As of Aug. 15, young undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are able to apply for a program that grants them a two-year deferral of deportation.
This news has been celebrated by many immigrant rights groups as a first step, but the decision about whether to apply can be complicated.
The deferral of deportation, called DACA, was announced by President Obama on June 15 and applies to immigrants under 30 who came to the U.S. before age 16 and meet certain educational requirements.
Ana Contreras, whose parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 8, said she’s looking forward to applying for deferred action. As part of the program, eligible immigrants will be able to get a temporary work permit, something Contreras said will help her care for her family.
“I do have three little ones, and I need to support them,” she said.
Still, she said a two-year deferral isn’t ideal.
“I was hoping it would be for a little longer,” she said.
Alan, a student at Walla Walla Community College who asked that his last name not be used, voiced similar concerns. Though he’s eligible for the DACA program, he’s planning to apply for citizenship through an uncle who is already a U.S. citizen.
“There’s multiple ways to get citizenship. (DACA) is kind of the last resort,” he said.
The uncertainty around DACA stems from the fact that it’s a presidential policy, rather than a law enacted by Congress. Many have compared it to the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and have completed a certain amount of education or military service.
The DREAM Act has been introduced in Congress multiple times since it was written in 2001, but has not passed. While DACA applied to approximately the same group of immigrants, it provides no long-term guarantees, only a two-year deferral and temporary work permit.
The work permit provision has excited many immigrant rights groups, who say it will encourage more immigrants to pursue a college education.
“It gives you peace of mind to know that you’ll be able to put into practice what you worked on for two years, four years,” said Ariel Ruiz, an undocumented immigrant from Walla Walla.
Ruiz was brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a child and graduated from Whitman College in 2011. He is pursuing a master’s degree in social service at the University of Chicago and has been involved in immigration activism. While he was able to attend college without documentation, he said many other immigrants in his position are unable to find work after graduating.
“I know many students who finish college and end up working in agricultural jobs that have nothing to do with what they studied,” he said.
The deferred action program has an application fee of $465 that cannot be waived. Ruiz said the fee could present a challenge, and he was also concerned that traveling to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service offices would present a challenge for rural applicants.
“How do we reach out to people in smaller places who have to travel five or six hours so they can turn in their permits?” he said.
In spite of questions like this, Ruiz and others believe the deferred action process is a good step.
Alan, the community college student, said he wanted to see action from Congress on the issue of immigration, rather than a pre-election decision from the president.
“They’re playing politics with this,” he said. “It’s not Obama as much. It’s Congress.”
Ruiz said that while immigrants like him would be able to benefit from deferred action, it’s important to keep in mind others who aren’t eligible.
“We tend to ignore parents and immigrants who might not be eligible, and we need to remember them as we continue through this process. Without our parents and our communities, we wouldn’t be students,” he said.