Locals react to decision to provide work permits to undocumented youth
UC Santa Cruz psychology major Carmen Macias never knew she was undocumented while growing up. She came to the United States when she was 3 years old from Jalisco, Mexico, a place she doesn’t remember. Her family never spoke of her undocumented status.
When her parents and her teachers at Los Angeles public schools stressed that education was key to her future, Macias embraced the notion. Attending college became a goal and a dream.
By the time she was a senior in high school, she had applied to campuses in the University of California and California State University systems and, with her good grades, was sure to be admitted. But when she began filling out financial aid applications in one of her classes, a form asked for a Social Security number—which she didn’t have. Her twin sister was in that same class.
“Both of us started having more questions,” recalls Macias. “It didn’t make sense. Why don’t we have one? Then we pretty much understood that we were undocumented.”
By persevering, and by taking advantage of Assembly Bill 540, a California law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, Macias was eventually admitted to UCSC. And as big of a victory as that was for her, there is another one looming on the horizon.
On June 15, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would grant temporary work permits to certain undocumented young people who came to the country with their parents. Those who meet certain criteria can apply for a status known as deferred action. If Macias has her application approved, she will be able to legally seek employment for the first time in her life.
“I’m definitely really excited,” says Macias. “Before Obama’s announcement, my plan was to do grad school right after graduating. But now, I want to work for the two years I will have the work permit.”
Without the act she would have been in the untenable position of having a college degree, but with no legal right to work. The decision offers a welcome reprieve—and while she knows it’s temporary, she’s optimistic about the future.
“Everything changes now,” says Macias.
The DREAM Act, which has languished in Congress for 10 years, was intended to accomplish the same goal, but in a more thorough and comprehensive fashion. The essential idea behind both the DREAM Act and the president’s announced action is to rectify the policy of punishing children who emigrated to the United States with their parents.
Doug Keegan, program director of the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, likens it to prosecutorial discretion. The Department of Homeland Security will defer action on deportation proceedings, halting deportations of law-abiding young people who meet certain criteria to countries they have no memory of.
“In addition, those not in deportation or removal, but who would otherwise meet the eligibility criteria, will be able to apply affirmatively for status under this new policy,” says Keegan.
A key difference from the DREAM Act is that the current action is only temporary.
“Some practitioners are questioning if young people should even apply for this program, because much of it hinges on the election in November,” says Keegan, explaining that a future president could rescind the decision.
The Pew Research Center estimates that up to 1.4 million people could benefit from deferred action, out of an estimated 11.2 million undocumented immigrants nationwide (as of 2010). It does not create a path to permanent residency or citizenship.
“The good thing is you get a work permit while you are concurrently receiving deferred action,” says Keegan. “It’s not as good as a green card, [or] a residency card, but it does allow you to work, get a Social Security number and a driver’s license or I.D.”
Shannon Gleeson, assistant professor of Latin American & Latino Studies at UCSC, thinks the decision by the Obama administration is a step in the right direction, but falls short of a full-fledged DREAM Act.
“My great grandfather came to this country from Kiev almost a century ago,” says Gleeson. “He went on to be very successful, in large part because the political environment at that time helped to cultivate and supported his ambition. We don’t know how many lives or success stories we are not actuating because the political environment hasn’t caught up with the demographic reality. These individuals are no less promising and capable than the European immigrants from a century ago.”
A Bloomberg poll on June 19 showed 64 percent of likely voters agreed with the president’s action. Independent voters backed the decision by more than a two-to-one margin.
Reactions in Congress differed mostly along party lines. Congressman Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz), who has co-sponsored every version of the DREAM Act, is pleased but wants more.
“I am still waiting on the guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security regarding how the program will be implemented but right now it appears to be a good step towards sensible immigration policy,” says Farr. “However, the president’s announcement to allow deferred action is only a temporary fix; it is not a permanent solution. We need to develop common sense approaches, like the full DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, to fix our broken immigration system.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized the decision. In an interview with the news website Politico, Boehner stated “the president’s actions are going to make it much more difficult for us to work in a bipartisan way to get to a permanent solution.”
But proponents say the action is needed due to congressional inaction.
“The DREAM Act started out 10 years ago as a bi-partisan act,” says Jonathan Fox, chair of UCSC’s department of Latin American and Latino Studies. “[Conservative] Sen. Orrin Hatch was one of the sponsors. As the Republicans took a harder and harder line, those Republicans who were open to what looked like a no-brainer act, withdrew their support. There’s no more room in the Republican Party for anything but the hardest of hard lines.”
When Macias discovered that she was undocumented, she didn’t have time to deal with the emotions that came along with the realization. She didn’t even discuss it with the rest of her family.
“Within my family … it’s still something we don’t speak about,” says Macias. “It’s very difficult.”
Instead, she turned her attention into figuring out if there was a way she could still go to college.
“My sister and I looked at the prices of tuition. At this point we knew we had no scholarships,” says Macias. “We asked [ourselves], ‘Can we afford it, can my parents afford it?’ And the answer was pretty much no—there were two of us. So, I guess at that point we just stopped thinking of college, and went along with the flow.”
She ended up taking a low-paying job at a fast food restaurant after graduating from high school in 2007.
That fall she began classes at East Los Angeles College (ELAC), a community college, while continuing to work night shifts at the restaurant that ended at 1 a.m. Despite her undocumented status—or perhaps because of it—Macias became politically active at ELAC.
“I started organizing, being more active with the community,” says Macias. “I started learning about more scholarships and resources. That began my transition to UCSC.”
She learned that as an undocumented student who attended high school in California, AB 540 allowed her to pay in-state tuition at public institutions such as UCSC. California’s DREAM Act, passed in 2011, allowed AB 540 students to apply for non-state-funded scholarships, and later added state aid such as Cal Grants.
Though UCSC does not keep a count of undocumented students, a friend sold Macias on the school because of the resources it provides for undocumented students.
Macias continues to advocate for the rights of immigrants at UCSC with the group Students Informing Now. While she counts herself fortunate to benefit from the Obama decision, she also recognizes the tenuousness of her status.
“It’s a starting point, but it’s a very small victory,” says Macias. “We have to continue fighting because people like my parents are not going to benefit from this. Even some of the teen activists who began this movement [are] no longer eligible [because of age restrictions]. We definitely have to continue pushing.”