High school senior Adrian Morales and his friends have been hearing the same message ever since their parents brought them illegally to the United States and to Kansas City as young children:
Work hard, do well in school and someday, if luck and politics allow, some form of the American Dream of job and success might be yours.
Now, today — the first in which undocumented young people like Adrian, 16, can file to legally remain in the country under a new immigration policy — he and friends finally feel the words are true.
“It’s a big deal,” Morales, 16, of the Alta Vista Charter School said Tuesday. “You can work legally. You can go to college.”
Although the new policy offers opportunities, it also comes with widespread concerns and questions, the most pressing of which centers on the fact that the policy, in a new administration, could be overturned as easily as it was implemented.
Two months ago, on June 15, President Barack Obama announced the policy, officially called “deferred action for childhood arrivals.” Because the policy does not offer a path to citizenship or to a permanent residency “green card,” it is often referred to as a watered-down version of the proposed Dream Act, which would provide both to undocumented young people.
Instead, the deferred-action policy provides a way to legally stay and work in the United States to individuals who are residing here unlawfully and who entered the country as children. From its start, the policy was controversial, with critics of more open immigration laws and policies immediately decrying it as a presidential end-run around Congress.
Under the policy, applicants must be under age 31 as of June 15 and must have arrived in the country before they turned 16. They can have no felony convictions or serious or repeated misdemeanor convictions. They also must show that they are either in school, have graduated from high school, earned a GED or been honorably discharged from the U.S. military.
Those who meet the criteria will receive a document that allows them to legally reside and work in the United States for two years. The document is renewable indefinitely upon review.
Over the last 60 days, the Department of Homeland Security has been gearing up for what is expected to be a deluge of as many as 800,000 applications nationwide, although some immigration groups estimate the number will be 1.7 million or more.
“We’re prepared. We’re prepared for any volume that may come in,” an immigration official said in a teleconference Tuesday.
In Kansas City, as throughout the nation, immigration groups and lawyers also have been preparing for this day.
At Alta Vista, a largely Hispanic school just west of Downtown, Morales’ classmates Benjamin Damian, 16, Dulce Vazquez, 17, Silvia Zavala, 17, and Yessenia Merida, 17, all said they were excited to apply. All said they were between ages 4 and 11 when they were brought to the United States by parents.
Beyond attending high school, each student also takes courses at Penn Valley Community College to earn early credits toward college. Until today, they said, each lived with the prospect of attending college, but then, because they are undocumented, they also knew it was unlikely that they would ever be able to use their degrees to hold a job in the United States.
“This is a huge deal,” Merida said. “For me, it changes a lot.”
At 17, she has a child, an 8-month-old son. “He and his father are U.S. citizens,” she said, and cannot be deported. But, she always wondered, “what about me?”
Now she feels more confident.
Immigration lawyers in Kansas City said they had been inundated with inquiries from prospective applicants and their families willing to pay the $465 application fee.
“We’ve been flooded with calls,” said Overland Park attorney Steve Krischbaum.
Although enthusiastic about the policy, many immigration lawyers also are advising caution, he and others said.
Because “deferred action” is a policy and not a law, it could be repealed in a new presidential administration as quickly as it was put into place.
“It is a little scary to those of us who know it can be taken away at any time,” said immigration attorney Kathleen Harvey of Overland Park.
The worry among some applicants, said Zavala of Alta Vista, is that they will provide vital, personal information about themselves and their families that, should the policy be repealed, could easily be used to identify, locate and deport them or their loved ones.
As Zavala put it, “Getting to my parents.”
In a noon teleconference Tuesday, an administration official with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the part of the Department of Homeland Security in charge of receiving the deferred action requests, worked to clarify or quell certain concerns.
The official said that, except in the most egregious cases, the information submitted would not be passed on for immigration enforcement and deportation.
As the USCIS website states: “If your case does not involve a criminal offense, fraud, or a threat to national security or public safety, your case will not be referred to ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for purposes of removal proceedings except where DHS determines there are exceptional circumstances.”
In general, said Suzanne Gladney, managing attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, “the kids are happy and the parents are nervous.”
“Is it really going to work the way the way they say it is?” Gladney said. “... What happens if the program ends? Is it going to have negative repercussions?”
None of the attorneys, however, is dissuading eligible people from applying. Since the June announcement, several law firms around town have been holding public information sessions, as well as speaking on Hispanic radio stations, to spread the word about the policy.
Even up to the end of last week, lawyers said that Homeland Security had pushed the policy through so fast, in only about 60 days, that it was still unclear exactly which forms applicants needed to file. Government officials on Tuesday clarified which forms are needed and said applications could be made online at the immigration website, www.USCIS.gov/childhoodarrivals.
El Centro, in conjunction with the KS/MO Dream Alliance, has scheduled a community forum on the policy from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at its offices at 1330 S. 30th St. in Kansas City, Kan. Attorneys also want to make sure applicants understand the policy’s benefits as well as its potential risks.
“You know, for the people this is targeted at, this is a dream come true,” said immigration lawyer Jim Austin, chair of the Missouri and Kansas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “We see parents and children in here crying, they get to go to college now.
“I had three girls who came in from one of the high schools from Johnson County. They can’t wait for this to get started to enroll in college next year.”
Likewise, he said, “there are many people who should not apply for this.”
“We explain that it is low risk as far as being in any danger as a result of applying for this,” he said, “but it depends on your individual circumstances.”
Individuals with a sketchy background or any kind of criminal past, he said, would likely be wise not to apply. Applicants also need to have resided continuously in the U.S. for at least five years prior to the policy announcement in June.
Austin and others said some of the more heart-breaking stories include people who want to quality for deferred action but don’t.
“We’re seeing some people who are just missing eligibility, people who entered the U.S. just after they turned 16,” Austin said.
“Yesterday, we saw a guy who turned 31 a day or so before the June 15th deadline.”
Based on the criteria, he would not be eligible.
But many others, like the students at Alta Vista, should be. Some say it may take a little time to raise the money to apply, “but that’s not a lot for what we get for it,” Merida said.
Said Zavala of the application:
“My dad is already looking for a lawyer.”