U.S. Opens a Door to a Dream for Young Illegal Immigrants

Matt McLoone

Cristina A. Jiménez is managing director of the United We Dream network, an advocacy group that is getting word out about the new policy and helping young immigrants apply for its benefits. She is shown speaking at a rally in Washington in June.
August 15, 2012

Starting Wednesday, young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children can apply for two-year stays on deportation that experts say will motivate many to pursue education and empower those who are already in school to put their degrees to use.

Since the Obama administration announced the new policy on June 15, thousands of eligible young people have eagerly awaited details about the relief it provides. The policy allows them to apply for work permits and for renewable two-year deferments on any action that could lead to their deportation.

The policy's announcement came 11 years after a bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for such young people was first introduced in Congress. While the benefits available under the new policy fall far short of those in the stalled legislation, which is known as the Dream Act, the new program will brighten the prospects of undocumented young people considerably.

If the program lives up to expectations, young illegal immigrants could land jobs that make use of their college diplomas, get permission to travel outside of the United States, and even potentially receive driver's licenses and apply for financial aid for college, depending on the policies of the states where they live, said Roberto G. Gonzales, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

"These are most of the things that distinguish citizens from noncitizens," said Mr. Gonzales, who has spent much of his career studying how undocumented children grow up. "This could really open up the world for these young people."

To qualify, applicants must have been younger than 31 when the program was announced, have been brought to the United States before the age of 16, and have lived in the country for at least five years. Applicants must also be in school or have earned a high-school diploma or its equivalent, or have been honorably discharged from the military. They must also not have been convicted of a serious crime or otherwise be considered a threat to national security or public safety.

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, estimates that up to 1.76 million people are now eligible for the program, or will be when they meet the minimum age requirement of 15.

Officials at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, which will handle the process, are bracing for a wave of applications by hiring new staff. Young immigrants will be charged $465 to apply for deferred action and work authorization, which officials say will spare taxpayers any expense for the program.

The agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, will also conduct background checks of all who apply. Applicants who been convicted of felonies or significant misdemeanors will be rejected and could be prosecuted for deportation. But officials emphasized that the information of all other applicants will remain confidential and will not be used for immigration-enforcement proceedings.

Getting the Word Out

Advocacy groups across the country have already begun an aggressive campaign to inform people of the program and help them apply. United We Dream, a network of youth-led immigration organizations, plans to unveil an online tool that will allow potential applicants to screen themselves for eligibility and search for nearby legal providers to assist in the application process, as well as launch a hotline. Later this month, the group plans to hold events at which young people can complete their applications with the help of volunteers and pro-bono lawyers.

Cristina A. Jiménez, managing director of United We Dream, noted that some young people could fall victim to unauthorized immigration lawyers charging fees to help them with their applications. Many may have trouble acquiring the paperwork they need to prove their eligibility, she added.

"The life of an undocumented person often doesn't allow for recordkeeping," she said.

Mr. Gonzales, of the University of Chicago, noted that some undocumented young people and their families, who often remain in the country by avoiding government officials, may be reluctant to come forward.

"These people survive because they're cautious," he said. "People will measure their fear against the potential benefit."

'Finally Able to See a Pathway'

Several undocumented students interviewed by The Chronicle said they feel the benefits of the program far outweigh any risks.

Ariel Ruiz, who is 23 and graduated with distinction from Whitman College, immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 10. His parents always stressed the importance of education, he said, but the Obama administration's new policy will give him the first opportunity to utilize his degree in sociology. One day, he hopes to help reform immigration policy. But he spent his summer harvesting garlic, unable to land a better job without a work permit.

"I'm finally able to see a pathway to doing what I studied to do," said Mr. Ruiz, who is now pursuing a master's in social service administration from the University of Chicago. "It will be a great source of motivation for students who gave up on education, thinking they would end up picking apples or onions."

Advocates say they hope the new policy could usher in other reforms expanding undocumented students' access to higher education. Some states could be inspired to reconsider granting resident tuition to undocumented students, who now pay out-of-state tuition at public colleges in all but 12 states, Mr. Gonzales said.

"This provides a really big wedge in a door that could swing open very widely," he said.

Few colleges seem to have taken an active role in raising awareness of the policy, said Susana M. Muñoz, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. With thousands of undocumented college students returning to campuses this month, she fears that administrators will not be prepared to answer their questions about the program.

"It's problematic when higher education is left out of the conversation," said Ms. Muñoz, who has conducted research on the identity issues that undocumented students grapple with.

Students on college campuses have been at the center of discussions surrounding the DREAM Act, but they represent just a small share of young illegal immigrants, Mr. Gonzales said. The policy also stands to benefit an estimated 350,000 people who lack a high-school diploma or a GED but could qualify if they have enrolled in a program by the time they file their applications, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

One student who plans to apply is Karla Campos, 25, who came from Mexico about 16 years ago and is working on her GED. Her 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter dream of attending college, and she used to worry that she wouldn't be able to afford to help them do so—several employers turned her away because she was not authorized to work.

Now that she is eligible for a work permit, Ms. Campos is confident that she can make higher education a reality for her children. She would now like to go to college, too, though it's too soon to say what her major would be.

"So many doors have been opened that I'm just undecided," she said. "I can do so many things."