Yuriana Garcia, 20, is an ambitious, soft-spoken Honors student majoring in Human Centered Design & Engineering at UW. She has a passion for bioengineering, and an impressive record working on research projects in genomics and microbiology.
She’s also an undocumented immigrant.
Until recently, her dreams of a PhD and a career using technological innovation to aid development in third world countries were tempered by the uncertain reality of life as an undocumented student.
President Obama’s re-election was met with jubilation by young undocumented immigrants like Garcia. It meant that his recently established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was here to stay – for another four years, at least.
The program, initiated by executive order in June, provides renewable two-year work permits for up to 1.7 million undocumented young people who migrated to the U.S. as children. This includes an estimated 30,000 eligible immigrants in Washington State.
It’s the boldest move our government has ever made to help these so-called “DREAMers” come out of the shadows and pursue a normal life in the country they call home.
Garcia’s parents brought her to the United States from a small village in Michoacán, Mexico when she was just 8 years old. She grew up in an agricultural town near Eastern Washington’s Moses Lake, keeping her immigration status a secret, and came to the University of Washington on a handful of competitive scholarships.
Garcia never let herself become too hopeful about the future. Without a social security number, she could never expect to start a career in the United States. Yet she says she cannot imagine going back to where she was born – a town under siege by cartels, corruption and rampant drug violence. For a long time, it seemed a life on the margins was Garcia’s only fate.
Thanks to DACA, all that is about to change.
“I think this is a really positive thing that’s going to change my life,” she says. “I’m excited for it. Really excited.”
Garcia waited until this November’s election results were in to finally apply for DACA. Her family thought the risk of deportation was too high while Governor Romney was still a contender for the presidency.
“I was waiting for a good-to-go sign that I would be safe – or at least, safer – before I applied,” she says.
Thousands of other DACA applicants shared Garcia’s fear that Romney, who announced he’d stop the program and veto the DREAM Act, might win the election and deport those yet to be approved. As a result, the number of DACA applicants decreased abruptly during the first two weeks of November.
But now, with Obama officially in for a second term, Garcia’s DACA application is finally submitted and her American dream seems close enough to taste.
If approved, Garcia says she’ll also be eligible for a whole host of new opportunities as a college student. She says she’ll finally be able to go after the internships she’s been eyeing, apply for promising fellowships, and sign up for work-study to put herself through graduate school.
“UW by itself has a lot great opportunities, and once I get that work permit I’ll be able to take advantage of so much more,” she says. “It’s almost just about having a sense of ‘I’m going somewhere, and I have a plan.’”
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Center started receiving DACA applications mid-August, with nearly 300,000 accepted by November 15. That’s only about 20% of the total number of immigrants eligible for the program, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Research Center.
More than 50,000 applicants have been approved so far. And with Romney out of the running, the number of young DREAMers signing up for Deferred Action in many states is quickly picking up speed.
DACA isn’t quite the DREAM Act idealized by undocumented hopefuls and immigrant rights advocates as a path to citizenship. But many still view it as a much-welcome surge forward in the otherwise stagnant fight for immigration reform.
“It’s more of a band-aid than a real solution,” says Devin Konick-Seese, director of UW student-run mentorship program Education Without Borders. “But I think any step in the right direction is a good thing – especially considering the DREAM Act was turned down.”
Konick-Seese says DACA only benefits a small percentage of the undocumented immigrant community – but for those it does help, the advantages are twofold. Not only will accomplished college graduates like Garcia have a shot at a career that reflects their true potential, but they’ll also be able to find decent work in the meantime to help pay for college.
“With a work permit, they can comfortably apply for a job at a law firm or a non-profit, instead of having to work somewhere like a fast food chain,” he says.
Garcia says many undocumented students come from lower-income backgrounds, and have to support themselves (and their families) through college without help from federal or state financial aid. She says it’s especially hard to finish school when most of the available jobs for these students are in manual and agricultural labor markets on the other side of the state.
“I’ve known so many people who have to take quarters off to go back home [to Eastern Washington], because those were the only jobs they could get,” she says.
DACA will allow many of these struggling, undocumented co-eds to apply for jobs on or near campus, working in safer environments for better pay.
But not everyone in the immigrant community shares Garcia’s positive enthusiasm for DACA. Brian Cedeno, a UW freshman who grew up undocumented, views the program more cynically. He sees DACA as a political tactic to gain popularity with minority voters, rather than a stepping stone towards transformation of the system.
“I think Obama just did it to get re-elected,” he says. “It would’ve been way better if he passed this during his first two years, ‘cause then it would be more like he actually cares.”
For Cedeno, DACA by itself is a small consolation prize in the exhaustive fight for real immigrantion reform.
“I don’t like how Obama did this as a last minute thing before the election,” he says. “If he doesn’t do more for reform or the DREAM Act, I think it’s kind of messed up of him to even try something like this [in the first place].”
Cedeno is also suspicious of the two-year expiration date on work permits. While the permits are renewable on a case-by-case basis, no one knows how easy this process will be – or what will happen to those who aren’t approved for renewal later on down the road.
By that time, he says the government will already have very specific personal information about immigrants and their families. This will make them easy targets for deportation.
Konick-Seese says many of the undocumented high schoolers he works with through Education Without Borders are deterred by the new program’s murky future.
“A lot of students are still unclear about what it is and are scared to apply,” he says. “No one is exactly sure what’s going to happen to them in two years.”
Cedeno and Konick-Seese both say the program’s relatively low approval rates over the past few months are another source of anxiety for eligible applicants.
Out of 300,000 applications accepted, only one sixth have been approved.
“I have friends who were going to apply, but now they’re too scared,” Cedeno says. “They think well, what if I don’t get one of those limited spots? Why even risk it? It makes perfect sense.”
There are more than a million undocumented young people in America who could still benefit from DACA, but have not applied.
Magdeleno Rose-Avila, the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Director, says many eligible immigrants are waiting to see what happens to the first wave of denied applicants – and if any of them are deported after turning over their information.
The Department of Homeland Security stated that denied applicants would not be processed for deportation. But when it comes to government, Rose-Avila says, “nothing is ever 100% sure.”
The fear of being hunted down for deportation by ICE agents certainly isn’t unfounded. President Obama has deported more immigrants during his first four years in the White House than any other President in US history. Yet for many immigrants and activists, Deferred Action is a sign Obama’s second term will chart a much different course.
Konick-Seese is optimistic about the next four years. He says even though Obama broke his promise to implement reform in 2008, the sheer magnitude and influence of the Latino population this term will force him to make it more of a priority.
“The Latino community has so much power now,” he says. “I think Obama and the rest of the government really saw that in the presidential election.”
President Obama is already taking steps to get an immigration bill to his desk shortly after inauguration day, and was quoted expressing confidence that “we can get immigration reform done” in the near future.
His plans for the bill include creating a pathway to citizenship for those already living in the US, as well as protecting young people like Garcia from “the cloud of deportation.”
Still, Cedeno is too discouraged by the President’s anti-immigrantion track record to expect the DREAM Act will actually be passed anytime soon. He says Deferred Action might be the end of the road.
“Based on his history, I don’t really know what to expect from him, “ he says. “I mean, he’s deported so many people. I don’t really think he’s going to do anything more [to reform the system].”
It remains to be seen if President Obama will live up to his promises this time around – and whether Deferred Action will ultimately help or hinder the process.
In the meantime, the entire immigrant community is waiting for his next move with baited breath.
This post was produced with support from CityClub. The perspectives expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CityClub.