get a state-issued drivers license.

But it does open up employment and public university doors, he said, which had been shut to undocumented residents under Alabama law.

“Some of the people we work with have had to drop out of school because they feel that, ‘Hey what’s the point of going to high school if I can’t go to university?” Palafox said. “We have had youth who have gotten full rides to universities here in Alabama and have had their scholarships taken away because of their status.” 

Immigration Equality is a national organization fighting for immigration rights specifically for the LGBT community.

Steve Ralls, the director of communications for Immigration Equality, said there are about 10,000 or more immigrant youths identified as LGBT who could benefit from Obama’s program.

“While the permanent option still lies with Congress, this is a very important interim temporary relief that the administration is providing for young people who have really only known the United States as their home,” Ralls said.

Mony Ruiz-Velasco, the director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said that while the initiative is a “great program,” NIJC wants to make sure people know this is temporary and not, actually, legal status.

“It’s an important first step, but it's just that: a first step,” Ruiz-Velasco said. “We want to make sure that that message is loud and clear because we do want Congress and the president to show leadership and act and create an opportunity for individuals to obtain permanent status.”

Because the program is temporary, “this is like getting on a bridge and you can’t see what’s on other side,” said Ryan Bates, executive director of the Alliance for Immigrant Rights and Reform – Michigan. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in two years.”

Bates’ group expected thousands of people to show up at their workshops in three Michigan cities Wednesday for assessment, information or legal aid related to the program.

But Palafox noted that mixed with “enthusiasm and excitement” among the eligible, there is also “concern and worry.” There’s always nervousness about attorneys who charge big fees, he said.

And some people fear putting their names in a federal database would expose them to deportation if the program expires.

“We’re advising people that you have to make this decision together with your family and base it on your own tolerance for risk,” said Bates.

Obama announced the deferred action initiative with the election cycle in full swing.

Michele Garnett McKenzie, the director of advocacy for The Advocates for Human Rights, said while there has been much speculation as to why and when the president made the announcement, she is not sure how it factors into the upcoming election.

“(The program) is clearly for the kids who are benefiting from deferred action, but they are nowhere near a citizenship or voting,” McKenzie said. “So it's not directly engaging them, but it is really a signal from the administration that there is some understanding that there are human beings attached to the immigration picture in the United States.”

McKenzie added that over the past two years, under President Obama, the United States has seen the most deportations and the most people in detention out of any administration.

“We have seen tremendous increases in the number of people deported from the United States,” McKenzie said. “This is the first serious announcement that has really let the immigration community at large know that the president is doing something to really make sure that they are safe and secure while they're here in our country. The political discussion is locked around immigration.”

Sefsaf of American Immigration Council added, “Hopefully this is a good program that will work but we still need the Congress to act.”

Said Sancen: “Hopefully it can be extended.” 

Audrey Cheng and Amy Li are reporters for The Chicago Bureau