A new federal policy starting Wednesday that will allow some young illegal immigrants to avoid deportation for the next two years is being met with excitement and uncertainty by the Southwest Florida immigrant community.
The policy applies to immigrants ages 15 to 30 who came into the United States illegally and meet several criteria, including residency for the last five years, no significant criminal record, being a student or high school graduate and others. Called “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” the policy will allow them to have drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards and hold jobs.
Christina Leddin, immigration specialist for the Amigos Center of Bonita Springs and Fort Myers, said the organization has received more than 300 calls since the initiative was announced June 15, and she has appointments booked for the next three weeks.
They are referred to as “DREAMers,” or those who would qualify for the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) if it were passed by Congress, said Ricardo Skerrett, a Fort Myers immigration attorney. The measure has been introduced repeatedly for the last 10 or 12 years and is repeatedly shelved, he said.
Nearly 1.4 million may be eligible across the country now and in the future, including 85,750 in Florida, which ranks third in the nation, according to the Immigration Policy Center, the research and policy arm of the American Immigration Council. Southwest Florida’s current 14th Congressional District has about 4,000 potential qualifiers, eighth among the state’s current 25 districts. This year’s congressional redistricting has placed Southwest Florida in Districts 19 and 17.
Miguel Angel Ugarte, 23, of Cape Coral, is an eager applicant. “That’s what I’ve been waiting for all my life,” he said Monday. Ugarte came to the United States at age 2 from Mexico.
“I did all my studies here and graduated from high school,” he said. Ugarte qualified for a university scholarship, but said he could not accept it because of lack of citizenship. Ugarte eventually was accepted at Edison because his parents had a temporary license, and earned his two-year associate degree, he said. But when it came time to graduate, Ugarte said the school at first refused to award his diploma.
After that, Ugarte picked tomatoes for a while. Other jobs included construction, landscaping and working at a cellphone store.
“I want to continue my studies and become something in this state, which is every kid’s dream,” he said.
The policy is not an avenue to permanent residency or citizenship, Skerrett said. “The president described this very, very precisely. It is a stopgap measure,” pending the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, he said.
Lucille Acken, director of immigration programs for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Venice, said she has also received numerous calls from would-be applicants. But their anticipation is tempered with an underlying uneasiness, “because of lack of clarity in the process and fearfulness of potential expiration,” she said.
They worry what will happen after two years if no comprehensive immigration law is passed, Skerrett said. If President Barack Obama wins re-election, will he continue it? If Mitt Romney wins, will his new administration rescind the policy after two years?
“The problem is there is no appeal,” Skerrett said. “It’s a grant from the government. They say yes or no. It is not a judicial process.”
If the applicant is denied, that leaves them open for deportation, particularly if they have several arrests or convictions, Skerrett said. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to. But removal proceedings could be initiated at any time.”
Prospective applicants are also worried about how the policy would affect their parents, if they also lack documentation, Leddin said. “From what we’ve been told, it shouldn’t be an issue.”
The fee also can be a problem, she said. Each application is $465, making it a hardship for families with several children. You can apply for renewal after two years, but the fee has to be paid once again, she said.
The initiative is definitely not a solution but it’s a start, Skerrett said. “I think it will give some relief to these prospective DREAMers.”