ELKHART — For once, there’s a sigh of relief among undocumented immigrants here.
The federal policy change earlier this year letting certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children get work permits is generating plenty of interest within Elkhart County’s immigrant community. But more than just giving them a chance to work and remain in the country legally — monumental enough changes — it’s giving them cause to relax, maybe just a little. It’s easing the anxiety, just a bit, of being an undocumented immigrant and living in the shadows, leery of the law and deportation, unable to get even a driver’s license.
“Just living without the fear is a gift,” said Rosy Meza, an Elkhart immigration attorney.
No question, President Barack Obama’s policy allowing undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents to apply for what’s called deferred action isn’t a long-term fix to the thorny immigration question. Some question whether it would’ve remained in place had Obama lost to Republican Mitt Romney in this year’s election, and those who get it will have to keep clean records and reapply every two years to maintain the status.
Nonetheless, it’s better than nothing and, at least for now, a cause for a measure of hope within the immigrant community, local advocates say. Applications from Elkhart County — notably from high school and college students — are holding steady, they say, and some think the numbers could grow in the wake of Obama’s re-election.
“We’ll at least keep this option alive while Obama is in the White House,” said Isrrael Mujica, a leader in a Goshen-based group called the Hispanic Council, which advocates for the local Latino community.
Karen Viveros, an immigration counselor at La Casa, the Goshen-based nonprofit that also helps provide low-income housing to those in need, said the agency has already helped around 100 apply for deferred action. Fifteen have received word thus far that their applications have been approved, and she remembers the joy the news caused the mother of one of those students in particular.
The woman “was crying on the phone, very happy for her child,” said Viveros.
Under Obama’s policy change, announced last June and implemented in August, undocumented immigrants aged 15 to 30 may apply for a work permit and permission to remain in the country for two years. They must have lived here for at least five years, among many other things, and they can have no felonies or “significant” misdemeanors on their records.
Applicants must provide a paper trail documenting their time in the United States — via school and medical records and other official documents. And they also face a background check from federal authorities to make sure their records are clean.
Viveros said the process can take two to three months. But there’s no guaranteed time frame and immigration authorities sometimes seek additional evidence vouching for an applicant’s time in the United States.
On receiving approval, applicants can seek a Social Security card — necessary to work — which allows them to get other documents, notably a driver’s license. As is, many undocumented immigrants drive without a license or insurance, lacking other means to get around.
“It’s a blessing,” said Viveros, noting the high academic achievement levels typical of those La Casa has helped. “I can tell you I am happy to help these students because they are excellent students.”
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
There’s been a measure of apprehension among some about applying, worried about letting federal immigration authorities know they’re undocumented. Some, as Meza describes it, simply think the new policy sounds too good to be true.
Some would-be applicants “want to see their friends get approved and get that work permit in their hands,” said Meza. “It’s almost like they’ve suffered for so long in the shadows, and they can’t actually believe there’s a break.”
What’s more, the process isn’t exactly cheap, $465 per application.
If you need the help of a lawyer and, as a parent, you have several children potentially eligible, the total price tag can reach into the thousands of dollars, noted Mujica. What’s more, the process doesn’t lead to formal residency, let alone U.S. citizenship, and it leaves out the parents of the kids.
That said, those who are eligible are looking to the option. “People are looking for the money and they’re doing what they have to to do it,” Mujica said.