For Young Illegal Immigrants, Social Security Cards Are Just a Small Step

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They can get temporary work permits and even go to college. But it may be a while before the children of undocumented workers can make real lives for themselves in America.

immigration3.jpgActivists outside the U.S. embassy building in Mexico City protest U.S. deportations of Mexican and Central American migrants. (Reuters)

Mari Barrera can finally get a membership at her local gym. She can also obtain a fishing license, or rent a storage locker if she acquires too much stuff. The ebullient young Hispanic woman with a shy smile may not be interested in doing any of these things, but after growing up as an undocumented immigrant, it's worth keeping track of the little things she's able to do now that she has a Social Security card.

Last year, 21-year-old Barrera and her younger sister Adriana qualified for President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants temporary work authorization and a reprieve from deportation to young people who immigrated here illegally as children. Barrera was five when she crossed the Texas border with her parents and later joined relatives living in Enumclaw, a sleepy town 50 miles south of Seattle in the shadow of Mt. Rainier.

"It's just all sorts of things," Barrera says of her new freedoms under DACA. "The big one is work, obviously, but whenever I tell people I'm undocumented they're always just completely confused and taken aback. 'What does that mean? You speak perfect English.' For the most part, people don't know much about it. They don't have any clue what it means to be undocumented or what all it prohibits you from."

Full citizenship for Barrera and her family suddenly seems like a very real possibility. In the last presidential election, after Mitt Romney suggested that illegal immigrants self-deport, 71 percent of Hispanic voters cast their ballots for Obama. As a result, Republicans are now jockeying with Democrats to be the party that receives credit for immigration reform. President Obama and a bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight" introduced similar proposals last week outlining how the estimated 11 million undocumented people currently residing in the country might someday be recognized as Americans.

"Leaders from both parties are coming together to say now is the time to find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as the land of opportunity," Obama said, introducing his proposal last week. "Now's the time to do this so we can strengthen our economy and strengthen our country's future."

But while offering hopeful signs to families like the Barreras, the plans--particularly the one put forth by the Gang of Eight--appear to fall short of offering meaningful change in several key areas. The proposals would grant "provisional legal status," but immigrants already in the process of applying for visas and other paths to citizenship would be sent to "the back of the line," waiting another 20-plus years in some instances. ="#12">

Both plans also call for increased spending on border security, even though a recent report from the American Immigration Lawyers Association found that the government surpassed the border security benchmarks set in each of the three most recent immigration bills (2006, 2007, and 2010. The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled since 2006. But before allowing the new reforms to take effect, the Senate coalition is seeking a vaguely defined commission that would decide whether border security measures had been completed.

Though advocates like Jorge Barón, director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, are encouraged by the softening tone of the national debate, they fear that conservatives will use border security as a tactic to dodge a significant immigration overhaul and, as Barón puts it, "effectively ensure that people will never get citizenship."

"Immigration enforcement to Republicans is like candy to a four-year-old," Barón says. "They'll never find that it's enough. What's concerning is this focus on having this mythical land of perfect security that is the trigger to allow people to integrate into our society. It's the proverbial putting the cart before the horse. It doesn't make sense to enforce a system that doesn't work."

Mari Barrera is living proof that even partial reforms like DACA leave much to be desired. She enrolled at the University of Washington in 2009, aiming to earn a double degree in biology and medical technology in hopes of becoming a pediatric surgeon. She commuted four hours each day to campus and worked part time as a nanny but could barely afford tuition. She was forced to withdraw after one quarter of classes because her undocumented status precluded her from most types of financial aid.

After receiving her DACA pardon last year, Barrera found work at a local paint supply store. She's taking classes at a Seattle area community college while saving up to reenroll at the university. A would-be poster child for the failed Dream Act, which sought to reward young immigrants who earn their degree with permanent residency and a path to citizenship, Barrera's case shows that undocumented youth face an uneven playing field when it comes to higher education.

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Keegan Hamilton is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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