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Undocumented young people beginning to feel impact of reform

by Eric Ginsburg

 eric@yesweekly.com

The first wave of immigrant youth has started receiving their for temporary reprieve from deportation and work permits as many more eagerly anticipate approval in the coming weeks.

Immigrant activists like Moises Serrano of Yadkin County celebrated what they called an important and hard-fought small step for comprehensive immigration reform, both as a personal and collective victories.

“If it wasn’t for the immigrant activists working together across the country for deferred action, it never would have happened, said Serrano, an organizer with local group el Cambio and the United We Dream national network. “We had immigrant activists sitting inside [Obama campaign] offices. That was an escalating moment and it took a lot of courage to get to that point.”

President Obama announced his support for “deferred action for childhood arrivals” — which provides a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit — in June. The program became law in August, and roughly 11,000 immigrants throughout North Carolina welcomed the opportunity.

With the help of McKinney, Perry and Coalter, a law firm with immigration attorneys in Greensboro and Wilmington, Serrano and his sister applied for deferred action in September and now anxiously await a response from Citizenship and Immigration Services, or CIS.

Without deferred action, Serrano and countless others have been working under the table and driving without licenses. Only certain undocumented immigrants are eligible for deferred action, which is designed to provide some relief to people who came to the country as children and therefore didn’t willingly violate any laws.

It’s the beginning of a larger issue. It was the right move because it was the easiest move. It’s a small step in refurbishing an outdated immigration system.’

Martin Rodriguez

Immigrants who were 30 or younger on June 15, 2012, were brought to the United States as a minor before turning 16, are in school or who have completed high school or received their GED, haven’t committed any serious crimes and have continuously been in the country from June 15, 2007 to June 15, 2012 are eligible to apply.

Irving Zavaleta-Jimenez, who graduated from Guilford College before receiving his MBA from High Point University last year, also applied through the firm with his sister, and received approval two weeks ago shortly before his sister. His sister called to tell him he was approved and said she was crying with his grandmother.

“I was driving and I had to pull over to make sure I didn’t have an accident,” he said. “Even though I knew it would come sooner or later you just never know what could happen. Once we actually received it, it was very interesting because I got this feeling, like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders and I was free.”

Citing a study from the Pew Hispanic Center, immigration lawyer Ben Snyder said there are an estimated 50,000 people in North Carolina who qualify, a small but significant portion of approximately 375,000 undocumented immigrants in the state.

Snyder was initially hired at McKinney, Perry and Coalter to help with the influx of deferred-action cases at the end of the summer. He was brought on full-time on Nov. 1 as the firm realized that the finite number of people eligible for deferred action would still translate into a significant increase in longerterm clients. Though the number of applicants has slowed down, Snyder said deferred-action cases still take up 80 percent of his time and requires at least three people working full-time.

The firm has worked on 700 such cases at its two offices, and Snyder said people began receiving approval in the last two weeks. Applications require paperwork to document qualifications for the different requirements, but CIS doesn’t report employers who help with paperwork and thereby admit to hiring undocumented immigrants unless there are  hiring undocumented immigrants gross labor law violations evidence they helped falsify visas, Snyder said.

Zavaleta-Jimenez quickly applied for a social security card and began sending out his resume. He was almost immediately hired part time at a credit union, and began work on Nov. 26. His sister is considering going back to school after her approval.

“I have lived here for 12 years, almost half of my life I’ve been in North Carolina,” the 26-yearold said. “I am extremely happy and thankful and just ready to pretty much look out for my dreams and aspirations. That fear is no longer there.”

It takes about three to  four weeks to get all the paperwork in order, Snyder said, and some people need to take some time to come up with the $465 fee. The local Latino Community Credit Union offers loans for the payment, Snyder said, and after everything is sent in the process generally takes between two and a half and four months. Each applicant is screened through an immigration office — a “biometrics” appointment — in Raleigh or Charlotte, in what Serrano described as a relatively quick process that involves fingerprinting for a background check.

While some of his friends who live in Winston- Salem and applied around the same time have been approved, Serrano is still waiting. Martin Rodriguez, a part-time student at Forsyth Tech who works at a law office in Winston-Salem, applied for deferred action in late October and awaits his biometrics appointment on Dec. 14.

“It’s the beginning of a larger issue,” said Rodriguez, who is studying biomedical engineering. “It was the right move because it was the easiest move.

It’s a small step in refurbishing an outdated immigration system.”

Approval for deferred action is essentially a promise that the recipient won’t be deported and is granted the legal right to work, as well as allowing the issuance of a Social Security number, which is crucial for paying taxes and acquiring a driver’s license. The law does not provide a path to permanent residency or citizenship for people who are approved and must be renewed after two years, but many are hoping more widespread immigration reform will be passed before then.

Serrano and Rodriguez both said the DREAM Act — which was first introduced in the Congress in 2001 and would provide a pathway for students like them to obtain residency — is part of the solution. El Cambio, which is particularly active in Yadkin and Forsyth Counties, is pushing for community colleges in the state to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

When Serrano graduated high school in 2007, the community college system decided not to accept students without proof of legal residency, later deciding to admit undocumented students and require them to pay out-of-state tuition. For Rodriguez, who is 21, the cost has been prohibitive, forcing him to take only one class this semester.

“It’s kind of funny that we qualify as in-state for taxes but out-of-state for tuition,” Rodriguez said, adding that Medicaid he will never collect is removed from his paychecks.

Serrano hopes being approved for deferred action will enable him to earn enough money to afford school thanks to the work permit.

“That has been the biggest obstacle for me to go to college,” he said. “I would still have to pay out-ofstate tuition even with DACA [deferred action]. I like DACA, don’t get me wrong. The only part I don’t like is that it’s only good for two years and then you have to renew it.”

Local work for comprehensive reform continues on many fronts, from a community conversation held by Southerners On New Ground in Greensboro last week to a conference at UNCG called “Supporting Immigrant Families” on Wednesday.

FaithAction International House is simultaneously helping people apply for deferred action and initiating community dialogues to build trust and communication between the Greensboro police and Latinos. The conversations have spawned a preliminary discussion about a creating an official form of identification that police would recognize — similar  to a program in Winston-Salem — that would allow police to identify someone who didn’t have other documentation such as a driver’s license.

Marina Castillo Gomez, FaithAction’s immigration attorney, said 75 percent of the people she’s helped apply for deferred action are Latino. Half of those are from Mexico and a quarter each are from Central America and South America. Snyder said most of his deferred action clients are originally from Mexico, followed by el Salvador and Honduras, and that nearly all are Latino.

“People have been here working hard for 10 or more years and just need a opportunity for documentation,” Castillo Gomez said. “We need to match our reality with the need of the immigrant community.”

Though Snyder has seen a decrease in applicants, his firm still held a clinic for free deferred action consultations last week, and Castillo Gomez said the load has been steady, with 15 to 20 calls coming in daily. Applicants must be at least 15, she said, meaning as time passes, more youth will become eligible. Both saw a bump in clients after Obama was reelected, suggesting that some people were waiting to see if it would be worth going through the process if Mitt Romney, who opposed differed action, were elected.

While a citywide legal ID would be a muchneeded improvement for undocumented residents, Castillo Gomez and Snyder said nationwide reform is needed to fix the immigration system.

Rodriguez and Serrano agreed, with Rodriguez saying he has family members who aren’t covered under deferred action and wouldn’t qualify for the DREAM Act.

“We need relief for our families as well,” Serrano said. “We can’t ourselves kind of live happily ever after and have our families in the shadows.”

Zavaleta-Jimenez echoed a similar sentiment. “I just feel very thankful that I actually have this privilege because many people that I know still are in the shadows,” he said. “This is really just the beginning result of a long-term fight that I am a part of. I can’t wait until I am able to vote and get citizenship.”

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