How DREAMers Made the Deferred-Action Program a Reality

Thousands have applied since the program began in August

Oct. 15, 2012— -- Neidi Dominguez, an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Mexico as a child in 1997 and went on to graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz with honors in 2008, has been at the forefront of the fight for immigration reform.

A vocal member of the DREAM Team Los Angeles, a youth-led, pro-immigrant organization, Dominguez, 26, and a handful of others began a campaign in March 2011 to bring some form of relief to undocumented youth in the country.

They got a glimmer of hope this June, when the U.S. government announced that it would grant two-year, renewable deportation reprieves to some undocumented youth beginning in August 2012.

Two months have passed since the program known as DACA was launched, and in that time, thousands of undocumented young people have submitted applications.

A barrage of numbers and dates surround the program: Applicants must be at least 15 when they apply, they must have lived in the country continuously since mid-2007, and it's estimated that more than one million young people might be impacted.

But how did a group who can't even vote insert themselves into the political process, and what does their future look like?

Call and Response

Dominguez and the DREAM Team Los Angeles took their campaign public last October, openly asking the White House for administrative relief for undocumented immigrant youth, and staging a sit-in at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutor's office in Los Angeles.

The group wanted to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano or Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, "people we knew the president was listening to," Dominguez said.

While that didn't happen exactly as they hoped, they did receive a letter from the Los Angeles regional director of ICE. In it, he outlined the administration's prosecutorial discretion policy -- the idea that some immigration cases, particularly those involving violent criminals and repeat offenders, should be prioritized over others, such as students -- and its commitment to look at each possible deportation case individually. The letter, said Dominguez, indicated that the administration would not be able to offer relief to large numbers of people.

DREAM Team Los Angeles disagreed, however, and began its own legal research to show that deferred action had been granted to groups in the past. For example, undocumented widows and widowers who would otherwise have been denied the right to remain in the country following the death of their citizen spouses have been granted deferred action.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) began promoting what Dominguez calls a "watered-down DREAM Act," and his team reached out to United We Dream, a network of immigration organizations such as the DREAM Team Los Angeles, saying he wanted to talk to DREAMers.

"Our response to him was we're going to work with whoever is going to help, and work with us to grant relief," Dominguez said.

The team was simultaneously pressuring the White House for administrative action.

But time passed, and with little movement on Rubio's act and no word from the White House, the team published a letter signed by about 100 law professors saying the president did have the legal authority to take administrative action in La Opinión, a Spanish-language daily newspaper. Then, in mid-June, undocumented youth began doing sit-ins inside Obama campaign offices across the country, from California to Florida.

On the day the deferred-action announcement finally came, on June 15 of this year, the team blocked the street in front of the USCIS office in Los Angeles. During that action, Napolitano issued a memorandum announcing that some undocumented youth would be able to apply for temporary deportation relief.

Elated, the team made its way to the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles to watch Obama deliver a speech on the program from the White House Rose Garden.

"One thing we really paid attention to when he gave that speech," said Dominguez, "was how he chose not to excuse it or argue for it because of economics or something. His reasoning was, 'It's the right thing to do.' Even though, of course, we feel like there is so much more to be done, we listened to that, and that was interesting that that was his public line."

According to USCIS, the agency received nearly 180,000 applications for deferred action between the program's start date on August 15 and October 10. About 4,600 have been approved. United We Dream said during a recent conference call it hosted that the organization was able to offer upwards of 8,000 DREAMers information and help with the application through dozens of clinics and webinars.

Mariaelena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said during the call that she's been working closely with USCIS and believes "this is a model of government at its best."

Hincapie praised the agency for being transparent and efficient, but cautioned that the program only offers "a reprieve from deportation."

Professor David Koelsch, an associate law professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, and director of the Immigration Law Clinic there, agrees.

Koelsch, who has helped about 300 people apply, says the immigration debate needs a dose of realism.

"To me, it seems like people's expectations on the high end and the low end are both out of whack," he said regarding what Romney's approach to immigration reform might be if he is elected president.

"And more people got deported under President Obama than under the previous three [presidents]," Koelsch added.

He also pointed out that Congress does "control the purse strings" and said he thinks it's likely the House will remain Republican, meaning even if Obama is reelected, "no matter what he wants to do, there's still a limit to what he can do."

Where Do We Go From Here?

Immigration reform has not been a major topic on the campaign trail. Although it is not something either candidate will be able to avoid long term.

Deeply immersed in a neck-and-neck race for the White House and struggling to appeal to the conservative voters who make up his party's loyal base, Romney has relied on advice from immigration hardliners such as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Kobach authored Arizona's controversial immigration bill, and he's backed everything from a fence along the nation's southern border to the E-Verify system, which allows employers to check whether their employees are eligible to work in the country.

And while strict immigration rhetoric appealed to voters in the campaign primary, it hasn't played as well in the general election and it's unlikely to appeal to the general public if Romney is elected in November.

"If you compare the 2012 electorate to 2008 or '04, people are much more accepting of undocumented immigrants now," said Koelsch. "It's really kind of a sea change. And it goes across states. It's been kind of a slow education process -- people are finally catching on that undocumented immigrants are not these evil people, and there has to be a pragmatic solution."

While Romney has said he will respect the reprieves granted under Obama, he has vowed not to continue the deferred action program, saying he will advocate a more "permanent" solution instead.

But Romney has not specified exactly what that would look like, leaving many undocumented immigrants with a sense of general unease about placing themselves on what amounts to a government list of people in the country illegally.

The future of immigration reform is still uncertain, even should Obama be reelected.

The president vowed "to have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I'm promoting," but that never materialized, a fact Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos pointed out to Obama during a Univision "Meet the Candidate" event in Miami last month.

While Obama has said he plans to focus on the topic, and voiced his support for a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, any timeline and specifics are still unclear.

'I Have to Take the Chance.'

For now, DREAMERS will hold on to what they've been given. Koelsch has seen some approvals for students he's helped apply to DACA start to trickle in. While a few were returned as incomplete -- some were missing a recent address, for example -- Koelsch says those applicants will be allowed to re-submit their paperwork, and he has not heard of anybody that's actually been denied.

Carlos Amador, another member of the DREAM Team Los Angeles, came to the United States from Mexico in 1999. He was granted permanent residency last year, and has devoted countless hours to helping other young undocumented immigrants in the Los Angeles area. During two mass application drives, Amador said, about 3,500 youth and their families turned up for help understanding and applying for deferred action."We've been bombarded with questions and requests," Amador said. "It's been busy times for a couple of months now."

While he doesn't know exactly how many people he's helped apply or how many have had their applications approved, Amador has heard from some who have already had their biometric appointments scheduled. The Department of Homeland Security had indicated the process could take up to six months, but many applicants have been pleasantly surprised by the process.

Although the foray into the public eye -- the process has been closely watched by media and politicians on both sides of the aisle -- has proved a new experience for many.

"There's a combination of fear and excitement," Amador said, adding that many youth have spent their lives trying to fly under the radar. "This is the first time many have shared their undocumented status."

Amador said he and other helpers are not advising people to apply for deferred action unless they are confident the applicants fit the requirements. Even so, they will hold out hope that Nov. 6 does not change this.

"We're willing to fight, though," Amador said, adding that he thinks the program will continue as long as youth continue to put pressure on government leaders.

Karla Campos, a 26-year-old undocumented mother, recently decided to go back to school after dropping out, and she says the deferred action program offers a huge incentive to stay enrolled despite the difficulties.

"Now, with all that is going's a big opportunity to make a difference in my future and my kids' future and be able to provide for them," Campos said. "It's always been on my head, but with this, of course, I have to take the chance."

Koelsch says that while he's seen "a few" young people decide to return to school in order to apply for deferred action, he thinks "it's a blip, not really a trend."

He added that a teacher friend in Detroit hasn't seen a spike either.

"It's kind of hard," Campos said, "because I've got to go way back and try to get papers to prove I've been here for so long, but I think I qualify and I will be able to get everything."

Dominguez thinks it's worth the effort, and encouraged young DREAMers to get involved.

"From the perspective of someone who can't vote, it starts with if you can vote, go vote," she said, "but there are also ways, at all levels, to stay engaged."