MADERA, Calif. — While kids his age were reading Shakespeare and dissecting frogs, Benito Vasquez was picking grapes and almonds in the Central Valley.
He was 14 when he crossed the border from Mexico and has worked in the fields ever since. He has never gone to school and cannot read or write in any language.
Vasquez, now 28, is one of thousands potentially shut out of a landmark federal program that grants work permits and a two-year reprieve from deportation to people who came to this country illegally as children.
He and others like him are missing a key requirement — a high school diploma. They can make up the educational deficiency by enrolling in a class. But that is a daunting prospect for someone who works long hours, lives in a remote area and has little formal schooling.
“The cream of the crop in terms of educational achievement, all those people applied already, or most of them,” said Jesus Martinez, a Fresno-based consultant for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “A number of those who haven’t applied have educational issues.”
Vasquez is still grappling with whether to apply.
“I’m thinking about it. Maybe after work, in the evenings,” Vasquez said of the English classes that would make him eligible.
Since President Obama’s “deferred action” program began last August, nearly 270,000 young immigrants have received approvals and are now able to work legally. In most states, they can get driver’s licenses. But of the estimated 1.3 million people who are potentially eligible, only a third have applied. The pace of applications has slowed from 116,000 in October to 31,000 in March.
Early applicants tended to be college-educated. Those such as Vasquez, who face more obstacles in applying, have largely remained on the sidelines, immigrant-rights advocates say.
Some do not realize they are eligible, believing the program is reserved for college students. Others may be fearful of coming forward or are waiting to see if an amnesty emerges from Washington. The $465 application fee is steep for a minimum-wage worker. And reams of documents are needed to prove that an immigrant has indeed put down roots in the United States.
The greatest challenge may be the educational requirement. Many of those yet to apply are farmworkers, one in three of whom has less than a ninth-grade education. In the Central Valley, as many as half of immigrants may need more schooling to apply for deferred action. The figure for California is 30%, according to the Immigration Policy Center.
Deferred action’s precursor, the Dream Act, was limited to those brought to the U.S. as children who were in college or college-bound. The activism of these so-called Dreamers pushed Obama to enact his own program after the Dream Act repeatedly failed in Congress.
Obama cracked the door open for such uneducated immigrants as Vasquez, allowing them to qualify by enrolling in a GED, vocational or English-as-a-second-language class. For renewal in two years, they must show that the class has led to a diploma or a better job, or that they are making substantial progress in school.
Deferred action is open to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally before they turned 16, who were age 30 or younger at the program’s inception and who have lived in the country for the last five years. Those with serious criminal records are excluded.
Education, always a ticket out of the fields, now comes with the added benefit of a two-year work permit. But for some, that benefit may be out of reach.
In Madera, the town just outside Fresno where Vasquez lives, the adult school offers ESL classes for students with low literacy. For farmworkers in more isolated areas, there are few options. Adult-education budgets have been slashed in recent years, so there are not enough classes to go around.
While lawmakers in Washington debate an immigration overhaul, deferred action remains the only option for young people such as Vasquez, who immigrant rights advocates say are just as deserving as their peers with diplomas. The program encourages young immigrants to further their education, but some question whether the practical obstacles, particularly for farmworkers, were fully considered.
“If we’re trying to recognize that there are people who grew up here and made a real contribution to this country, I’d say kids working for hours under the hot sun are a very good example of making a real contribution,” said Grace Meng, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
San Francisco’s Immigrant Legal Resource Center is spending more than $200,000 in grant money in the Central Valley, organizing legal workshops in remote farming communities and matching immigrants with adult-education programs.
At a crowded workshop in Madera earlier this year, two of Vasquez’s sisters sat down with attorney Barbara Pinto of the legal resource center for a free consultation.
Angela Vasquez, a community college student who has been blind since birth, was hoping to get a fee waiver because of her disability. Elvira Vasquez, who dropped out of high school after her son was born, would use GED classes to qualify for deferred action. The sisters were surprised when Pinto told them that their brother Benito, with his lack of formal education, might also qualify.
By mid-May, Benito Vasquez’s better-educated sisters were well on their way to work permits and driver’s licenses. And his wife, Maria, was inspired to get her GED.
Benito’s path is more uncertain. He has yet to register at the adult school. It is hard to find the time for classes after a 10-hour workday.
At their Madera home, the Vasquezes speak mostly Spanish, with some Zapotec and some English. Benito’s daughter, Lydia, is 4. His son, Jose, is 7 and speaks English most of the time. Benito would like to understand what the boy is saying. English would also help him at work.
Benito Vasquez has been working since he was Jose’s age, harvesting corn and beans on the family farm in Oaxaca. His younger sisters enrolled in school, but the family needed the income from his farm labor.
To get to his job in the grape fields, where he operates tractors and other heavy machinery, he drives without a license. He fears being pulled over by the police. Still, he prefers to take his chances in the United States.
“It’s better here than in Mexico,” he said in Spanish. “Every week, I get a paycheck. There’s more food. Everything’s a little easier. If you need something, you just work. In Mexico, when you need something, there are no jobs.”