Young Immigrants Take Baby Steps Toward Legalization, Fulfilling American Dream

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.

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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.

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.

"Basically, they can accept you and open their doors to you as an in-state student but there's no help with funding your education," Barrera explains. "You have to come up with cash out of pocket at the start of every quarter and pay in full or you don't get to go. That's something we're still hopeful will change."

Georgia and South Carolina already prohibit undocumented students from attending their top public colleges, and even in left-leaning states like Washington, conservatives are trying to stifle reforms. Washington state lawmakers are currently considering proposals that would prohibit undocumented immigrants from obtaining drivers licenses and deny them access to in-state tuition. Obama's immigration retrofit would "staple" green cards to diplomas in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, giving undocumented people who have earned advanced degrees a leg up in the citizenship process. But on their way to getting those diplomas, immigrants with provisional legal status would remain ineligible for most federal benefits, including financial aid.

"The president has talked about a preference for Dream students, saying the line [for green cards] might not apply for them," says Rich Stolz, executive director of the immigrant rights group OneAmerica. "But at the moment, he's also taking the position of denying access to various benefits. From our perspective, it's important that these students be treated like all other students."

Beyond the uncertainties in her own academic career, Barrera is concerned about the fate of her mother, Eugenia. The White House asserts "there will be no uncertainty" that undocumented immigrants will have the opportunity to become citizens, so long as they pass a background check, learn English, and pay fines. But while lawmakers are mulling over the specifics of immigration reform, Eugenia can still be deported for a minor traffic violation or simply collecting a paycheck. Elsewhere in Washington state last week, ICE rounded up 21 men and women accused of buying and selling counterfeit work documents.

"There's still that fear she could get placed into deportation or something," Barrera says. "I don't know how to put it into words. It gets on my mind a lot. I wish things could be different for her. She would love to go to school and get her GED, but right now she can't." The Obama administrationdeported a record 1.5 million people during the president's first term in office.

Eugenia, who uses her maiden name Pachuca, split with her husband less than a year after arriving in the United States. She spoke little English at first, but managed to eke out a living as a housekeeper and raise her two daughters on her own. Eugenia says she has seen her brother deported, and her sister left jobless after an immigration raid targeted her workplace.

"Sometimes I am stuck in my house because I feel like I'm safe there," Pachuca says. "I don't do much. Always my life is between job and home and the girls. Sometimes it's not easy to live here. I've never had anything. I'd like these girls to have something--a better life, a better dream for the future."

Eugenia tells of her daughters begging her in past years to help them get fake social security cards so they could work and save for college. She refused, arguing that school was their full-time job. Barrera's sister, Adriana, currently a high school senior, recently obtained part-time work thanks to the DACA program, but she worries she, too, will have to enroll in community college instead of the more prestigious University of Washington.

"Your world falls apart when people bring it up," says Adriana. "People are like, 'So are you excited for college? Where are you going to go?' I have all these great plans, but I don't know if they'll come true. There's so much holding me back."

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, the sprawling immigration proposal is extremely vulnerable to politics. According to a New York Times analysis, just 40 of the 232 Republicans in the House come from districts that are more than 20 percent Hispanic. The Senate's proposed immigration commission would feature "governors, law enforcement officials and community leaders from border states," a group that would presumably include hardliners like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.

Despite all the potential impediments to immigration reform, Mari Barrera remains cautiously optimistic that the time has come for folks like her family to receive the treatment for which they have waited so long. "To live a life in America without status is to withhold recognition that I'm an American citizen just like anyone else," she says. "It can't be that way for the rest of my life. There has to be some change at some point."