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August 22, 2012

Seizing a reprieve

Young Kentucky immigrants, in the U.S. illegally, jump at new deferred action program

On a Saturday morning, in a small box of a building along Shelbyville’s Main Street, a young couple wrestles with simple English sentences. One room over, a hazel-eyed, cheery 17-year-old named Analelly reads a book as she waits for young kids to trickle in. She’s here at the Centro Latino, an outreach and advocacy center, to babysit children as their parents learn English.

Centro Latino offers free classes and other services to immigrants. This summer, though, countless clients have walked in with one thing on their minds — a new government program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It could provide immunity from deportation for two years for roughly 1.4 million undocumented immigrants who want to study and work in the United States.

Analelly’s family celebrated when President Barack Obama’s administration announced the program in June. And as of Aug. 15, the Department of Homeland Security started accepting applications. While Analelly is a citizen, because she was born in America, her mother crossed the Mexican border 19 years ago with Anallely’s sister, Cristel, then 3 months old, on her hip. (Per the family’s request, LEO is only using first names.)

Living as an undocumented immigrant has put Cristel, who this morning is with her 5-year-old sister at the doctor, in a bind. She’s graduated high school but can’t legally work. She cannot attend the culinary school she dreams of since she doesn’t have a Social Security card. Nor can she apply for federal or state student loans to help pay for higher education.

“Sometimes she comes to me and talks to me (saying), ‘I wish I could be like you, working and stuff,’” Analelly says. “I just don’t like to see her crying over it.”

The deferred action program does not provide a conditional path to legal citizenship, like the widely supported but Republican-filibustered DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act of 2010.

Essentially, if approved for deferred action, the government will delay its decision to act on a case even though that individual is deportable. This reprieve lasts two years, during which time that person can work legally. Deferred action can be renewed after those two years. It can also be rescinded at any time.

Immigrants who qualify must have arrived in the United States before they were 16. They must have also been younger than 31 as of the June 15 announcement. Applicants must have graduated high school or currently be enrolled in school, have earned a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the armed forces. Also, applicants must have lived in the U.S. since 2007 and hold no serious misdemeanor, repeated misdemeanor, or felony convictions.

Cristel fits the bill. She tells LEO word of the deferred action program brought her “happiness.” The energetic teen, with a childlike voice, is still gathering documents and met with a lawyer two days after the application became available.

Not being able to work drives her crazy and she feels “like a baby,” unable to go out with friends and buy clothes or a meal.

But for her family, Cristel’s potential income will bring much more than just mall money. Her father is battling leukemia. Much of his income goes toward medical bills. Her mother, also undocumented, struggles to earn steady, reliable pay.

Sister Pat Reno, director of Centro Latino, tries to give Cristel some odd jobs but is limited because the 19-year-old does not have a work permit. For years, Reno has seen scores of young immigrants, like Cristel, hit a wall out of high school as their peers stride toward the future.

Furthermore, it frustrates Reno that deportation would loom over the head of a girl who arrived in this country in diapers.

“For me, it would just be out of the question for a person to be deported to a country they’ve never been associated with, never lived in, have no experience in,” Reno says. “Especially people like Cristel … she will contribute to the country.”

All over Kentucky, immigrant families have eagerly sought guidance on the new program, filling the offices of private attorneys, lawyers at Catholic Charities in Louisville, and the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic in Lexington, a nonprofit offering free and discounted legal services to low-income Hispanic immigrants in Eastern Kentucky.

According to the Immigration Policy Center, an estimated 4,030 unauthorized Kentucky immigrants who were brought to America as children are eligible for the initiative. Roughly half would qualify immediately. (It’s estimated that Indiana has 10,520 potential beneficiaries.)

That number of potential applicants sits well below California (412,560) or Texas (226,700). Still, Jonathon Bialosky, director of the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic, says enthusiasm in Kentucky, like all states, is high.

Recently, he says, one day out of the office yielded 24 voicemails related to the deferred action program. For a clinic that serves 500 a year, that’s a significant daily total.

Bialosky has had to temper this eagerness with reality.

“A lot of people are very anxious to go forward and get this filed,” he says. “But because it’s kind of fraught with risks, it’s been tough to explain to people that the best idea is to take a slow approach.”

Like any new government program, Bialosky wants to make sure applicants get this right. Documents proving presence in the U.S. and immigration status must be valid so applicants aren’t flagged as suspicious. Since each case is reviewed individually, one mistake could ruin the opportunity to obtain a work permit and that coveted two-year legal presence. (The whole application process costs $465.)

“So if the Department of Homeland Security has any reason to think a case looks suspicious, or if there’s something they don’t like about a case, they have complete and unchecked discretion to deny a case,” Bialosky says. “There’s no appeal process for this application.”

As he’s met with roughly 100 individuals over the summer, he’s sensed anxiety. What happens if a new administration overturns the law? Fear abounds at the thought of being denied. What will happen with an individual’s information now in the hands of the government?

As long as an applicant has never had any serious run-ins with the law or could not be perceived as a danger or fraud, Bialosky says they should be safe.

“If they have any kind of anything in their history that indicates they’re a threat to national security or if they have a long, complex criminal history, theoretically that information could be given to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to initiate the deportation process,” he says.

This program targets “low-priority” individuals, young immigrants who’ve studied, worked, played by the rules, and now long to work legally, obtain a driver’s license, and fold into society.

It’s easy to guess which Kentucky legislator has criticized the deferred action initiative. In a letter dated June 19, Sen. Mitch McConnell joined a chorus of Republican senators denouncing the program. Calling it an “inappropriate use of Executive Power,” the letter also questions the authorization of work permits for immigrants during “record unemployment.”

Of course, one could see this rebuke as a tantrum over the fact that Obama found a way to refrain from removing young immigrants without the congressional approval needed for a new path to citizenship.

Other opponents, like Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, have blasted the program as “back door amnesty.” She recently made headlines for her executive order against deferred action, an act many construe as political posturing.

And though politics likely motivated Obama’s timing of the initiative, with an election forthcoming and Latino votes hanging in the balance, advocates support the move nonetheless.

Erin Howard, who lives and works in Lexington, sits on the board of United We Dream, a network of organizations fighting for equal access to higher education regardless of immigration status.

She sees deferred action as one step toward a bigger movement related to undocumented youth.

“We should pass legislation that will give them a pathway to citizenship,” Howard says, “so we can further integrate these youth in our communities, out of the shadows and into meaningful employment, and give them a dignified space within our society.” 

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