Undocumented Immigrants Prepare Applications For Deportation Relief

By Jude Joffe-Block
August 15, 2012

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
Yaneth Escorcia, 28, holds the stack of records she has assembled for her deferred action application on the ASU campus on April 14.

PHOENIX -- The federal government began accepting applications Wednesday from young undocumented immigrants requesting temporary relief from deportation. The initiative is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and more than one million people who were brought to this country illegally as children could presently qualify.

Two months ago when President Barack Obama first announced the program, critics said it was an election year ploy and called it a backdoor amnesty.

But for Yaneth Escorcia –- who is 28 and undocumented -- it was the move she was hoping for. Now Escorcia is scrambling to assemble a paper trail of her life in order to apply.

“I want them to know that I am ready, that I completely qualify for the deferred action,” Escorcia said as she was about to enter the Arizona State University registrar's office on Tuesday for one of the final records she needs. “You know I don't want to leave any room for doubts.”

Inside the registrar's office, Escorcia lined up at the counter with her 4-year-old son in her arms to ask for a copy of her transcript.

Escorcia already had one copy, but wanted a new one with her name spelled the exact same way it appears on her Mexican birth certificate — just in case. Outside, she flipped through an overflowing red folder full of records.

They date back to when she first arrived in Arizona, at the age of 13.

“I think I even have my dog's shot records because it has my name and address and date,” Escorcia said.

All together those documents show Escorcia meets a long list of federal requirements for the renewable two-year deferred action. She came to the U.S. before she was 16, she’s younger than 31, she has a high school diploma, she has been here longer than five years, and she was here when the program was announced.

Plus she has a clean criminal record.

In her pile of documents, her school transcripts show almost perfect grades.

“I really love going to school, you know, I think I am going to be a student all my life,” Escorcia said.

Yet Escorcia had to quit ASU short of graduation. Arizona voters passed a law in 2006 that forced undocumented students to pay out-of-state tuition, and Escorcia couldn’t afford to continue, even with the scholarship she had been awarded.

Now she works for herself, making cakes and doing other odd jobs. If the government approves her application, she could get a work permit for the next two years.

“I want to save money to finish my degree and also to open my business,” Escorcia said.

What she won't get is legal status or a path to citizenship. That's the main difference between this administrative action by the Obama administration and the DREAM Act, a bill that is stalled in Congress.

Once Escorcia's application is complete, she plans to get it checked by an attorney at one of the several community forums happening in the Valley before she sends it in to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service with the $465 fee.

Not all young immigrants have are applying have the school record Escorcia does. Jose Penalosa is an immigration attorney who has been busy recently.

“What I see most common right now, is a lot of students unfortunately did not complete high school,” Penalosa said.

But they aren’t excluded from applying. The official application form and guidelines released by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service on Tuesday indicate that immigrants without a high school diploma or its equivalent can apply, as long as they enroll in a GED or vocational program that meets the government’s standards.

“So a lot of kids right now are scurrying to get their GED,” Penalosa said.

That’s exactly what 27-year-old Elizabeth Perez is doing. She came from Mexico without papers as a young girl.

She got pregnant in ninth grade and felt pressured to leave school. She has been raising a family ever since. Now she is excited Obama’s offering is available to people in her situation.

“Because they are giving you an option to finish your high school,” Perez said from the home she shares with her husband and three sons. “You can show that people that doesn’t want you to be in this state, you can prove them that you really want to be here, that you really are a good person.”

But most GED classes are full. Perez found out the free course offered through the Maricopa County Community College District is not open to undocumented students.

“It’s not been easy, it has been hard and sometimes you get upset and start crying,” Perez said.

Still, she's learned the community college’s online course is an option, although spots are limited. And one local organization that offers GED classes, Chicanos Por la Causa, has had so many requests lately from young immigrants, it may add more classes.

At the same time, Perez knows other immigrants who qualify for deferred action, but aren’t eager to apply. They worry giving their information to the government could be risky.

And no one knows exactly what the fate of this program will be if Mitt Romney is elected president in November.