ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The letter asking her for her fingerprints arrived last week. Mayté Garcia wept. The inquiry into her criminal background — which is spotless, according to court records — means Garcia is one step closer to being able to legally work in the United States. It also means she cannot be deported for the next two years.
This comes 20 years after Garcia and her five siblings were brought to the states illegally. Garcia, who was 6 then, is one of many young immigrants who are awaiting their work permits through President Barack Obama’s deferred action program, announced in June. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals grants two-year work permits for undocumented youth who were brought to the states before they were 16 years old, who were younger than 31 years old when the program was announced, have not committed felonies or “serious” misdemeanors and are in high school or have a high school degree or a GED. It also exempts them from deportation for that two-year period.
The program is not a path to citizenship, and no one knows yet what the next step for participants will be. But a majority of students interviewed said they see it as sign toward the passage of the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would provide permanent residency to students who get college degrees or serve in the military.
For Garcia, a senior at the University of New Mexico studying psychology and Spanish, deferred action means she can apply for financial aid, continue her studies and hopefully get a master’s degree, she said. When she finishes her degree, she wants to be a counselor for teens, and do so legally.
“When I graduated from community college, I was offered a couple of jobs, and unfortunately I couldn’t take them. I had to make up whatever excuse. … I couldn’t work,” Garcia said.
Such is the case for millions of young immigrants who were brought here as children.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than 1.7 million youths could qualify for deferred action. Since August, more than 308,000, a vast majority of whom are Mexican natives, have applied to the program, according to the most recent data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. About 53,000 of those have been approved.
There currently isn’t state-specific data showing how many immigrants who live in New Mexico have applied. But according to CIS, California has the most applicants, with nearly 82,000, followed by Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Arizona, New Jersey, Georgia and Virginia.
Eager to work
One of the few New Mexicans who have been approved is high school junior Johana Perez of Bloomfield.
Perez, 16, applied for deferred action in mid-August. Last month, she had her first appointment for an interview and to get fingerprinted. This month, she received a letter saying she was approved. And just Monday, Perez received her actual work permit.
“It’s pretty exciting to know that I can actually do something for myself,” Perez said. “Right now, I’m gonna do sports and a job and continue to save up for college.”
Perez plans on going to UNM to study either medicine or criminal justice. A native of Mexico, Perez was brought to the United States when she was 2 years old. She says she doesn’t remember Mexico at all.
“It’s really hard, and it’s just frustrating and stressful. I feel like I’m from here, because it feels like I’ve never been to Mexico. … I can’t do the normal things that everybody does, because I’m not from here. I feel restricted,” Perez said.
Like Perez, David Valencia got his work permit in the mail within the past few days. Valencia, of Farmington, wants to work as a diesel mechanic and is studying at San Juan College.
“I feel I finally got something to work for. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time already,” Valencia said.
Until now, Valencia has worked only odd jobs that didn’t require a Social Security number, such as landscaping and construction.
Adriana Martinez was 9 years old when her parents sent for her in Aguas Calientes, Mexico, and had a coyote take her to Phoenix, where she spent several years.
“It was really hard because I didn’t grow up with parents. I grew up with my grandparents. I didn’t really know my mom, and I didn’t even know my sister, and it was really difficult because I had to leave my grandma,” Martinez said. “I had to leave all my friends, and I had to learn a whole new different language. I had to give up a lot.”
But Martinez knew America would bring her more opportunities, and she hunkered down at her studies.
“It was very clear that I had one purpose only, and that was to go to school,” she said.
Now 19, Martinez is studying psychology at Santa Fe Community College. She plans on transferring to either UNM or New Mexico State University. But if she gets approved for the deferred action program, she might choose to go elsewhere.
“It’s so exciting, ’cause now I can go to different states, even if I can’t go out of the country. I can go to Arizona whenever I feel like it. I can go to the closest state to the border and nobody can say anything. I can go to different schools, because I can pay for it,” Martinez said.
Qualifying for deferred action can be a somewhat costly but relatively fast process.
It costs $465 to apply, but most students also hire attorneys to help them through the process. Mayra Marquez of Santa Fe said she was paying her lawyer about $1,000 to assist in the application process. Marquez met her lawyer at an information session at Santa Fe Community College not long after Obama announced the program.
Some groups, such as Catholic Charities, are offering low-cost services. For example, Valencia, of Farmington, paid a Catholic Charities secretary $50 to help put the application together and send it in.
Marquez, 18, is still in the process of filing her paperwork. A first-year student at SFCC studying criminal justice – she wants to be a juvenile probation officer and someday a homicide detective – Marquez said she hopes deferred action will mean she can help her parents pay for her college.
“This program has practically changed my life. It’s a huge opportunity for me, because there was a time I was in school and I was like, ‘Why even bother going to college, why get a career, if I can’t work?’ ”
Now, she is confident that her good record will help get accepted into the program and eventually have the kind of career her parents left Mexico for.
And it’s possible Marquez will hear back sooner than later. Students are getting responses within a few months, even weeks.
Numerous students interviewed for this story said they think deferred action is the first step toward addressing millions of undocumented youth who have lived in the states since childhood.
The United States is home to 4.4 million illegal immigrants under the age of 30, according the Pew Hispanic Center. Several attempts to pass the DREAM Act have failed in Congress, but many are hopeful that Obama’s re-election will push the legislation forward.
“I think that deferred action is a clear statement that you know the Dream ACT is something the community wants and something that is doable,” said Luzhilda Campos, a Santa Fe student who has also applied for deferred action and has participated in immigration rallies.
Garcia, the UNM student whose appointment to get fingerprinted and photographed by immigration is on Dec. 4, said she considers the program “baby steps that are gonna help” open a path to citizenship.
“I’d really like to be a citizen and vote and give to this country. Because it’s my country, you know? I don’t know Mexico as much as I know the United States,” Garcia said.