New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 14, 2013
NEW YORK » One found a job as a teacher's assistant at a center for children with autism. Another became a kitchen designer in Manhattan for an Italian company and is setting up his own general contracting firm. A third started driving a taxi to help pay for college.
They are among more than 291,000 immigrants who have been granted temporary reprieves from deportation under a program announced by President Barack Obama last June.
The program, which is open to young people who were brought to the United States as children and are here illegally, allows them to obtain a Social Security number, apply for driver's licenses and work.
As Congress considers an immigration package, with debate in the Senate beginning this week, the program's impact suggests how the lives of the nation's 11 million immigrants in the country illegally might be transformed by a broader overhaul.
In interviews, those who have received the reprieve, known as deferred action, said it had changed things in numerous ways, from the practical to the emotional, the mundane to the profound. Many talked about being able to walk out their front door for the first time without fear that a wrong turn could lead to deportation proceedings.
"I'm a human here in this country now - I didn't feel like I was before," said Luis Rey Ramirez, 26, a Mexican graphic designer who grew up in the Bronx and was granted the deferral in April. "I feel like I can just navigate this country easier in a legal way, in a way that I can contribute."
Yet the young immigrants' elation is tempered by concerns over the program's future.
Should immigration legislation fail and the next president cancel the policy, the recipients might lose their privileges and once again face the possibility of deportation. In the meantime, the program does not grant them permanent residency, and the reprieve from deportation is temporary, subject to renewal after two years. It may also be revoked should a recipient commit a crime or otherwise violate the terms of the program.
A federal official said "only a handful" of immigrants had had their deferred action terminated.
Last week, in a vote along party lines, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives adopted an amendment to a Homeland Security spending bill that would shut down the program.
Some opponents of the program have gone to court. In a case in Dallas, a U.S. district judge said in a ruling in April that he was doubtful about the program's legality, suggesting that the president had overstepped his authority and that only Congress could approve such a temporary reprieve from deportation.
The case was brought by 10 immigration agents, who are being represented by Kris W. Kobach, a Republican who is the Kansas secretary of state and a prominent voice in the movement against an immigration overhaul.
The judge, Reed O'Connor, postponed issuing an injunction and asked both sides to submit more information.
Still, whatever the fate of the program, it has already demonstrated the political power of the immigration issue.
Obama's decision to approve deferred action has been widely credited with helping to rally the Hispanic vote in the presidential election last year.
While mindful of the threats to the program, many of those who have already been approved said they were pressing ahead.
"It's sort of like an inspiration to get things done faster, to really go ahead and take advantage of the status, because in reality we don't know if it will be renewed," said Jasniya Sanchez, 26, a Mexican immigrant.
Sanchez was hired as academic coordinator for Qualitas of Life Foundation, which offers financial advice to Latino immigrant families in New York. She had volunteered there for years.
One of the first things Sanchez did after receiving the reprieve in November was to apply for her Social Security number and a New York state ID. Several weeks ago, with her new ID in hand, she went on a work trip to Dallas and Chicago, boarding planes for the first time since she arrived in the United States in 1999.
For many, government IDs, particularly driver's licenses, have come to symbolize their new status.
Cristina Jiminez, managing director at United We Dream, the nation's largest national network of young immigrants, said its members frequently posted photographs of themselves on Facebook, posing with their new licenses.
"To mainstream America, it may not seem like a big deal," she said, "but to people in our community, it's a huge deal."
For many recipients, the lives they lived before receiving the reprieve were not always underground. They attended schools and universities, many held jobs and some have been outspoken activists for immigration reform and other causes.
They did all of this under severe constraints, however. Although illegal immigrants can legally attend public school and are allowed to attend many colleges and universities, they are barred from many scholarship and tuition-assistance programs and cannot be legally employed.
Making ends meet was always tough. So, upon receiving the reprieve, recipients have quickly shifted from the shadow economy to legal employment.
Erika Flores, 24, who has lived in New York City since she immigrated from Mexico when she was 4, said that until the announcement of the deferred-action policy, she had always braced for a sudden dead end in her life.
The policy coincided with her completion of a master's program focusing on early childhood special education, however, and she was recently hired as a teacher's assistant in an early intervention center on the Lower East Side, where she works with children with autism.
"I sort of felt relieved that I didn't go to school for nothing and could go and do what I want to do, like everyone else in this country," she said. "I can go out and execute what I learned, working with kids."
Javier Santos, 29, who studied architecture at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn, was hired as a full-time designer at a luxury kitchen-manufacturing company within weeks of receiving the reprieve. He is using his Social Security number and work authorization to apply for a general contractor license so that he and his father, a construction worker in the country illegally, can start a business together.
He is also considering opening a restaurant with his mother.
"My parents brought me here for a better future," he said. "And after all that hard work they did, I'm able to help them out."
For many, the impact of the program has been as much emotional as practical.
"There is a sense of belonging at last," said Kamal Essaheb, 31, who came to the United States from Morocco when he was 11 and received deferred action in January. "I was lawfully present - finally - after being here for 20 years."
Byron Adriano Pullutasig, 20, an Ecuadorean immigrant, said he obtained a driver's license and a job driving a taxi, even as he is pursuing a double major in physics and sociology at Queens College. He has become more involved in political activities and was elected to be a senator in the college's student government.
Deferred action, he explained, "gave me confidence in myself that I can do a lot more than I could when I was undocumented, because I felt like I had nothing to fear."
David Chung, 22, a South Korean immigrant, said he had been planning to return to South Korea after college, because he did not think that he had a future in the United States. Now, he is working as a paralegal at the MinKwon Center for Community Action, an immigrant advocacy group in Queens.
"I had gotten so much from this country, and I wanted to give back as well," Chung said.
With his new status, he has reveled in each new rite of passage, like qualifying for a driver's license and finding a job - even, he added, filling out a federal tax return for the first time.