Ana Mendoza came to this country from Mexico with her mom when she was just shy of two years old. She is an honor student going into her senior year at South Albany High School. With no memories of Mexico, she feels like an American though she has always known on some level that there was something holding her back. She does not discuss her immigration status with her fellow students; only a couple of close friends know.
She estimates that more than 60 classmates in her high school of 1330 students are in the same boat.
The President’s announcement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) policy on June 15th has created a mood of excitement and hope for Ana and for other immigrant families in Oregon. Meetings have drawn thousands of potential applicants seeking information and advice. A recent meeting in Salem sponsored by the immigrants’ rights group CAUSA and other nonprofits drew almost 300 people.
Unlike the failed Dream Act, the policy does not grant citizenship. “It’s not a benefit,” says Salem-based immigration lawyer Teuta Norman. It creates “prosecutorial discretion,” guidelines as to who is a priority to deport for a specific group of people but is not a guarantee.
“The government is saying: we understand these people are removable (deportable) from the US and we are deferring taking action for two years.” Though falling short of comprehensive immigration reform, Norman says it was an action the President could take to override gridlock in Congress.
Youth under age 30 who came to the US before the age of 16 and who have lived here for at least five years and who are in school or graduated are eligible to apply. If granted deferred status they would receive work authorization, a social security number and be able to obtain a driver’s license. The application costs $465.
There are approximately 16,600 qualified young people in Oregon and 1.7 million nationwide, according to Francisco Lopez of CAUSA. The largest concentrations of “Oregon dreamers” are in the Portland metro area, the mid-valley and central Oregon, Lopez says. Each application is considered on a case-by-case basis and grants relief for two years with the opportunity to apply for renewal.
The hope for the immigrant community and supporters is that the temporary program will eventually lead to a path to citizenship or at least be renewed after the two-year period. Applicants are encouraged to consult with an attorney as the application process is not without risk. The successful applicant will be fingerprinted and photographed, which will create a record accessible to Homeland Security. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) determines eligibility. Applicants like Ana, a self-described “good kid”, who has the support of her extended family, should not have a problem, according to Norman. But those with more than three misdemeanors or past “border encounters,” for instance, could risk deportation once they come to the attention of authorities.
It is uncertain what would happen to the program under a Romney administration should he win the November election. Immigration attorney Alison Sundby-Hall says, “Potentially, it’s a temporary program,” but “once the law is in place it will be hard to revoke.“ Lopez notes that any successful candidate will need to get 45% of the Latino vote in the swing states. “He needs to watch his rhetoric,” he says of Romney.
Some Republicans, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have called the policy backdoor amnesty.
Typically, Latino families in Oregon have mixed immigration statuses. Those who are citizens are highly motivated to vote according to Lopez. CAUSA does not endorse either party but is actively registering people to vote. “What is at stake is the future of your family members,” says Lopez.
Clair Smith, guidance counselor at South Albany High, says, “I’ve had kids crying in my office because they feel they don’t belong anywhere. They can’t get a driver’s license but they are not Mexican either and may not even know Spanish.” She remembers a recent graduate with a 4.0 average who now works in a restaurant in Eugene. “For me it was a travesty that she could not attend college.”
Mendoza says that her mom, who has a second-grade education, found out about the program from the Hispanic news channel. “She was more excited than me,” Ana says. Her dream has always been to see her daughter go to University.
Ana says her heart breaks when she sees the farm workers leaving for the fields at 4 in the morning. Her mom takes care of the children of her undocumented friends. They drop their children off at dawn and come back late with dirt under their fingernails after working in the fields all day.
“It makes me want to study hard so I won’t have to work in the fields,” she says gazing into the distance. “I’m not going to stop until my dreams come true.