Free to be an immigrant, at least for now

ablythe@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2012 

Armando Bernabe felt a nagging worry after opening his first letter from the Department of Homeland Security. The Lee County Senior High School student, illegally brought to this country from Mexico by his parents 15 years ago, was instructed to go to Raleigh to get fingerprinted.

The 17-year-old received the letter because he was among the early wave of immigrants to step forward and let the government know they are here without proper documentation. They’ve done so in hopes of winning a two-year reprieve from deportation under a new Obama administration program created to help a generation of undocumented immigrants who grew up in the U.S.

But some worried about stepping out of the shadows into an uncertain twilight. Bernabe shook as he examined the letter.

“I was like: ‘Is this good or bad?’ ” the Sanford resident recalled this week. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

The high school senior mulled the possibilities, good and bad, as his uncle drove him to his appointment in mid-September. But he steeled himself, remembering why he had applied for the program.

“I was like, ‘I will take any chance I get to go to college,’ ” Bernabe said.

Two weeks later, an envelope filled with hope for a brighter future arrived at Bernabe’s home. Inside was the blue card bearing Bernabe’s fingerprint and photo that assures him that not only can he remain in this country for two years without fear of deportation, but also apply for a Social Security number.

Immigration lawyers says its unclear whether a Social Security number will provide the disability and retirement benefits that everyday Americans get, but having a number opens the door for more job opportunities. It also provides access to the kinds of ID cards that landlords and utility companies often require of young people starting out on their own.

Bernabe is a high school senior who likes football, participates in clubs and acknowledges without prompting that he could be more dedicated to his studies. Now, instead of fretting about what a clandestine illegal immigrant life might hold for him after graduation, he dreams of getting a job in retail with decent pay that he can put toward study of criminology at a nearby community college and eventually a public university.

“My whole high school years, I’ve been worrying about what am I going to do,” Bernabe said. “This means a lot because I can finally be what I want to be.”

Numbers uncertain

Immigration lawyers and advocates say it is difficult to know how many people in North Carolina are eligible for the program that buoyed Bernabe with new hope about his future.

To qualify, illegal immigrants must be younger than 31, as of June 16, and come to the United States before they were 16. They must show that they have lived here continuously since June 15, 2007, and be currently in school or have earned a high school diploma or have been honorably discharged from the military. They must pass a background check to show they do not have a significant criminal record or pose a threat to national security.

Between Aug. 15 and Sept. 13, 82,361 of more than 100,000 requests had been accepted nationally for processing, according to Department of Homeland Security data. By mid-September, 63,717 appointments had been scheduled for fingerprinting and the collection of other information from applicants for biometric processing. Twenty-nine requests had been completed.

The figures are not broken down by state, but nationally they were a far cry from the high estimates of 250,000 that officials said they were prepared to handle in the first month.

In North Carolina, immigration attorneys and charitable organizations working with immigrants interested in the new status expect the numbers to grow.

Many of the early wave of applicants were high school students who could turn to school records for quick proof of their whereabouts and length of stay in this country.

Those who are more than a few years removed from schools have scrambled to document an undocumented life. For those in their mid to late 20s, it can be difficult to produce an array of documents to demonstrate proof of residency since 2007, a requirement of the program.

While many immigrants have amassed a mosaic of documents similar to citizens of this country – school transcripts, bank statements and medical records, others have lived more furtively.

They might not have used their names on utility bills or leases that could offer a trace of their existence, and employers who have been paying people under the table might not be willing to risk legal peril to help an employee get deferred-action status.

“It can be very difficult,” said Marty Rosenbluth, an immigration attorney in Durham.

Reaching for help

Because those kinds of cases take more work and might require the aid of attorneys well versed in such challenges, many groups have focused their initial help on applicants with histories similar to Bernabe’s.

Bernabe sought guidance through workshops offered by the N.C. Justice Center and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh.

Both organizations have been working with immigrant groups to advocate for their rights and programs that could offer a more stable family life.

The workshops are done in two stages – the first offering an overview and the second to guide people through the application process.

Kathleen Walsh, executive director of the Catholic Charities organization that reached out to immigration populations in the eastern part of the state, said more than 1,200 people had participated in the first-phase workshops to date, and 800 had completed applications.

“For many people this is a sign of hope for a more stable family life,” Walsh said.

Rosenbluth, who has been working with El Centro Hispano to help applicants, emotional and uplifting to see parents come in with teenagers who won’t have to lead clandestine lives.

“The kids are ecstatic, don’t get me wrong,” Rosenbluth said. “But the parents – since they came here to build a better life for their kids – and they come with all these documents they’ve saved – they’re even more ecstatic.”

That was the case when Bernabe opened the envelope that contained the news that caused tears of joy and relief to flow.

“I was speechless,” Bernabe said. “I just hugged my mom.”

As the Department of Homeland Security sends out additional notices similar to the one that prompted such glee in the Bernabe home, immigration lawyers and advocates brace for a wave of new challenges to emerge as they navigate uncharted waters.

In North Carolina, there already are questions about whether the new status also comes with an open road to a state driver’s license. Department of Motor Vehicle officials say two-year licenses can be issued as long as the applicant has all the forms required of a non-U.S. citizen.

There also has been a resumption of a heated debate about whether the community colleges and public universities in North Carolina can continue to designate these residents of more than a year as out-of-state students who are charged higher tuition and only eligible to compete for a smaller percentage of enrollment slots than they would if they were counted among the state’s residents.

Some have an uneasiness about what changes in the political world might mean for their status.

“It lasts for two years and no one knows what happens after that,” said Lisa Chun, a senior attorney with the N.C. Justice Center.

But Bernabe is happy to live in a moment that he hopes will extend to a lifetime.

“It’s a blessing,” he said.

The Rev. Robert Ippolito, a priest at St. Stephens The First Martyr Catholic Church in Sanford, was part of the team that helped Bernabe with his application.

When he heard of their success, the priest mentioned Bernabe at Spanish Mass and then instructed the teen to reach out to others at his high school who had not yet submitted applications. “I said to him, ‘Make sure you let the other kids know,’ ” Ippolito said.

Ippolito says someone comes to his office or calls every day with questions about the program. So far there have been no rejections logged in this state or nationally. Success stories are spreading.

“So many of them would finish high school and hang around the house,” Ippolito said. “This is creating a sense of enthusiasm, of at least ‘Now we have something.’ ”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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