A Catch for Undocumented Immigrants in Recent Reforms

Pena had racked up receipts that day; they just weren't in his name. He'd made several calls on his cell phone, but the H2O prepaid plan was under the name of his stepfather, who is a legal resident. Pena had used a debit card to take money out before he'd boarded a bus to Orchard Beach in the Bronx, but it was also under his stepdad's name. What frustrated Pena most was that his boss had urged him to open a bank account; instead Pena had stashed cash in a safe he'd bought at Home Depot that looked like an Ajax cleaner so it wouldn't stand out among his cleaning supplies. "I was just scared to put my name on anything," he explains. That had seemed prudent. Now it was keeping him from the program that would have allowed him to restart a life that had seemed halted for three years.

The only evidence that tangentially placed Pena in New York on June 15th was Facebook. His profile page listed him as a resident of the Bronx, and he'd posted some pictures of himself in June. While it was an unorthodox choice for submission as part of a federal application, many DREAMers had sent in posts to prove residency. But Pena's posts didn't include an identifiable landmark, and in any case, Jessica Greenberg, an attorney at the African Services Committee in Harlem who took on Pena's case, was wary of resorting to social media. Posts could be altered, which the federal government was, of course, aware of.

Plus, the standards for the June 15th evidence were higher than the rest of the application. The Department of Homeland Security was accepting affidavits, or letters, from people like employers, clergy, and former teachers attesting that the applicant had worked for them, or attended their church, or sat in their classroom in the States. But the government was not accepting affidavits for the June 15th date, to insure that immigrants who had left the country before the change in policy wouldn't return to take advantage of the new opportunity. So even though Pena's boss had offered to write him a letter, it wouldn't do him any good.

The fact that an escape from Pena's undocumented netherworld had materialized, and yet remained inaccessible was, in his words, "crazy making." It had never been easy to get through his days doing non-union construction jobs, but after he reached an impasse on his DACA application it became more painful. "You have this feeling that your life is never going anywhere," he says, "even when you're working seven days week and working really hard." Pena would get texts in the evening summoning him to a site at 5 AM the next morning; then, for 12 to 14 hours he would carry 80 pounds of concrete on his back and stir cement under a hot sun. At one point he'd seen an out from the job he'd come to loathe: Pena is a self-taught technology whiz and the owner of a rug cleaning company approached him about running IT for the small business. But when the man had discovered Pena didn't have a social security number, he withdrew the offer.

Greenberg encouraged Pena to keep mulling over his whereabouts around the time of the President's announcement "Don't worry about June 15 -- look at the month of June," she wrote him in an email. "Try to recount what you were doing." Pena racked his brain and kept coming up short. He did, however, take steps so that if he were to find that elusive receipt, he could apply for DACA right away. One of the program requirements for those without a high school diploma is to have a GED or proof that you are working towards one; in January of 2013, he quit construction work and enrolled in GED Plus in the Bronx. Pena wasn't the only DACA-eligible immigrant who was spurred to resume his education: Enrollment in GED classes skyrocketed to the point where New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn asked for an additional allocation of $13 million to make sure programs could accommodate the influx of students.

Pena also started compulsively hoarding receipts for documentation purposes, finally opened that bank account, and took out a credit card. It might not make a difference to his DACA application, but if broader immigration reform passed, he wasn't going to miss out because he lacked some slippery slips of paper.

The bipartisan Senate bill, which was introduced in April, in fact set a lower bar for proving residency than the DACA application demanded. It required just one piece of evidence showing residency before December 31, 2011. Pena wouldn't have any trouble passing muster. But there was no assurance that the requirement would be part of the bill, or--for that matter--that the bill would become law.

As it turned out, Pena's fate didn't hinge on the upcoming Washington debate. After queries from this reporter and Pena, Greenberg reviewed his application again and thought of an unexplored angle. Pena had said he hadn't been to the doctor, but what about his daughter? He remembered that he had in fact taken her for a checkup on June 18th. "I don't know where my head was," he said afterwards. "I just didn't think of it." Records corroborated Pena had been present at the pediatrician's office on nine occasions, including that seminal June date. Just around the time the Senate bill was announced, Pena put his DACA application in the mail, along with the $465 fee.

While his approval hasn't yet come through, Pena already felt his world expanding. He was on the verge of testing out of the GED program and planned to enroll in community college to become a licensed practical nurse. And then there were the non-professional opportunities that would come with legal residency. He hadn't been on a plane since he'd come to the United States from the Dominican Republic; he longed to travel there, and see cities like Sao Paolo, which he'd glimpsed in a documentary. "When I get on a plane," he says, "I honestly think I'm going to cry."

The DACA program won't lead to citizenship. It provides temporary work authorization and reprieve from deportation in two-year increments. Signs were, though, that with conservatives like House Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) coming out in favor of the DREAM Act, a version of it would become law, either as a stand-alone bill or as part of comprehensive immigration reform. With his years as an undocumented immigrant appearing to come to a close, Pena regarded the period philosophically. He felt fortunate not just to have met the mix of requirements for DACA, but also for the perspective living in the shadows had provided. "When people say they could never do a minimum wage job at MacDonald's, that it's too hard, I think, really?" says Pena. "I've seen and done a lot worse. You learn a lot, going through what I went through. You learn how brutal it can be."

Presented by

Alexandra Starr

Alexandra Starr is an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation.

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