Why Are Some Undocumenteds Nervous About Obama’s Immigration Reform?

As deferred action program launches, confusion and anxiety reign over who is covered -- and whose status might be put at risk

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A crowd member holds up a "Latinos for Obama" sign during a campaign speech by President Barack Obama at the Palace of Agriculture on the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo on Aug. 9, 2012

One would think that Karla Zapata, an undocumented student from Guatemala, would be ecstatic over the prospect of receiving her first ever work permit. Well, she is. But she’s also wary. After years of living in the shadows, Zapata and her friends aren’t convinced it’s a good idea to give their personal information to the government when there are no guarantees that President Obama’s new program for young immigrants will last and no promise they’ll even be accepted into it. Some see that ambiguity as an invitation to possible deportation. “A lot of us are happy, and a lot of us are concerned at the same time,” says the 26-year-old student at California State University at Northridge. “There are a lot of mixed feelings.”

Starting Aug. 15, undocumented people under the age of 30 who are enrolled in school or have a diploma can request to work legally and avoid deportation if they can show they aren’t serious criminals, don’t pose a national security threat, have lived in the U.S. for the past five years, arrived in the U.S. before they were 16 and were in the country on June 15. Obama announced the program two months ago in a move widely seen as a way of shoring up Latino support before the November elections. Enacted by Executive Order, the plan circumvents lawmakers who have failed to pass the Dream Act, a bill that would give citizenship to undocumented college students who were brought to the U.S. as children. An estimated 1.76 million people may be eligible under Obama’s plan, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

(COVER STORY: Not Legal, Not Leaving)

In general, the undocumented youth of America are overjoyed with the idea. For them, it represents a first tangible step toward citizenship. Those accepted would finally be able to pursue opportunities most Americans take for granted, such as applying for a formal job, traveling freely and getting a driver’s license. An on-the-books income would give them more means to put themselves through college. And the program would open doors for many young immigrants who are stuck in low-level informal jobs, despite holding top degrees, because they can’t work legally. “We knew you could, Mr. President,” was the title of a press release sent in June by an immigrants-rights group in Los Angeles that called the move a “watershed moment in American history.” The general Hispanic population echoed that sentiment. According to a Latino Decisions poll released shortly after the announcement, 49% of Latinos said it would make them more enthusiastic about Obama.

Still, much uncertainty surrounds the President’s offer. First, while details released earlier this month about the program helped clarify some doubts about the application process, potential applicants have yet to see the questions they’d be asked. Second, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says people would be considered for the program if they haven’t been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor and do not otherwise pose a threat. But it’s unclear what officials mean by “significant” and a “threat,” so those who have had run-ins with the law are unsure whether to risk applying. Their hesitation is heightened by the caveat that applicants’ information would be shared with immigration enforcement in cases that involve serious crimes or fraud. Rights groups urge those with questionable cases to consult an attorney, but not everyone can afford one.

Doubt also stems from the fact that the government is offering a reprieve from deportation for only two years and has not said whether the privilege would be renewable. That uncertainty has potential applicants imagining several scenarios. In one, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who is perceived to be less immigrant-friendly, could win the election and decide not to extend the program. The Administration of a re-elected Obama could make the same decision. Although unlikely, Washington could end the program before two years are up. Those who applied could then become easier targets for deportation because the government would have their fingerprints and personal information. “Everyone who applies will be known to Homeland Security hereafter,” says James Ferg-Cadima, an attorney who leads the Washington office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “What becomes of that information down the road is an open question. That is the main unknown.”

There are other dangers as well. An offering like Obama’s is bound to attract a cohort of attorneys and notaries public who either give misinformed legal advice or commit outright fraud against undocumented hopefuls. Immigrants who have been burned in the past may be loath to try again. Others who are given bad information might apply despite not being eligible. “One couple — an ice cream vendor and a housekeeper — already paid $24,000 to a lawyer for an asylum process they’ll never qualify for,” says Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).

(VIDEO: Undocumented Americans: Inside the Immigration Debate)

Interest in the program has been so great — and questions about the process so numerous — that dozens of immigrants arrive at CHIRLA’s Los Angeles headquarters every hour to attend presentations the group is giving on the topic. “Our office is packed every day,” says the group’s executive director, Angelica Salas. “We have 300 calls every day that go to voice mail. We’re going to figure out how to open on Saturday, because we have so many people waiting to come in.”

On a recent day, many concerns about the programs were voiced during a presentation. “If the application isn’t accepted, will my daughter be deported?” one woman asked in Spanish in front of a group of some 20 people. “Under what circumstances will you not be accepted?” queried another woman. One young man who works as a tattoo artist then asked if his application would be nullified by a citation he received for possessing drugs without a prescription and jail time he served for driving without a license.

The tattoo artist and his predicament were a case in point of just how complicated it can be for immigrants to decide whether to apply, especially when their family members have varying immigration statuses. After the meeting, the 23-year-old man and his parents inundated Cabrera with questions. Not only was the young man unsure whether his criminal history would be labeled a threat, his mother also wanted to know whether the application would lead immigration officials to his father, who illegally returned to the U.S. after being deported. “I’m praying to God this whole Vicodin incident doesn’t affect me,” says the would-be applicant, who is covered in tattoos and sports multiple earrings in both ears. Cabrera said the case didn’t look good for the man’s father and advised the family to get a lawyer. “Should he apply, his father will very likely be deported,” Cabrera said later. “And that will have to be on the young man’s conscience.”

Despite the risks, most young immigrants who have gone to CHIRLA for advice say they plan to apply, according to Salas. “People are really overjoyed,” she says. “For many parents and kids, it’s the best thing that could happen to them.” Indeed, a group of undocumented students who work as activists in favor of immigrant rights say that while they understand the skepticism, those who meet the requirements have no reason not to apply. They believe it unlikely that the government would end the program and deport people after two years because of the political and social challenges of removing people who have already become active contributors to the economy. “It’s an opportunity we’ve been waiting for for such a long time, so we don’t want to let it slide,” says Paola Tirado, 22, a community-college student. Tirado says she was excited to get the permit so she could work for a nonprofit and eventually teach history.

Even Edgar Felix, who says he was originally very skeptical of the program, is now planning to apply. The 22-year-old’s family was wary of approaching authorities, since his uncle was deported and his mother remains undocumented. Still, Felix says, the presentation put on by the rights organization helped clear his doubts, and he now thinks the Obama program will help him achieve his goal of being an electrical engineer. “It gives you confidence to know there are people who will help you through the steps,” Felix says. “It seems my skepticism is mostly gone.”

(MORE: Fulfilling a ‘Dream’: U.S. to Let Young Undocumented Immigrants Stay)