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DACA, the newest addition to the discussion on US immigration reform

Under CC license from Flickr user Icars

When you are undocumented in this country, it usually means you carry around a very big secret. So naturally, even when the president says he’s getting serious about immigration reform – as he did yesterday in Nevada – it’s still hard for undocumented people to believe they might find a legal place in society.

Last June, the Obama administration issued an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

“It’s a way from undocumented you to really come out of the shadows to ideally be able to put their education and their experience to use in a productive setting,” President Obama said.

Marillia Zelner helps students apply for DACA in California, which basically gives young people a chance to get a temporary work permit. California has the largest number of DACA participants so far, but initially the turnout was low. The strict guidelines and two-year limit of the work permit, made applying for DACA a risky venture for many undocumented young people. In Zelner’s eyes this program is more than just a legal undertaking.

“It’s a way for undocumented youth to really come out of the shadows,” she says. “To ideally be able to put their education and their experience to use in a productive setting.”

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, more of the almost two million young immigrants who qualify are taking that brave step to apply.

When President Obama gave his second Inaugural Address, he directed 16 seconds of it at the hopeful millions who now have access to an authorized US residence.

“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving,” said Obama. “Hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”

One of those hopeful many is Nea Medina (her name has been changed to protect her identity).

Finding a legal place in society

“This is my desk,” says Nea Medina, giving a tour of her dorm on the Mills College campus. “I really can’t study here, so when I really want to focus I sit on this rug and I just spread all my papers all over the place and I study it’s a beautiful thing.”

Nea is a senior and is graduating early with a degree in Politics, Legal, and Economic Analysis. She’s entering the Mills MBA program in the spring, but her big dream is to go to law school. 

The only thing that could hold Nea back is that she doesn’t have a social security number – because she’s undocumented. Nea was born in Baja California.

“My parents never really wanted to come to the US, they didn’t really want to live here. It kind of just happened out of necessity,” explains Nea.

Nea’s father came to California first. He brought the rest of the family when Nea was six years old. She entered the US on a visitor’s Visa and every few months would go back to Mexico to have it renewed, which is technically illegal. Before Nea turned 18, she decided to stop using the Visa for fear that it might make her ineligible for US citizenship in the future – a pretty big decision for a young woman. Without her Visa, Nea began living in the US undocumented. Her family was basically in the same situation. In the beginning, it worked out fine.

“When I became a senior and the college application rounds started to come up,” Nea explains, “they were asking me for my social security number.”

However, as an ambitious student she had plenty of other things to list on her application. As a star athlete and a high performing student Nea still managed to become class president, ASB president and founder of her school’s Spanish Club. All of this helped her get accepted into her top schools.

“UCLA, UC Davis, UCSB,” she lists them off then says: “I had all these amazing schools. I had a dream school I wanted to go to, but because I didn’t qualify for financial aid. It was just not an option for me.”

In California, undocumented students qualify for in-state tuition, but that was still beyond Nea’s financial means. Many in her situation would have turned to financial aid, but Nea’s status made her ineligible for loans from the federal government – even private banks refuse anyone without a social security number.

Fortunately, she found Mills College, a school she’s happy with and that offered her scholarships and a part time job. With support from her family, she’s managed to afford the cost of tuition.

Nea’s father has worked as a foreman on an orchard since he came to California, supporting his wife and four children. Whenever she was in doubt she would turn to him.

“He would always be like, you keep going,” she says. “You don’t let anyone stop you, like you’re going to go places, like your status, is not going to stop you from that.”

And it hasn’t. But Nea still has big obstacles ahead. For example, it’s not clear whether Nea can legally practice as a lawyer. And without some form of authorized residence in the US, Nea cannot be hired anywhere.

That’s where DACA comes in. If she’s approved, DACA gives Nea the ability to at least work here legally, but just for two years. Marillia Zelner says that this is not the expansive immigration reform she had hoped for.

“Being told that they have something that’s temporary – two years and that may be taken away at anytime – is certainly a far cry from what they would want and deserve,” says Zelner.

In addition, there’s very strict criteria to apply: you must have arrived in the US before age 16; be younger than 31 years old; and have a clean criminal record. Even if you’re approved, DACA doesn’t grant applicants legal status or a path to citizenship. It basically amounts to a temporary work permit.

There are an estimated 11 million people living in the US undocumented and only about two million will qualify for DACA. But for Nea Medina, it’s a big opportunity.

“For me, DACA was such a blessing because I qualify for it,” she says. “I came in here at the age of six, I’ve been living here for about fifteen years, no criminal background and I have all the documents to prove all of this.”

Initially, registration numbers for DACA were surprisingly low. For those in the undocumented community, there’s an obvious fear associated with handing over personal information to U.S. immigration official.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen after these two years,” says Nea. “They’re saying that after the two years are up you could renew it. You’d have to pay the $465 fee again, but because it’s so new, it’s still being developed. So it’s definitely a risk.”

It’s a risk that’s paid off for Nea. She’s recently received her work permit through DACA, and it’s likely more undocumented students will apply now that President Obama’s re-election has guaranteed the future of the program. So far there have been almost 400,000 applicants, with thousands of new candidates each month.