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Robin Abcarian Commentary, news and analysis
California Journal

Young Latino immigrants overwhelm agency as they seek help to stay in America, the only home they've ever known

It was 7 a.m. Tuesday when I pulled up to the two-story stucco building on a nondescript stretch of 3rd Street between Koreatown and Westlake.

Already, a line of sleepy-looking people stretched down the block and around the corner. Some had brought chairs, others were sitting on the sidewalk, trying to nap.

A woman who had claimed the first spot in line told me she’d arrived at 3 a.m. She was hellbent on seeing a reliable immigration attorney that day. She had come to the right place; CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Around 8, the doors opened. Young adults, all of whom had come to the U.S. as children, filed into a room that could pass for a high school study hall, with computer carrels lining the wall and an American flag in one corner. They are recipients of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which conferred temporary legal status, but not citizenship.

Since 2012, 800,000 of these young immigrants have been able to live freely — with Social Security numbers, and two-year work permits. Then President Trump announced on Sept. 5 that he was canceling DACA. He gave Congress six months to come up with an alternative plan, and allowed the estimated 154,000 whose work permits would expire during that window to apply for one more two-year extension.

If Congress fails to act, a giant question mark will hang over the future of all DACA recipients.

Eden Velasco, a Department of Justice-trained advocate, welcomed the two dozen or so DACA kids and showed them the detailed intake forms they’d fill out. Unlike many of the Spanish-only immigrants served by CHIRLA, all of these folks speak perfect English. Many sound as American as Bart Simpson, without the attitude.

“If you don’t have your passport pictures, we are going to be taking them for you today,” Velasco said. “And if you don’t have your $495, we’re going to be covering those fees for you. OK?”

Silence.

“Yay?” said Velasco. It took a moment for the news to sink in; CHIRLA was not just providing some $350 of free legal advice; it was also picking up the hefty cost of a DACA renewal.

There was scattered applause.

Although these immigrants have already provided detailed information about their lives, they are asked to give it again. They must estimate their yearly income, their yearly expenses and include a brief paragraph about why they need a work permit. (“Some examples,” says the form, “can include: to pay bills, help parents, provide for family, pay for tuition, saving money for college, etc.” Not included: Because I grew up here and California is all I know.)

There is a detailed checklist on the form that helps attorneys anticipate problems. It asks for information on any “criminal problems … even if they were dropped,” whether the applicant has ever been inside a police car, fingerprinted or handcuffed; subjected to juvenile charges, teen dating violence or domestic abuse charges, stalking, sexual harassment, child abuse or neglect charges, traffic tickets, firearm possession, drug charges, shoplifting or burglary, “even if it was dismissed.”

Attorneys meet with each applicant individually to process the renewal applications, cut checks to the government and make sure forms are mailed to the right place. They try not to leave any room for error.

I chatted briefly with Eneri Torres, 26, who crossed the border with her family from Mexico City when she was 10. At South East High school in South Gate, she sold homemade tortas and taught quinceanera dancing. She has cleaned houses and pools, and studied culinary arts at Long Beach City College.

These days, Torres is a pastry chef at The Line, a hip Koreatown hotel and restaurant where Latino and Korean cultures cross. In the kitchen, she told me, she’s been struggling to perfect a recipe for forbidden rice pudding.

Torres said she once received a ticket for driving without a license (because she could not legally have one). A minor issue like that, said CHIRLA director of legal services Luis Perez, should not present an issue for her renewal.

“I was always aware of my status,” Torres said. “I had hopes for citizenship, and I had lots of friends saying, ‘I’ll marry you!’ But I thought I would spend the rest of my life working illegally.”

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CHIRLA shares a building with the Mother Plucker Feather Co., which sells fans, headdresses and “loose plumes.” It’s a slightly startling juxtaposition. Every once in awhile, said CHIRLA spokesman Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a feather-clad showgirl type will sashay down the hall.

In the last two years, CHIRLA’s budget has doubled, to $7 million. It has seven staff attorneys, 14 Department of Justice-accredited legal specialists, political organizers, and many others who are devoted to preserving the rights of thousands of young adult immigrants who achieved legal status under Obama, only to watch it ripped away earlier this month for reasons that are certainly political.

The federal government will only accept applications for renewal until Oct. 5, which explains the long lines outside CHIRLA on the three days a week that the group focuses on DACA recipients. So far, CHIRLA has processed more than 300 applications, and hopes to get to 1,000.

The truth is no matter what happens to DACA, no one will voluntarily leave the United States. Why would they? This is home.

“I thought I was from here until I tried to get a driver’s permit,” said Eduardo Garcia, 25, who graduated from Fontana High School, works in a warehouse and wants to be an electrical engineer. “My mom told me, ‘It might be harder than you think.’”

Garcia has not been south of the border since he crossed into California on Christmas Day in 1991. At the time, he was 3 months old.

Even the president seems to disagree with his own policy.

“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” Trump tweeted Sept. 14. “Really!”

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The staff at CHIRLA are clear-eyed about who they can help and who they cannot.

In the early morning line, I met Angel Ruiz, a 36-year-old from Mexico who owns a mini market in Los Angeles. He became a U.S. citizen in 2008.

Ruiz had brought his 16-year-old nephew, who was fiddling with his phone nearby. The teenager, who dropped out of school in fifth grade to work in the fields in El Salvador, had arrived in Los Angeles over the summer. Now enrolled at a Los Angeles high school, he has no legal status and does not qualify for DACA.

“Everyone should have a chance,” Ruiz said.

I turned to Cabrera, who was on the sidewalk near Ruiz and his nephew, directing people to the appropriate offices inside. What can CHIRLA do to help a kid like that? I asked.

Cabrera shook his head.

“We try not to turn anyone away,” Cabrera said. “However, we are very blunt. Someone like that is at risk of deportation. There’s not much we can do.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell Ruiz. He’d find out soon enough.

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AbcarianLAT

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