Many young immigrants wary of applying for Obama-backed work permit
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Daniel Gonzales was only 11 or 12, so details are fuzzy. He remembers two strangers came to his grandmother’s door in Bolivia, drove him to the airport in La Paz, and put him on a plane to join his parents in New York.
Now 27 and barrel-chested, he has never had legal status as an immigrant in the United States.
Gonzales has finished high school and kept out of trouble. But he’s been refused jobs at an Apple store and a Best Buy because he doesn’t have a work permit. Without proper papers, he is ineligible for in-state tuition at the community college where he studies science, and he can’t get a Virginia driver’s license.
Gonzales would seem the perfect candidate for the Obama administration program, launched in mid-August, to grant work permits and two-year deportation deferrals to illegal immigrants who came to America as children. But he hasn’t applied.
“I am still skeptical,” Gonzales said after attending a free workshop at Northern Virginia Community College. He fears a future administration will end the deferrals and use the details in his application to arrest and deport him and his parents, who are also undocumented.
He is hardly alone. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials had prepared to process 300,000 applications from young illegal immigrants by Oct. 1. But only about 120,000 people have applied so far.
Alejandro Mayorkas, who heads the federal agency, called the response “significant,” even though it is far below projections.
“We felt that we needed to be prepared for whatever might come,” he said in a telephone interview.
Only about 200 applications have been approved. Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University law school, said applications could snowball after young people see neighbors and friends gaining work permits and deferrals. He called the response so far “a promising start,” if not very enthusiastic.
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said he disapproves of President Obama’s use of an executive order to deal with the nation’s immigration problems. But he has refused in several interviews to say whether he would reverse the deferral program.
Immigration advocates say that uncertainty has discouraged many eligible youths from applying. They expect the pace to pick up if Obama wins reelection.
“There is no guarantee that this program will be extended,” said James Ferg-Cadima, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Los Angeles. “Many applicants are taking the wait-and-see approach.”
Another reason: Applicants need voluminous documents. They must prove they came to America before they were 16 and are now under 31, have been here continuously for the last five years, and were here on June 15 when Obama first announced the program, among other requirements.
But for applicants who moved from school to school, or who attended years ago, obtaining transcripts isn’t always easy. So far, more applications have been submitted from California than anywhere else, and the Los Angeles Unified School District has been inundated with requests.
Some applicants find novel means to prove their whereabouts on June 15. Advocates say ATM slips, cellphone records and credit card receipts are acceptable. Facebook posts may help if the applicant “checked in” at a location; a status update can be posted from anywhere.
Some people seeking old work records or pay stubs face resistance from employers fearful that their businesses could be prosecuted for hiring an illegal worker. Undocumented workers who submit paperwork with fake Social Security numbers are in a gray area: They are not likely to face immediate prosecution, lawyers say, but could face legal problems in the future.
“It’s a lot more complicated process than people thought it would be,” said David Leopold, an immigration lawyer in Cleveland who has received hundreds of requests for assistance.
At the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, 200 people still attend group workshops every day. Individual appointments are booked until March.
“Very few feel comfortable doing it on their own and filling it out themselves,” said Luis Perez, the coalition’s deferred action project manager. “They feel they need someone to review it.”
For some, listing every home address can be daunting.
Delia Esmeralda Arriaga, 26, was brought to Los Angeles from Mexico as an infant. That makes 25 years of addresses.
Her parents remembered the cross streets of her first U.S. home, but not the number. Arriaga found a photo of herself in her mother’s arms in front of their apartment building. Using Google, she matched an existing building with the one in the photo.
“I came here when I was five months old. I don’t feel like I have a dual identity,” Arriaga said. “This is where I grew up. This is what I know.”
Mexico is the most common country of origin for applications filed so far, followed by El Salvador and South Korea, officials said. But applicants hail from around the globe.
Seth Ronquillo, a third-year film studies major at UCLA, came from the Philippines when he was 12. He expects to scrape together the $465 application fee and finish collecting his documents in a few weeks.
“Even if I work, I can barely work,” Ronquillo said of his job options as an undocumented immigrant. If he is approved, “maybe I can work using my college degree.”
If an application falls short of evidence, adjudicators have been instructed to request more information rather than deny the application outright.
Even if someone is rejected, the Obama administration says none of the material submitted will be used to deport the applicant or his or her relatives, or to take enforcement action against employers who have hired the applicant in the past.
Still, some activists say, there are no guarantees.
“Wow, the government has my fingerprints. They know where I am. It could be used against me,” said Hareth Andrade, 19, who arrived as a tourist from Bolivia with her grandparents in 2001 and never left.
Still, Andrade submitted her application from northern Virginia. “You have to trust that they won’t … come for you and take you away,” she said.
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