BOSTON — One year ago today, thousands of young undocumented immigrants began lining up outside legal clinics across the United States to file paperwork for a new federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
The policy gives immigrants with no criminal history who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children the right to work and study here for two years without the threat of deportation. In Massachusetts, it allows them to apply for a driver’s license and a work permit, and makes them eligible for in-state college tuition. It does not give them citizenship.
Since the federal government started accepting DACA applications last year, 5,946 Massachusetts immigrants have applied. The assumption when the Obama administration announced the new policy was that within two years Congress would pass comprehensive immigration reform, offering these immigrants a pathway to permanent citizenship.
That has yet to happen, leaving some young immigrants feeling unsatisfied and vulnerable.
Joao And Samantha
In total so far, 4,326 people in Massachusetts have been granted deferred action.
One of them is 25-year-old Joao. He didn’t want to give his last name because he used a fake Social Security number to apply for his current job — something he said he’s in the process of trying to fix so he doesn’t get fired.
Joao lives on the second floor of a house in Everett with his mother and 30-year-old sister, Samantha. They moved to the U.S. in December 1999. Joao and Samantha insist they’ve done everything together their whole lives; they’ve lived without their mother, but never without each other.
Their stories only recently diverged last summer when Obama announced that his administration was “taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation” from immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16.
Samantha said she watched the president’s press conference announcing the deferred action program on CNN. “We’re all excited, we start to look around to see what kind of papers we’re going to need,” she recalled. “And then I went to apply and I found out that I had to be here before the age of 16.”
Samantha turned 16 six months before she came to the U.S. Her brother Joao, on the other hand, received DACA in March.
“I’m happy for him, he gets a better chance and everything,” Samantha said. But, she adds, “Sometimes, I think, what did I do wrong? I was just born before he was.”
Joao shares his sister’s frustrations. “We came here together, we have basically the same story,” he said. “So I just kind of feel like she was cheated out of an opportunity that I had.”
For Joao, DACA is not ideal. It’s only temporary and he’s still no closer to becoming a citizen.
“It’s not like the best situation to be in,” he said. “But at least I have something now. I’m not totally illegal.”
Samantha loves math and wanted to go to college and study international business. Instead, this September when her brother starts taking college computer science classes, she’ll continue cleaning houses with her mom.
Using Deferred Action For Leverage
Across the country there are thousands of families with mixed statuses similar to Samantha and Joao — parents who are undocumented, one sibling with citizenship, another sibling floating somewhere in between with deferred action.
Nearly 575,000 young adults have applied for deferred action across the country — less than half the number the government anticipated would apply when the program was introduced.
Attorney Nancy Kelly — who works for the Greater Boston Legal Services Center, which helped some 400 immigrants request deferred action — says in the beginning a lot of people were afraid to come forward “because it is a status that’s not really a status.”
But Kelly was never concerned with the numbers.
“These are not young people who are going to stop at getting status for themselves,” she said. According to her, the people who’ve applied for deferred action are now the same people pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, fighting for their whole community and not willing to accept half-hearted solutions.
From her perspective, part of the strategy in applying for DACA is to use it as leverage.
“The people that we dealt with took the position that by coming forward and being able to put their feet on the ground and get a status they could then fight for something more, including for their parents,” she explained.
Fighting For The Community
Twenty-year-old Katherine Asuncion left the Dominican Republic with her parents when she was 10. They came to Lynn on a tourist visa and never went back.
“I knew that I had come with a visa and it had expired,” she said. “I didn’t know exactly what that meant until I was in high school, junior year, where a lot of things required me to have a Social Security number, which I didn’t have.”
That’s when reality hit and, Asuncion says, she suddenly realized the ceiling she had hit as an undocumented person.
“You have all this potential to … go to college, get a job, like travel different places, learn a lot, but yet you can’t because you’re missing those nine digits,” she said.
Asuncion bounced around, working odd jobs where she wasn’t paid properly. She applied for deferred action last September and she was on a train three months later when she got the call that she had been approved.
“I started crying. I call my mom. People must have thought I was crazy,” she said.
The exact day — Dec. 6, 2012 –- is etched in her memory.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” she said. “It was big. It was the victory for so many years of struggle for the undocumented community. And we finally got something ’cause we fought for it.”
Asuncion readily admits DACA changed her life in substantial ways, but she’s careful to add the same caveat Joao mentioned. “It’s not the best thing,” she said.
Asuncion has a car and can legally drive, but she worries about her parents. She has a work permit but her parents don’t. They’re still undocumented.
“We came here just to find a better life for us,” she explained. But she concedes their life hasn’t improved. For example, her mother who was an accountant in Central America is now a waitress.
“At this moment, their sacrifice is not carried out. I feel like they know they’re stuck and that we’re stuck. And because of that they feel very guilty. They feel very sad,” she explained.
In March, Asuncion accepted a full-time job advocating for immigration reform as the development director of the Student Immigrant Movement. Her primary hope is that her work will prove to her parents that they did not make a mistake when they picked up their family, packed their bags and said goodbye to the Dominican Republic 10 years ago.
A bill that would eventually give people like Asuncion’s parents a pathway to citizenship passed the U.S. Senate in June. But its future is still in limbo. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pick up the issue when members return from their summer recess.