Photography by Michael Heller. Story by Emily J. Weitz
When Barack Obama announced his Deferred Action mandate in June, criticism erupted that the move was empty politics. But for the estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 young people who are affected, they say Deferred Action offers the opportunity to finally emerge from the shadows in a place that, for many, is the only home they’ve ever known.
At a meeting hosted by the Immigration Legal Services of Long Island (ILSOLI) at the Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton, attorneys presented an informational session to help the 100 or so East End residents in attendance wade through and ideally benefit from the mandate. Those eligible include anyone currently under 31 who came to the United States before the age of 16, who have been in the country continuously for at least five years, who have either graduated from high school or obtained a GED or are honorably discharged veterans, and who have no criminal record. As of August 15, 2012, these individuals may request consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Carlos Piavonetti, Managing Attorney with ILSOLI, estimates that about 100,000 people who fit this description reside in the greater New York metropolitan area, with hundreds if not thousands on the East End.
“For those who qualify, Deferred Action will mean a worker’s permit, valid for two years,” says Piovanetti. “They will then be able to get a valid driver’s license and work legally. The hope is, after two years, either the provision will be renewed or the more ambitious Dream Act will be implemented.”
So how does this affect people here on the East End? Is this merely politics? Or does Deferred Action have the potential to change people’s lives?
“This makes a huge difference, especially if you were brought here as a child,” says Isabel Saavedra, a second year law student interning with ILSOLI. “All you know and all you ever thought your country was is the United States, and then you realize that you’re not supposed to be here and you could be deported. If you’re a young person with big dreams of going to college, suddenly you learn you can’t get into college. You can’t get a driver’s license. You’re living life in the shadows, and all the doors are closed.”
Saavedra speaks from personal experience. She was born in Colombia and came here with her parents and sister when she was 10 years old.
“In high school, I worked hard,” she recalls. “I tried to get good grades. I always wanted to get an education. My dad taught me that education was the key, and if I had that everything else would come. I was undocumented for my first two years of college and the only way I could go was that my dad was working two jobs, 18 hour days, so he could pay without loans.”
That is one of the big problems for undocumented youth, Saavedra explains. College is expensive, and if you are not a legal resident, you are not eligible for student loans. That means you can matriculate, but only if you’re going to pay for it outright. The state university system in New York does offer in-state tuition to immigrants, whether documented or not, but loans are not available.
Deferred action is not set to change that.
“The authority for federal student loans rests with the Department of Education,” says Piovanetti. “They can say that those with Deferred Action are entitled, and I hope the press will start making noise about that.”
All that Deferred Action is actually doing is precisely what its name implies.
“The government is deferring to take action against qualifying immigrants undocumented in this country,” explains Piovanetti.
For those who take their legal status for granted, this may seem like semantics. Illegal immigrants are not being offered a path to any permanent legal status and they’re not being given access to federal loans. So what has changed?
“It will allow them to come out of anonymity,” says Piovanetti. “To get employment in areas they couldn’t have worked in before. They can apply for a driver’s license or take a real estate broker’s exam. There is a tremendous upside, and almost no downside.”
Saavedra, who spent ten years as an undocumented immigrant, understands how much this legislation means.
“We were very lucky that when we entered the country in 1998, my dad got a job immediately, and he got a work permit,” she said. “We applied for our papers in 2001, and didn’t get legal permanent residency until 2008. That whole time, even though we were in the process of becoming legal, we were still in limbo. We still could have been deported.”
Piovanetti believes that Deferred Action is the first step towards a comprehensive immigration reform, and to a path towards legal permanent residency.
“But we need to keep fighting for the government to pass the Dream Act,” he warns. “A new president could come and undo Deferred Action. The Dream Act would allow young people to borrow, to go to school. They would be legal permanent residents.”
“Deferred Action brings a lot of hope to young adults,” says Saavedra, “who for their whole lives have been told if they go to school, they can provide for themselves, and then they realized they couldn’t.”