New Federal Policy Leaves Immigrant Students Hopeful Yet Cautious
By LEAH RAE
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original Publication: July 27, 2012) The newest change in immigration policy is offering hope – and perhaps a dilemma – to students living in the country illegally: They may soon apply for temporary work permits, if they turn over their personal information to the government.The federal policy aims to help an estimated 800,000 immigrants who have long sought a means to become legal residents under the proposed DREAM Act. Generally speaking, they were brought to the United States illegally as children. Independent of Congress, the Obama administration announced June 15 that it would provide two-year work permits and protection from deportation for these young people – but no certainty in the long term.The response is a mix of euphoria and disappointment among New York’s “Dreamers,” young people who would qualify under the policy.
Marlen Fernandez, a White Plains High School graduate born in Mexico, isn’t sure whether to apply. When she rallies with other college students for the DREAM Act, she’s open about her status, even wearing a T-shirt labeling herself “undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic.” But when it comes to the legal process, she feels vulnerable.
“I absolutely think there’s a risk because once you give them all your information, it’s like saying, ‘I’m here,’ ” she said.
Fernandez, 19, was brought to the United States at age 3. She works as a cashier to put herself through Lehman College.
Like others, she has wrestled with doubts over whether her studies were a dead end, with no way to work legally.
Another Lehman student, Dulce, said the change has lifted her hopes for “a normal job.”
“Now,” said the Elmsford resident, who did not want her full name published because she is not a legal resident, “I feel a little bit of faith and hope for my future.”
Attorneys are sorting through the questions at informational seminars. There was one Thursday at Westchester Community College and two coming up: Sunday at El Centro Hispano in White Plains and Aug. 14 at the Salvation Army in Spring Valley.
“They can ruin somebody’s application process. They can charge somebody thousands of dollars, with that person not even being able to qualify,” said Juan Pablo Ramirez, who helped organize the Spring Valley event as a member of the Rockland Immigration Coalition.
Immigrants need professional advice to learn whether they qualify for the new status or some other provision, said Vanessa Merton, supervisor of Pace Law School’s Immigration Justice Clinic.
Applicants must be 30 or younger. They will need to prove, among other things, that they came to the United States before age 16 and have no felony or “significant misdemeanor” convictions. There is no way to apply until mid-August. More information is due to be released Wednesday.
“If we couldn’t get the DREAM Act, this is probably the next best thing,” Ramirez said.
Like the immigration system as a whole, the so-called deferred action for childhood arrivals gives enormous discretion to the executive branch and no guarantees, Merton said.
“The great crime of our immigration system is its enormous complexity,” she said.
It’s a form of limbo, like “temporary protected status” offered to illegal immigrants of certain nationalities due to a crisis in the homeland. The status is temporary and does not lead to permanent residency or citizenship. It will enable permit holders to apply for a driver’s license, which would expire at the same time as the permit, attorney Robin Bikkal of White Plains said. Students living here illegally would remain ineligible for college financial aid.
Notably, the policy could be reversed by future administrations. There is widespread suspicion that President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign is scoring political points with the Latino population.
“My view is that it is a half-baked measure, that it was certainly launched for political purposes and is not addressing what I think is a major issue,” said Rafael Elias-Linero, chairman of the Westchester Hispanic Advisory Board and a member of Mitt Romney’s Hispanic Steering Committee.
“If I were one of those kids, I definitely would not come out and put my family at risk,” he said. “When I give the information, I’m basically leaving my family vulnerable … to what has been one of the most aggressive administrations in terms of deportation.”
Obama’s Republican challenger does not support the DREAM Act but favors some form of legalization as part of a larger immigration reform, Elias-Linero said.
Opponents in Congress say the act would create a magnet for illegal immigrants and reward unlawful entry. Fernandez argues that policies like free trade forced families like hers to leave Mexico and that U.S. immigration rules leave no legal recourse.
“There’s no line for me to get on, or for anyone I know who’s undocumented,” she said.
Fernandez said the policy change is both encouraging and disappointing. She hopes it could be one step toward the DREAM Act. But it offers her “second-class citizenship,” she said, and still limits her ability to travel as she pursues the field of medical anthropology.
Dulce plans to major in environmental science. She said she paid for her first college semester by working two restaurant jobs on weekends but couldn’t come up with the money for her second semester and worked full time instead. With a work permit, Dulce hopes to work at a school bookstore or maybe Target and use her weekends to study. She also wants to volunteer at a hospital. She said her mother wanted to be a nurse but never finished high school.
Dulce has not returned to Mexico since she was brought here at age 7, and she considers the United States her home.
“If I was born here, I don’t know how different I would be,” she said. “This journey has made me more independent. It’s given me motivation to actually be someone.”