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More Than 100,000 Young Immigrants Granted Temporary Reprieve From Deportation

December 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
When Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The federal initiative has given young people, brought to the U.S. illegally before the age of 16, the chance to defer deportation. Ray Suraez profiles three young immigrants who have applied for the program.
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MARGARET WARNER: Next: an update on a new administration policy allowing young immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to stay here.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program began four months ago. Today, the Department of Homeland Security announced that more than 100,000 young people have been granted a temporary reprieve from deportation; 368,000 have applied, less than one-third of the nearly 1.3 million people estimated to be eligible nationwide.

We turn again to Ray Suarez for a look at how the program is working in California, the state that leads the country in applications.

SINYOUNG PARK, undocumented immigrant: Sorry. Like, I just, like, practiced this speech today.

RAY SUAREZ: To hear Sinyoung Park in a class at UCLA, you would assume she, like most of her classmates, is a California kid. And she has been, but only since she was 11, when her parents brought her here from South Korea on a tourist visa.

SINYOUNG PARK: The thing is, I feel like this is where my home is. I remember very little of it. Most of it is just through pictures that I have of my childhood. And, like, most of my remembered memories, they are just here.

My values and, like, customs are now American. So, just, you know, the idea of getting kicked out to Korea and never come back to the U.S. is — I just can’t even imagine it.

RAY SUAREZ: Sinyoung is one of an estimated 1.3 million young people here illegally who now qualify for a new federal policy initiative called Deferred Action.

She applied after the president announced the program in the Rose Garden last summer, citing a failure by Congress to pass the so-called DREAM Act. Spearheaded by the Department of Homeland Security, the operation marks a major change in how the country has handled immigration enforcement in the past, says Sec. Janet Napolitano.

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: Now we have identified at least this one category of young people that we really feel are almost in a different situation.

RAY SUAREZ: You could call California “America’s capital of Deferred Action.” It’s estimated that more than a quarter of all the potentially eligible young adults in the country live right here in this one state.

Now, when applications didn’t come flooding in after Aug. 15, some advocates figured it was because people were waiting for Election Day, to see whether former Gov. Romney or President Obama would be managing the policy going forward.

But then Election Day came and went, and there was no spike in applications.

There are many possible reasons for that. For starters, unlike the DREAM Act, the Deferred Action program doesn’t include a path to legalization, just a two-year pause in the threat of deportation.

Applicants need to prove they were under 31 when the program was announced, were brought to the United States before age 16, and have remained for at least five years without leaving the country, have no criminal record, and have a U.S. high school diploma or its equivalent, or have served in the U.S. military.

So, what, a line ran down the block here?

JORGE-MARIO CABRERA, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles: Yes. In fact, it went all the way out there, I would say a mile away, lots of people, entire families. Everyone thought that they would fill out a three-page form, and that they would now be on their way to a new life.

RAY SUAREZ: Quick like that.

JORGE-MARIO CABRERA: That’s right. It wasn’t.

RAY SUAREZ: Jorge-Mario Cabrera is with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, CHIRLA, for short. The group runs daily orientations to explain the process, and has helped prepare thousands of applications since Deferred Action began.

But it’s not nearly as many as they expected to see in the aftermath of President Obama’s reelection. The cost, $465 per applicant, plus lawyers’ fees that can run upwards of $1,000, is a big deterrent, especially for families with multiple children, and people who’ve spent years laying low now have to prove they qualify.

JORGE-MARIO CABRERA: It requires that someone knows where they have been the past 10 years, 12 years, almost to the point of day by day.

FERNANDO FUENTES, undocumented immigrant: I had to go get my transcripts from school. I had to get a background check.

RAY SUAREZ: Fernando Fuentes works full-time at a sheet metal plant in Compton. He operates this 33-ton turret press that cuts metal for commercial lighting fixtures. The 26-year-old has worked here since high school, long before his new work permit and Social Security card arrived in the mail last month.

He was granted deferred action after his boss agreed to vouch for the fact that he’d been employed there, illegally, for the past five years.

Critics like Dan Stein, head of the pro-immigration enforcement group FAIR, say that casual attitude toward workplace enforcement is a big problem.

DAN STEIN, Federation for American Immigration Reform: Everyone can understand and sympathize with the equities of a population of people, some of whom were here young, maybe their parents brought them here, but we have to look at the precedent.

RAY SUAREZ: Stein calls the whole program unconstitutional.

DAN STEIN: It’s a usurpation of the congressional power, the prerogative the Constitution explicitly gives to Congress to set the terms and conditions on who can come to this country and who can stay and under what conditions.

FERNANDO FUENTES: Here it is.

RAY SUAREZ: Fuentes says he knows many Americans don’t want him to be able to have this card to stay in the country. He works 60 hours a week. He’s trained himself to customize cars, trick them out with the latest electronics and fancy upholstery, and now that he can work legally, figures deferred action is good for him and America.

FERNANDO FUENTES: I’m not going to be hiding from anywhere, and I’m going to keep on doing the right thing.

RAY SUAREZ: Immigration attorney Carlos Batara has been asked plenty of times to help undocumented young people like Fernando apply for deferred action, and he doesn’t encourage them.

CARLOS BATARA, immigration attorney: If you’re willing to risk and assume that they will never come back and use the information you have given them against you to bring you into removal proceedings, and if you assume — or you assume the DREAM Act is going to pass, that’s fine.

Go to another attorney. I cant do it. I think that almost borders on malpractice.

RAY SUAREZ: So what guarantees do applicants have that their information won’t be used against them in the future?

JANET NAPOLITANO: We have provided assurance that information we get will not be turned over, say, to ICE if a person is not deemed eligible, absent some very specific, very serious exceptions.

Really, the choice is for a young person, do they want to go in so that they don’t have to worry about being picked up somehow? Or do they want to just continue living the way they live now?

RAY SUAREZ: The complexity of confronting the legal and political challenges is on full display as one American family sits down to dinner. The family matriarch first came to the U.S. in the late ’70s, gave birth to a citizen child, then went back home to Mexico, where sister and brother Sonia and Javier were born.

As children, they were brought to America to live, where their little brother, Missael, was born, and is a citizen, like his citizen niece and nephew, Sonia’s children, whose father, Cesar, came illegally, and has been in the legalization process for 15 years.

Javier volunteers at deferred action clinic like this one in Pomona, California, when he’s not in class at the local community college. He applied for deferred action himself just last month and is anxious to get his work permit.

JAVIER HERNANDEZ, undocumented immigrant: With that work permit, I think definitely the first thing would be being able to get a job and having money — an income coming in, secure income coming in, and being able to pay for my education, go to school at the same time that I’m working, being able to provide rent money for my mom, which I haven’t been able to do because I don’t have a job.

RAY SUAREZ: Javier called his sister the day the president announced the new policy. Sonia, who prefers to give only her first name, has years of college, no criminal record, and has been in the country since 1989, but it turns out she was too old to qualify by just 10 months.

WOMAN: At first, I was like, it was a frustration, because it’s like I wish I could have had the opportunities that other DREAMers had right now. But at the same time, I’m glad, because lots of my family members are — you know, they qualify for the program, so it’s great. My brother’s one of them.

RAY SUAREZ: Javier expects to hear back any day now about his application.

For him, Deferred Action is just a stop on the way to a stable future, a way to get legal work, and hope Congress gets to work on a long-term solution for him and his family.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s the connection between the DREAMers and John Lennon? You can read about the role the former Beatle played in paving the way for Deferred Action and the DREAM Act on our home page.