Maria dreams of a life without fear.
The 20-year-old Maria, who asked that her real name not be used, traveled to the United States from Mexico with her parents when she was 4. They came to work the fields. Maria said that she went on to school and eventually graduated from high school and is now enrolled in a community college. Two years ago, she married and moved to the Rochester region with her new husband.
But as someone who came to the United States illegally, that marriage does not qualify her for lawful status, explained Jennifer Rizzo, an immigration attorney from Buffalo.
"You can’t go from no status to status," Rizzo noted. "It’s a general predicament of people who are undocumented."
The federal government was looking for a way to help young people such as Maria, who are in these situations because of choices that adults made for them, when President Barrack Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy last year, Rizzo said.
The policy allows undocumented youths to request deferred action of potential removal from this country for a period of two years, according to information at www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD. About 1.8 million immigrants in the United States might be, or might become, eligible for DACA, the website stated.
When Maria heard about DACA, she said that she realized she qualified because she has lived in the country for at least five years, arrived before the age of 16, is younger than 31, and graduated from high school or earned a GED. Those who have served in the military also qualify, according to the information at www.immigrationpolicy.org/issues/DREAM-Act.
"I was excited, but I wasn’t sure about it (DACA) because I know there were a lot of debates and people were actually going to try and keep it from passing," she said. "When I heard it did (pass), I was excited."
Maria did not hesitate to apply for deferred action, although she and Rizzo agreed that the uncertainty of what would become of the policy if President Obama did not win re-election, coupled with the fact that DACA does not address residency status kept many potential candidates from applying. Rizzo, who oversees the legal program for Journey’s End Refugee Services in Buffalo, said that several DACA workshops her organization offered throughout western New York last fall that were sparsely attended.
Given those factors, she said that she admires the chutzpah of people like Maria, who immediately applied for deferred action because they felt they could not wait for the election’s result to do so.
"That’s a pretty scary thing to put your name on a paper and trust this promise that you get to stay two years or longer," she said. "If it was me … I don’t know if I would do that. People doing it are in a position that they feel they have to because they need employment or want to go to school. They have courage and are willing to take that risk."
And once President Obama secured his re-election bid, more people have applied, Rizzo noted.
"The number may increase substantially," she added. "I certainly hope so."
Even so, Rizzo noted that DACA remains nothing more than a "Band-Aid" because the policy only offers a temporary fix and thus still puts undocumented immigrants at risk.
"I understand why the current administration put forth DACA because that’s what they could do at this time," she said. "My hope is now that the next four years have been secured, steps will be taken to have real immigration reform that will make a difference for millions of people in this country who are undocumented."
Such reform would include passage of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, she said. The bipartisan legislative proposal provides conditional permanent residency to qualified unauthorized immigrants who enroll in college or serve in the military. After meeting a set of requirements, the conditional status could be converted to full-fledged permanent resident status, which is a prerequisite for obtaining U.S. citizenship, according to www.immigrationpolicy.org/issues/DREAM-Act.
Late last fall, three Republicans senators — John McCain, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and John Kyl — also introduced the Assisting Children and Helping them Improve their Educational Value for Employment Act. The ACHIEVE Act is similar to the DREAM Act in that it provides a pathway to citizenship for some eligible undocumented youths, but the conditions for eligibility are narrower, according to http://reformimmigrationforamerica.org/blog/item/1343-why-the-achieve-act-will-fail-to-achieve-reform.html. The ACHIEVE Act would only apply to undocumented immigrants who arrived before the age of 14 and are younger than 28 and who have lived in the U.S. for five years, according to the website. The conditional, nonimmigrant status — which allows for legal immigration status but not citizenship — would last 10 years or more.
The Republicans’ willingness to put forth such a proposal raises Rizzo’s hopes that a bill will finally pass, she said.
"I think it’s a good sign," she said.
While waiting for any kind reform to move forward, other undocumented immigrants, such as Jonathan Cruz, sit on the sidelines and pray that their DACA applications will be approved.
Cruz is an Albion High School graduate and a native of Mexico who came to the United States as a young boy.
The DACA status would be a most welcome reprieve for Cruz, who is known to immigration officials, unlike Maria. He faced deportation after being stopped for speeding nearly two years ago. His case was temporarily closed during a proceeding this past August, Cruz explained.
"It gave me the opportunity to apply for deferred action," he said. "Once I get all that done, I’ll be able to go to school and work."
Cruz was accepted at Monroe Community College but said that he had to use his savings to pay for a lawyer to deal with his immigration case and help with his DACA application.
When he first heard about the "Obama pass" as he called it, Cruz said that he immediately began research on DACA.
"During the election, I was pretty worried," he said of DACA’s fate. "As soon as I found out that he (President Obama) had won, I was really happy. It gets me more time to get something done (about my residency status)."
Maria said that she remains on pins and needles as the new year begins, as she hasn’t received word on her application. Its approval would mean she could achieve her goal to study medical stenography at Rochester Institute of Technology. But ultimately, Maria just wants to be able to stay in the country that has become her home.
"Really, I can’t see myself anywhere else," she said.