By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 20, 2012
A roomful of activists at a recent immigration conference shared details about getting driver’s licenses for unauthorized immigrants and if they could attend public colleges.
But for two young people the wonkish talk meant something more than to most. They were so-called “Dreamers,” young people brought to the United States by parents and who are growing up in the only country they have known but without the legal right to be here.
Marco Ouiroga, from Florida, is waiting to hear from the federal government about his application for deferred deportation.
“I felt like a human being for the first time,” he said about filing the documents.
Ana Bonilla-Martinez already received her two-year permit to stay in the United States. A Catholic church worker in New Jersey, the 22-year-old said, “I was happy and then I was relieved because more doors would be open to me.” She spoke from her New Jersey parish where she was getting ready for a celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Bonilla-Martinez is one of 53,273 young people approved so far for the initiative, according to November government statistics. Some 308,935 people have applied for the temporary program, which allows certain young undocumented immigrants to stay here for two years. At one point, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services handled daily more than 4,000 applications.
Georgia—with 10,206 applicants—has the ninth highest number of young people hoping to get the new status.
To be eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, young people under the age of 31 must meet seven guidelines set by the Obama administration. One of the requirements is the young person had to have been brought to the United States before the age of 16. The program can allow a person to get a work permit and, depending on the state, a driver’s license.
Immigration lawyers at the three-day conference, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., led the discussion Dec. 4 on how states are reacting to the initiative by the Obama administration.
“It is not uniform, but the majority of the states appear to be supportive of this group,” said Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. And she doesn’t expect to see states passing stricter laws making it harder for young people.
A driver’s license is a key document for young people so they can travel to work opportunities. And all but three states—Arizona, Nebraska and Michigan—grant licenses to DACA-approved people, Broder said.
As for college tuition, 13 states allow for in-state tuition fees for young people. Georgia implemented a policy that bans undocumented immigrants from the top public colleges.
Broder said those policies are shortsighted because “investing in the youth is an investment in our future.”
Bonilla-Martinez, a native of Mexico, applied almost immediately to the government for DACA. She was 7 when her mother, looking for work, brought her and her younger brother to the United States. Bonilla-Martinez said she earned an associate’s degree in chemistry and met all the DACA criteria so she didn’t hesitate to file the application. She used the Catholic Charities’ office in her N.J. diocese to make sure her paperwork was in order.
The program is a good step, and Bonilla-Martinez said she was grateful, but she feels it isn’t enough. She said she agreed with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who gave the keynote speech at the immigration conference. He linked the civil rights movement with immigration reform and said the U.S. bishops would oppose any legislative proposal that would simply let undocumented immigrants stay in the country as workers, but without any path to citizenship. Bonilla-Martinez said if people aren’t given a path to citizenship they would be treated as “working machines, but not human beings.”
Family and friends have been enthusiastic about her new status.
“I told my pastor. He was really excited for me. It brings tears to my eyes because I think it’s great,” she said.
Ouiroga’s parents emigrated from Peru for better opportunities. Trouble began when his mother left his abusive father and stayed in this country. Coming from Peru when he was 2 years old, the past 24 years have always been lived behind a veil, he said. “My mother always told me I was different.”
Making excuses in high school for why he couldn’t drive was draining. His standby reason was that his parents wanted him to focus on school. He had to weigh which friends he could tell the truth about his situation.
“You have to come up with a lot of excuses. That was a heavy burden,” he said.