Coming Out of the Shadows

Photo: Ray_from_LA.


When I worked as a community organizer in New Mexico, I once overheard several women talking about a 2012 executive action on immigration.

Known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the order made young, undocumented adults eligible for work permits and temporary relief from deportation.

Yet their voices, instead of excited and hopeful, were hushed and tinged with fear. The young immigrants thought that if they revealed their undocumented status, they could be deported. So they refused to apply.

Other Mexican immigrants I spoke with didn’t even know they could apply for temporary legal status.

“Didn’t you hear about DACA?” I asked them. “In the news? At school?”

The young women stared silently. They weren’t students. Their friends and family didn’t know about it either.

And they weren’t alone. Nearly half of the estimated 1.2 million young adults eligible for DACA haven’t sought relief.

Why? Harvard Professor Roberto G. Gonzales investigated the trend.

He found that eligible immigrants who didn’t seek temporary lawful status were more likely to be high school dropouts and have weaker ties to community organizations than the people who applied soon after the measure was announced.

His findings may also prove true for the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents — that’s an additional 4 million people — who are now free to apply for a program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (or DAPA).

Most of the young adults eligible for DACA are U.S.-educated, bilingual, and under 30. Those eligible for DAPA, however, tend to be older, less educated, and mostly Spanish-speaking.

These older applicants also face political hurdles.

In the wake of DAPA, 26 states have filed a federal lawsuit arguing that President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration are unconstitutional.

And last January, the GOP-led House passed a bill that would crush Obama’s efforts to defer deportations for 5 million people. The issue is sure to be revived in the debate over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees federal immigration enforcement.

These largely symbolic measures are striking fear in the immigrant community.

Many undocumented immigrants also worry about what could happen after their initial permits expire. If they reveal their status and their address in this divisive political climate, could that information be used to deport them later?

Despite this fear, the Obama administration is pushing community organizations to encourage their constituents to sign up.

I would also urge DAPA-eligible immigrants to apply for the right to work and live without the fear of deportation. Nearly 70 percent of Republican Latinos, 95 percent of Democratic Latinos, and 65 percent of Asian-American voters support the executive actions on immigration. And the initiative is more likely to succeed if more immigrants take advantage of it.

If you think you qualify, don’t be afraid. Seek support from your community and submit your application as soon as it becomes available.

Diana_Torres-small-color-headshot Diana Anahi Torres-Valverde is the New Mexico Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.
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