Cristián Flores, 36, has been living in the United States since she was 13 years old. Though she has been in hiding for 23 years, she proudly considers herself American.
Flores says she and her family were elated when the Obama administration announced on November 20, 2014, the executive action for undocumented immigrants. This includes expanding the population eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), allowing parents of residents and citizens to request deferred action and work permits for three years, and expanding “waivers of unlawful presence” to include the spouses and children of citizens and permanent residents.
She had not qualified for DACA, which was announced on June 15, 2012. Under DACA, those who came to the United States when they were children and meet certain guidelines can request a deferred action of two years. Flores was not eligible because of her age, so she was relieved to find out she qualified for the executive action. However, though she was moved to tears at the time of the announcement, she remains skeptical of the plan’s specifics.
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“It’s hard to believe, and it’s hard to be hopeful. I’m teaching myself not to expect the worst,” Flores told Truthout. “The bottom line is that this is only temporary relief. You’re safe as long as the executive order is in place. I’m afraid I’m going to lose everything that’s meaningful. I’ve lived here longer than I lived in Mexico.”
Her brother, despite being married to a US citizen, was deported in 2008 after ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raided his house. He had not filed papers with immigration because of financial obstacles, so he was still at risk for deportation. Flores and her family spent four years working with a lawyer, filling out paper work and raising funds for all the various legal fees.
Living without documents has affected every part of her life. “Part of the status is that you can’t really forget it,” she said. “I memorized a speech and excuse if I got pulled over. One of my main fears was driving.” She also said that she had decided to hide in recycling cans if ICE came to her home.
Though Flores holds a master’s in fine arts degree in creative writing, she works at a donut shop and cleans houses to make ends meet. She says her last quarter of graduate school was difficult because she couldn’t afford grad school or apply to jobs. Because she was not eligible for financial aid, she struggled to pay for her MFA degree with cash, credit cards and help from family. She is, however, relieved to finally have a license and drive without fear now that the state of California accepts applications from undocumented people.
Victoria, 39, a student who lives in California and prefers we don’t use her real name for safety reasons, has a similar story. She immigrated to the United States in 1980 when she was 4 years old. For many years, Victoria had no idea how different her life was going to be as an undocumented person. It wasn’t until she became an adult that she fully realized the challenges she faced. “I don’t want the whole world to know that I don’t have documents,” she said.
Victoria says she tries to stay quiet and act normal so she doesn’t raise any suspicions. She’s currently studying to receive her associate’s degree from a community college, and she has to use a different identification number that indicates that she’s undocumented. On top of that, she has to pay for all of her tuition because she doesn’t qualify for financial aid. Like Flores, she had also been driving without a license, which causes her a lot of anxiety.
Victoria says the recent freeze in enrollment that was put into place on February 17, 2015, after Andrew Hanen, a district judge, ordered an injunction was a huge disappointment to her. She had all of her paperwork prepared and had been working with a lawyer to get her relief processed when the freeze was announced. Victoria says she planned on graduating this summer and was excited about career plans. She has been waiting for 20 years to be in the United States without fear of deportation, and is the only one left of her five siblings who is currently undocumented.
“It’s something I wanted with all my heart,” Victoria told Truthout in her native Spanish, referring to the executive action. “I’m not that hopeful. There isn’t a lot of movement right now. I haven’t heard of anything.”
Fred Tsao, policy director at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, says many undocumented people are concerned that the relief provided by President Obama is only temporary and can be taken away eventually, especially when a new president is elected. Many also fear that that giving information to the government can possibly put them in a more vulnerable position.
He believes that the enrollment freeze provides the opportunity to save more money and get all their documentation prepared, and that legitimate concerns should not take away from the fact that this is a significant step forward. “This will be an improvement for millions of people,” he said.
His coalition is currently helping immigration organizations develop materials and trainings to disseminate information to communities, Tsao says. For 10 years, their New Americans Initiative has also helped people in the community become US citizens with free assistance, including workshops, referrals to attorneys and financial help, but the new Illinois governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, is threatening to cut the program.
Additionally, some families can’t afford the $465 fee required for the application, says Ambrosio Martínez, program coordinator of Instituto del Progreso Latino in Chicago. If a few siblings qualify, for instance, it might be difficult for the family to pay all of the combined fees. Martínez also says that some undocumented people aren’t sure if they want to give out information to see if they qualify for fear of being exposed.
At Instituto del Progreso Latino, staff help members of the community with the application process and conduct a legal review to make sure they qualify for the relief. The staff act as attorneys so they get copies of the applicant’s documents, keep track of the application and provide referrals in case they need legal advice. “We have heard a couple of concerns about scams,” Martínez said. “One attorney was charging a woman $1,500 until someone referred her to our organization. We charge $200 for the process, but they’re private businesses, so they can charge what they want.”
Martínez also points out that “notarios públicos,” or notaries public, are not licensed or registered with immigration. One of their clients was charged $800, but her application was never sent and was left in limbo for eight months. Not only that, Martínez says these notaries don’t inform the community of the risks they’re taking, and charge them high prices.
The reality is that even people whose applications are accepted will continue to be undocumented, Martínez notes. The only guarantee is that they won’t be deported in the next two years. They will also be given a Social Security number and work permit.
“What’s going to happen when the new president comes in?” Martínez said. “The new president can give residency or take it away completely. It would be next to impossible to deport everyone. It’s likely that they won’t do anything too overwhelming for the system, but there is no guarantee one way or the other.”