Saturday, June 14, 2014 | 2 a.m.
It has been a punching bag for the House GOP and a life raft for its beneficiaries.
On June 5, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announced that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration’s directive to issue two-year work permits to noncriminal young immigrants who meet certain education or military service criteria, would be renewed.
Two years after President Barack Obama announced the program in 2012, more than 500,000 people have received work permits, opening them up to new opportunities to work and gain valuable skills. Meanwhile, Obama’s decision to bypass Congress has become a lightning rod for those who oppose reform.
Following the lead of Rep. Steve King, R–Iowa, who calls the program “deferred action for criminal aliens,” the House has voted multiple times to end it. After the renewal was announced, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R–Va., bashed the move.
“These actions undermine Congress’ hard work to reform our immigration laws and also raise serious concerns about the administration’s ability and willingness to maintain the integrity of our immigration laws,” he said.
On the ground in immigrant communities, those who received work permits say the program has been a psychological and financial boost, albeit temporary. In Nevada, thousands of young people have received the permits, leading to driver’s licenses, jobs and increased opportunities for education.
“It was a major change in my life,” said Greysel Sousa, 28, who left Mexico when she was 13 after her father fell ill, joining her mother in Las Vegas. “Before I was driving without a license. I had a fear of getting stopped, of getting in an accident. It’s almost like PTSD. If I saw a cop, I would literally start shaking.”
Sousa is finishing a degree in political science at UNLV and working as a safety coordinator at a recycling company. At UNLV, she has set up an organization for assisting young immigrants without legal residency called the Coalition for Advancement of Undocumented Student Education.
“(DACA) changed my psyche,” Sousa said. “Now, I’m confident. I used to avoid social situations because I didn’t want to go anywhere they might ask for ID. I was too embarrassed to go to a nightclub because I risked being exposed in front of my peers.”
Sousa was lucky to find decent work before she ever received her permit. But for many, DACA has meant being able to get a job for the first time or move out of low-paying, under-the-table work and into the legitimate workforce.
In Nevada, 10,564 people have applied for DACA and 9,243 have been approved, according to the latest U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services numbers. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that roughly 23,000 immigrants in Nevada qualify.
Blanca Gamez, 24, was working on her second degree at UNLV, caught in a cycle of earning additional educational certifications with no foreseeable employment outlet, when DACA was originally announced.
Now she is employed at ProgressNow Nevada as a community organizer and has been able to pay for the next steps in her career. She has taken the Law School Admission Test and is looking at schools.
“I was able to pay for the LSAT fee, and my parents paid for me to take the Kaplan course, but I’m paying them back,” Gamez said. “That alone is exciting for me. Now, I can pay for the things I need to keep going. … I couldn’t do it without deferred action.”
Alan Aleman, 21, who met Obama and was used as an example for the need for reform when the president delivered a speech on immigration in Las Vegas in January 2013, now works at a legal clinic.
He is finishing an associate’s degree at College of Southern Nevada so he can enroll pre-med at UNLV and eventually go to medical school.
“I know DACA is temporary, but if I can renew for two years, that still allows me to move forward with my education,” Aleman said. “I just try to keep moving forward, knowing we need something permanent, but keeping faith that it will come in time.”
Though DACA has opened the door to legitimate work for some, other immigrants still find themselves barred from their preferred professions.
Gloria Rodriguez, 27, was working at a flower shop for $6 an hour before DACA. Now she works at a legal clinic helping other immigrants and earning more than the minimum wage.
Still, Rodriguez cannot put her degree in education, including a specialty in elementary bilingual education, to the use she had hoped for. To work for Clark County School District, even just to substitute teach, you need to have permanent resident status.
Other difficulties still exist as well. Rodriguez has three siblings, and each DACA application comes with a $465 fee, a number that doesn’t include costs for legal assistance with filling out the forms. The family borrowed, held yard sales and sold jewelry to get the money together.
Immigration analysts say the cost of the application, especially for a temporary program, may deter some from applying. Fear that application information might be used against applicants or their families is also a hurdle.
“It was something we thought of, spending so much money on a temporary program,” Rodriguez said. “My parents were wondering if it’s a scam or if I would get deported. But I told them I was going to risk it, and they supported me.”
Each year, about 1,000 students from Clark County School District finish their senior years but wind up with “certificates of attendance” instead of diplomas because they didn’t pass all of the state standardized tests. An applicant must either be in high school, have a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma, or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. military to be eligible for DACA.
“That’s been one of the biggest issues I’ve seen with potential DACA applicants,” said Astrid Silva, an immigration organizer for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada who is also a DACA recipient. “They say, ‘How am I supposed to get back to school if I’m working and trying to care of kids?’ A lot of people thought they had a diploma, but they don’t.”
House Republicans have declined to take up legislation that would provide similar, but permanent, benefits to young immigrants, citing security concerns.
King has charged Obama with circumventing Congress to offer “amnesty.”
"Some of them are valedictorians — and their parents brought them in," King said in July 2013. "... For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert. … Those people would be legalized with the same act."
Meanwhile, as the young immigrants taste progress for the first time, their parents wait. Gamez, Aleman, Sousa, Rodriguez — they all have parents without legal status.
“Deferred Action offers Nevada's immigrant communities a remarkable opportunity to contribute to the positive growth and success of Southern Nevada, and although this program offers eligible young undocumented immigrants the ability to work, drive and live without fear, it is still not a permanent solution,” said Leo Murrietta, state director for the community organizing group Mi Familia Vota. “It's not a permanent solution for their families. In fact, the majority of DREAMers who have DACA have parents who are undocumented or have orders of deportation.”