Claudia sat waiting to see an immigration lawyer on Saturday in the gym of St. Anthony’s Parish in Fruitvale. Around her sat dozens of other applicants who were just as worried about divulging their last name. Despite her anxiety about giving the government her information, she said, clutching an application form, it was worth the risk.
“This is a chance for us to get out there and be like everybody else,” Claudia said.
All day, between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., legal volunteers and lawyers—from Centro Legal de La Raza, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach (APILO), and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights—sat at tables that fanned out across the wooden gym floor and helped people apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), the initiative President Barack Obama rolled out this summer to offer work permits to certain young undocumented migrants.
Centro Legal de La Raza attorney Laura Polstein said the event was intended both to support DACA applicants and to help those who may not qualify for the new program, which is meant only for people who are living without papers in the United States because they were brought here when they were small children.
“We are going to be assessing if people are eligible for this new form of relief,” she said referring to DACA, “But also, and we feel this is really important, helping people figure out if they are eligible for some other form of relief under immigration laws.”
A 23-year-old fast food restaurant manager in Hayward, Claudia crossed the border into the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was 6, she said. It was difficult to decide whether to apply for DACA, Claudia said; she feared her information might be used against her, since DACA is not a law and could easily be reversed by the next U.S. president. But, she said, the opportunity to change her undocumented status was ultimately worth the risk.
Last June, after President Obama announced his intention to begin this program, the United States Citizenship Immigration and Services (USCIS) unveiled the specifics of DACA, which allows people who arrived to the United States without the proper documents to apply for what’s referred to as a two-year “deferral” of deportation—meaning they can receive a legal work permit and in this way gain assurance that they will be able to work for the next two years without fear of deportation. Among other eligibility criteria, the person must have proof that he or she arrived after June 15, 2007; came to the U.S. before his or her 16th birthday; was younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012; and is currently in school or already in possession of at least a high school diploma or equivalent.
The initiative does not allow these young people to receive the same rights as U.S. citizens. For example, it is up to individual states to decide whether applicants can receive driver’s licenses. On Sunday Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will allow successful DACA applicants in California to apply for a driver’s license using their work permit.
DACA is not a guarantee against eventual deportation; and after two years, the permit can either be revoked or renewed. So far, according to the New York Times, approximately 29 applicants have been granted work permits. Yet thousands of eligible candidates have already sent in their applications. Around 155 people came to Saturday’s DACA Fair.
Polstein said DACA is a step in the right direction, but it leaves much to be desired.
“It’s not an immigration policy—it’s more of a limbo,” she said. “What it means is the government knows you’re here, but they’re deferring the action of deporting you.”
Eduardo, 27, a mechanic and computer technician from San Leandro, said he arrived with his parents from the Mexican state of Michoacán when he was three. He said he’s not asking the government to give him work or free healthcare—just an opportunity to apply for citizenship.
The government should give a chance to the people who “haven’t done anything, haven’t been violent, done drugs, and only want to go to school and work,” he said, in fluent and accentless English.
Eduardo leafed through the six-page DACA application, saying most of it was easy, but that giving a home address was of concern.
“That’s when it gets more complicated,“ he said.
Eduardo was concerned that giving his address to U.S. officials could lead authorities to track down his undocumented parents. The USCIS has declared that it will not share the application information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but some aren’t convinced.
“I hope this is only the beginning, and that they will also help adults get their papers,” said Norma Venega, 48, a Fruitvale resident who brought a young relative to apply for DACA. Venega said she was excited that undocumented young people had an opportunity to avoid deportation. But everyone should have a chance at staying in the country, she said, “because we all have the same needs.”
And while many of Oakland’s DACA applicants are Latino, Asians are also applying, according to Nikkiuyen Dinh, 28, an APILO staff attorney.
“Even though the majority of the people that are eligible will be of Latino background,” she said, “there has been a compilation of Asian Pacific Islanders” as well. Of those, the largest demographics in Alameda County were South Korean, according to Dinh. In addition, APILO has seen a number of Filipinos and Pacific Islanders, she said.
Mayor Jean Quan also passed by during the afternoon to offer her support for the event. “It gives them a chance to make a decent living in the regular economy,” she said, “and that’s pretty important for most of our neighborhoods.”
For many at the event, including both lawyers and applicants, the winner of the upcoming U.S. presidential election will play a major role in determining the success of DACA.
Hayward landscaper Martín, 21, said he is grateful to Obama for initiating DACA, and that he hopes Obama will win another term. But he is also deeply skeptical of the President’s track record, he said.
“He might help us out if he wins, but you’re never really sure,” Martín said. “There were more deportations during his term than any other term or president.”