President Barack Obama’s executive order to spare nearly 5 million immigrants from deportation survived its first courtroom battle two days before Christmas.
A federal judge rejected an Arizona sheriff’s lawsuit challenging the president’s authority to use “deferred action” to implement enforcement policies and priorities for immigrants in this country illegally.
But a lawsuit filed by the Texas governor-elect and governors or attorneys general from 19 other states, including North Carolina, is still on the docket.
As legal analysts and others parse U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell’s Dec. 23 ruling and its effects on other legal challenges to Obama’s executive action, a 2-year-old program offering deportation relief to young immigrants provides a glimpse of the promise and drawbacks that might lie ahead for those who might qualify for the plan announced by the White House on Nov. 20.
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The promise is this: Social Security numbers, work permits, driver’s licenses and a sense of security, if only for two years.
The pitfalls? Immigration rights advocates contend that millions of young immigrants eligible for the program did not apply for fear that they would get parents, uncles, aunts and others close to them in trouble for being in this country illegally.
Critics argue that such programs reward immigrants who entered this country through improper channels, and that’s an unfair advantage to those who wait for legal residency status.
The critics also contend that the millions in this country illegally take jobs from U.S. citizens and take advantage of social welfare systems without contributing their fair share in taxes and fees.
The president’s newest plan includes work permits and a temporary stay of deportation for immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years and have U.S.-born children.
It expands on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that started in summer 2012 and has offered a two-year deportation reprieve to more than 700,000 young people brought to the United States as children and in this country illegally.
Nearly 20,000 DACA recipients are from North Carolina and approved for the temporary protection as long as they stay out of criminal trouble. According to Brookings Institute data, 6,218 of those recipients in this state had been renewed by the end of November. Many others have filed renewal applications.
Carla Mena, a 24-year-old from Peru who has lived in Raleigh since 2001, took advantage of the program two years ago and is waiting to find out whether she will be renewed.
She has been able to get a Social Security number, renew her North Carolina driver’s license and let go of worries about being stopped by police for some minor traffic offense that could bring major immigration problems.
Mena, a 2012 graduate of Meredith College and a senior research assistant at the Duke University Global Health Institute’s Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research, said her experience might not be typical for many DACA participants. But it highlights the advantages, disadvantages and mindset of many immigrants in this country without necessary visas and documents.
Mena was 11 when her father, an accountant, left their home in Lima, Peru, for brighter employment opportunities.
In the Peruvian capital, Mena’s father was dismissed from his job by corporate employers who could bring in younger workers at lower pay.
“Once that happened and he lost his job at a big company, we had to sort of just scrimp by,” Mena said.
He tried juggling several jobs in Peru before getting a 10-year visa to the United States.
He left the South American country months before his wife, daughter and younger son. He landed in Greensboro and got work on an overnight shift. The family followed about half a year later in 2001.
Mena and her brother, four years younger, had five-year visas. The adults had visas that allowed them to stay for 10 years.
But they all were supposed to return to Peru periodically, and their visas became invalid when they did not meet the requirements.
Not only would return visits have been expensive, Mena’s father would have had to take extensive leave from his job in this country, and his employers would not have looked kindly on that, she said.
After the 9/11 attacks, Mena’s father lost his job in Greensboro when his employer closed down several shifts and laid off workers.
The Menas moved to Raleigh, where opportunities were brighter for them.
Mena and her brother had gone to private school in Peru and knew English from their studies there. Because of that, they were not put into English as a second language programs in the public schools here, an experience that set them apart from other new immigrants.
“I feel like I have had a different experience from my fellow Dreamers,” Mena said, referring to others with the same protected status.
Her father worked at McDonald’s restaurants around Raleigh, rising to the level of store manager. But his invalid visa became a problem when E-verify programs were put in place and employees had to show documents that help employers determine whether they are here legally.
In those instances, he had to leave his job and hunt for a new one.
Mena has heard the debate over immigration and the comments from some who contend immigrants are taking jobs from Americans.
“There are two sides to my answer,” she said.
One is more general about the jobs that immigrants do, picking cotton, tobacco and other crops or doing low-wage construction jobs.
“A lot of jobs picked up by immigrants – they’re jobs that no one wants to do,” Mena said.
The other side to her answer touches on the diverse face of this country and the need for the workforce to reflect that.
“I understand the frustration,” Mena said. “But we need to represent what the society is showing right now. There are communities coming up on the radar, and we need to represent those communities.”
Mena talks often about how her experience as an immigrant has been different from others’, but she also cautions against buying into what she calls stereotypes.
A common misconception about immigration is that most foreign-born people living in the United States are here illegally.
Of the more than 31 million foreign-born people living in the United States in 2009, 20 million were either citizens or legal residents. Of those who did not have authorization to be here, about 45 percent entered the country legally and let their papers expire.
That’s what happened with Mena.
As she awaits DACA renewal, her brother and parents have filled out applications and papers to change their residency status through other means.
Setting an example
Mena makes it her mission to offer a positive perspective to the immigration debate not only through her words, but through action as well.
On the day after Christmas, she lined up with many at the American Red Cross to give blood, something she does often to give back to her community.
She started doing volunteer work in high school, while driving her mother to volunteer jobs.
Mena flourished as a student in Raleigh’s public schools, taking honors classes and Advanced Placement courses at Sanderson High School and winning scholarships to Meredith University.
In North Carolina, DACA students are not eligible for in-state tuition at the public universities – a financial obstacle that puts higher education out of reach for many.
But Mena was not going to let tuition and fees become a barrier to her hopes and dreams.
“Really, it was my senior year in high school when it hit me: I have to go to a private school,” Mena said.
Meredith, just a short drive from her Raleigh home, was one of the schools she thought would be a good match. She sent in her application, then worked for scholarships and financial aid that would make it possible for her to study biology.
She juggled schoolwork and jobs, and lived at home with her parents and brother. She often cooked for the family and drove her mother to doctor appointments for the chronic migraines she suffered.
“At some point, I had like three jobs,” Mena said. “There was a lot of juggling with time. You don’t have room for error.”
In summer 2012, on the anniversary of her exodus from Peru, Obama made an announcement that buoyed her optimism.
“Dreamers,” as the young immigrants in this country illegally called themselves, would be able to pursue jobs and higher education with Social Security cards, employment numbers and the driver’s licenses and other privileges that come with such residency status.
“This came at the perfect time because I’m thinking, I just graduated, I wanted to work and most companies do E-verify,” Mena said. “There was a lot of anxiety about what am I going to need now, what am I going to have to show now to get this, would I expose my parents, would I finally be able to renew my license.”
Her parents encouraged her to pursue DACA status, which has opened doors with employers, though she still has hurdles.
“I may at some point have to travel for work,” Mena said. “I tell them I have to have permission to go to Peru or Bolivia. I can’t just pick up and go. But being able to tell them that, and being comfortable that I won’t be deported, has been a relief.”
As she waits to find out whether that relief will be extended two more years, Mena also dreams of graduate school and getting a Ph.D. in public health. She hopes to shift toward policy development.
“To me, it’s just an opportunity to continue to contribute to North Carolina,” Mena said.