Mona Shield Payne
Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
While millions of immigrants residing in the country illegally await congressional reform that would allow them to remain here legitimately, Las Vegan Juan Salazar has already gotten a taste of life with legal status.
Salazar, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, crossed the southern border with a human smuggler and his parents when he was 7. He has lived in Las Vegas ever since. When he was 12, he started working construction jobs with his dad, and when the economy soured, his family lost its home to foreclosure.
“There were times when I felt like I didn’t really have any options,” said Salazar, now 21. “In high school it started to set in, that I couldn’t do things like get a driver’s license. Sometimes I would think to myself: ‘What’s the point?’ But, I kept working and hoping for the best.”
The best for him occurred in June 2012, when President Barack Obama introduced deferred action for childhood arrivals, a temporary program that offers work permits to immigrants with no criminal record who were brought to the United States at a young age. To be eligible they must be in school, have a high school diploma or its equivalent, or have served in the military.
Salazar filed his deferred-action application a year ago this month, five days after the program started, and he received his documents in February.
Salazar and his father had previously worked installing rebar for pool construction and applying protective coatings to pool decks. Around the time Salazar got his permit, a friend who ran a pool-cleaning business moved back to Mexico to retire and Salazar inherited three of his regular clients.
Salazar promptly got a business license and certification as a pool technician, dropping $300 into Nevada coffers, and he started his own business, Quality Pool Maintenance.
In a few months, he has gone from those three original customers to a regular clientele of 15.
When Obama introduced deferred action, he said it was not a permanent fix.
“This is a temporary stopgap measure ... giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven young people,” Obama said at the time.
The program, like most aspects of the immigration debate, did not come without controversy. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and others have derisively referred to the program as “backdoor amnesty.” Nevada Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei joined other GOP House members in voting to defund the program in June. Heck later said he objected to Obama using “executive action to circumvent Congress to try and score political points.”
As of July 31, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had received 573,404 applications for deferred action; 430,236 were approved. An estimated 49 percent of the eligible population has applied, a strong showing compared with the 1986 immigration amnesty program under President Ronald Reagan, which started with 20 percent of the eligible people filing applications, according to Migration Policy Institute analyst Sarah Hooker.
In Nevada, 9,026 people have applied for the program; 6,560 of those applicants have received their work permits.
On Aug. 15, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada celebrated a year of deferred action and advocating for further reform of the immigration system. Salazar and other young immigrants addressed the crowd at the alliance’s community meeting, sharing stories of how they plan to take advantage of their new opportunities.
“It feels really good. I worked on jobs with my dad where we were embarrassed and humiliated, but there was nothing we could do about it then because we couldn’t speak up and come out of the shadows. Doing something for yourself, you feel like there are no limits when you start a company. ... We are able to pay the bills now,” Salazar said.
Another deferred-action recipient at the meeting was Chris Montalvo, 26, who came to the United States from Mexico with his parents when he was 8.
“I’ve never been ashamed of my Mexican roots, but I’ve always felt American because this is the country that provided me with my education and everything else. I pledged allegiance to this country since I was a child,” he said.
On the wall to his left was a handmade poster with a quote captured from Montalvo shortly after his application was approved.
“I feel like all this pressure is off my chest after so many years,” the poster read. “I feel like I can do anything without limitations.”
When he moved to Las Vegas in 2005, he went to enroll at the College of Southern of Nevada, where a counselor told Montalvo he “had no business there” because he wasn’t a legal resident, even though he was eligible to attend the school.
Montalvo received his work permit in early August and is talking about going back to school.
“Now, finally I can feel like I can contribute a little bit to this society,” he said.
Immigrants from Mexico lead the list of deferred-action applicants with 409,000. The top four countries on the list are from Latin America; Nos. 5 and 6 are Korea and the Philippines, respectively.
Angelo Clinton, an immigrant from Indonesia whose English betrays no foreign accent, is in a fraternity at UNLV. He grew up collecting Nike Air Jordans and other sneakers and often surprised friends when he revealed his lack of legal status because he did not fit “their idea of what an undocumented immigrant looked like.”
Clinton, 20, and his mom came to the United States on tourist visas when he was 4. They are Catholic and applied for asylum arguing that Indonesia is known for violent religious persecution. Their initial application was denied, and a second attempt has dragged on for years. After saving up for the $465 in application fees, Clinton received his work permit in June. His hopes for legal status have been doused by rejected visa applications and failed attempts in Congress to address young immigrants in the country illegally, so Clinton remained skeptical.
“I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe it until it’s in front of me. Applying for deferred action … I told myself that I’m not getting excited until it’s in front of me,” he said. “Then, the day it came I just cried. This one little piece of paper changes my whole life.”
The fourth-year UNLV student is working on a degree in finance and marketing. He works full time at a shoe store and routinely spent two hours or more on the bus between home, campus and work. One of his first tasks after receiving his deferral was to get his driver’s license, and he is saving to buy a car.
Clinton has worked for the same company for five years, but he always dodged talks about ascending to assistant manager because he was worried any new paperwork may expose his lack of legal status that went unnoticed when he first applied — because he entered on a visa, he has a federal identification number that is not supposed to be used for work. Now, after coming clean to his boss, he has accepted an assistant manager position.
Clinton and the other young immigrants know deferred action provided a small victory but is only a temporary program. Larger immigration reform is still the end goal, and Salazar and Montalvo went to Heck’s Henderson office in early August to share their stories.
“My parents came here to give me opportunities so I had a better chance at being successful. But if my parents get deported, and I can’t share that success with them, what’s the point?” Salazar asked. “I can’t celebrate anything without them.”