Last October, Alexa, then a senior at Bridgehampton High School, began mulling over her options for college.
Of the 23 students in her senior class and with seven Advanced Placement courses under her belt, Alexa consistently ranked in the top five.
Attending a prestigious college like Cornell or Stanford had long been her dream.
But as an undocumented student lacking a Social Security number, Alexa soon realized she couldn’t apply for federal student aid. Instead, she’d be forced to pay full freight and to do so out of pocket.
Money worries aside, Alexa ultimately decided against applying. She feared that doing so would draw unwanted attention to her parents, who illegally emigrated from Mexico about 15 years ago. Her mother owns a house cleaning company. Her father works in irrigation.
For fear of deportation, she requested that her real name not be used.
“I couldn’t take out student loans, and my parents couldn’t take out student loans, and I was really upset. I had worked so hard and for so long and I was stuck,” said Alexa one recent afternoon in Water Mill. Twice a week, she takes classes part-time at Stony Brook University. “Because of my immigration status, I was too scared and I didn’t apply. I just couldn’t risk it.”
Now 17, Alexa has spent her young life living in the shadows. Since the age of 2, she has split her time between East Hampton and Bridgehampton.
In recent months, rather than continuing to fly under the radar, Alexa is daring to step out into the light. Alongside hundreds of thousands of other undocumented young people nationwide, Alexa is pinning her hopes on a two-year, temporary work permit that might allow her to finally come out of hiding. She’s hoping it will enable her to get a driver’s license, work in a job that doesn’t pay off the books, and save up enough money to someday attend law school.
“We won’t have to hide or be ashamed anymore. We can feel equal to those who were born here and who have legal status,” said Alexa, who has already sent in a thick stack of supporting documentation and gone in for fingerprints. On tenterhooks, she’s now waiting to find out whether her application has been approved or denied. “It will be a huge relief.”
Announced in mid-June of this year, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, provides illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children a temporary reprieve from the looming threat of deportation. The executive order signed by President Obama stipulates that applicants must prove they arrived here before turning 16, that they have lived here continuously for the past five years, and that they were under the age of 31 as of June 15 of this year.
Additionally, applicants must either still be enrolled in school, have a high school or equivalent degree, or have received an honorable discharge from the military. Further, they must be in good legal standing.
But documenting an undocumented existence is not without its challenges. As a further hurdle, applicants must provide a mountain of evidence linking them to each quarter of the requisite five years.
Across the nation, public schools have been inundated with records requests. According to Candace Stafford, coordinator of guidance at East Hampton High School, 59 former students have requested proof of their identity — everything from transcripts and report cards to attendance records and photographs. Numerous calls to Bridgehampton High School and Pierson High School in Sag Harbor went unreturned.
Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency within the Department of Homeland Security that is handling the applications, won’t reveal the exact number who have applied, though some have estimated it as high as 150,000. Nationwide, while around 1.4 million are eligible to apply, here on the North and South Forks, immigration rights activists estimate that some 2,000 young people might be eligible for DACA.
“Let’s get one thing straight, this is not the DREAM Act,” clarified Daniel Hartnett, a bilingual social worker at the John M. Marshall Elementary School. Mr. Hartnett referred to the sweeping federal piece of legislation that would have provided permanent residency to undocumented minors. It passed in the U.S. House of Representatives but failed in the Senate by five votes.
“I voted for the DREAM Act, and allowing undocumented young people to come out of the shadows and contribute to society by working or attending school is a positive development for fairness in federal immigration policy,” Representative Tim Bishop said in an e-mail yesterday. “I view this new policy as progress towards comprehensive immigration reform that will strengthen our borders, boost our economy, and put the undocumented immigrants already in our communities on a path to earned legal status.”
“The door is cracked open and it’s not a slam dunk, but it is a good opportunity,” said Mr. Hartnett, who counsels potential applicants during the afternoons at Immigration Legal Services of Long Island in Water Mill, in the basement of the Incarnation Lutheran Church. So far, of the nearly 250 individuals they have shepherded through the application process, 1 has been approved.
“These children are victims of their parents’ choices,” said Mr. Hartnett, whose own father entered the country illegally from Ireland. “Illegal immigration has been occurring for a long time now, probably for 200 years, and is now as American as apple pie.”
“The kids did everything right. They came here and learned the language, and many of them did not know they were even here illegally until the time came to apply for a college loan or they applied for a job and needed a Social Security number,” he said. “They can’t work and they can’t drive. This will finally allow them to save money and go to college.”
But Carlos Piovanetti, the managing director of the Immigration Legal Services of Long Island, cautions that while DACA is a step in the right direction, it is a far cry from what he believes is needed: comprehensive immigration reform. “DACA is a Band-aid,” said Mr. Piovanetti. “We need a global vision for this.”
He explained that under DACA, individuals are not entitled to health care. Further, while many express a desire to work and save money for school, Mr. Piovanetti cautioned that only legal, permanent residents are eligible to apply for federal student aid. And while in New York, in-state tuition is given to residents irrespective of their immigration status, many other states charge undocumented students out-of-state tuition rates.
“These kids want to have a family and they want to have a home,” said Mr. Piovanetti. “This is the only country many of them have known and they don’t want to have to continue to live in the shadows of anonymity for the rest of their lives.”
Harry Redlitz, who runs the Peconic Learning Center, an educational facility in Hampton Bays, cautioned that the clock is ticking — especially with November’s presidential election and the potential for a new president to overturn DACA, an executive order and not a law. Last week, Governor Mitt Romney indicated that while he wouldn’t necessarily cancel existing two-year deferrals, he doesn’t plan to continue the program under his administration.
The Peconic Learning Center, which charges between $250 and $300 to help individuals assemble their DACA paperwork (on top of the requisite $465 federal application fee), has filed two applications. In many instances, would-be applicants express what Mr. Redlitz considers a justifiable reluctance of “not wanting to rock the boat, fearing it might jeopardize the status of their parents.”
Eugene Kelley, the English as a second language director at the East Hampton School District, is similarly sympathetic. Between the elementary, middle, and high schools, he supervises more than 200 students in a district where Spanish is increasingly the primary language spoken at home, and approximately 17 percent of students were born outside of the U.S.
“I feel for them. I feel for these kids,” said Mr. Kelley. “Parents make these decisions thinking they are providing for them and making the best decisions. But the ripple effect is the undocumented child who grows into an adult and is truly without a country.”
Jorge, 18, who graduated from East Hampton High in June, submitted his DACA paperwork in early September. Later this month, he will travel to Riverhead to take pictures and submit his fingerprints for final approval.
Along with his mother, who now works in a shop in downtown East Hampton, Jorge arrived from Ecuador when he was 1. On weekends, he buses tables in Sag Harbor. Unable to work as a salaried employee, he survives on tip money alone.
Twice a week, he travels into the city to take audio engineering classes at a vocational school in midtown Manhattan. Lacking a Social Security number, he’s unable to enroll in a formal degree program.
For Jorge, a lot is riding on the DACA decision — namely, peace of mind and a sense of freedom he’s yet to feel since arriving here as a baby.
“I feel like more doors would open for me,” he said one recent evening at his family’s house in East Hampton. “I wouldn’t have to be scared of the law and I wouldn’t have to worry so much. But I’m not getting my hopes up. They twist and turn every minute.”