Sixty people are gathered in the small conference room of the East Boston Ecumenical Community Council on a Friday night. Some arrived with small children, currently playing across the narrow hallway in a daycare room with bachata in the background. After a brief introduction, lawyer Michael Martel walks to the front of the room and addresses the crowd in Spanish. On the large notepad beside him, he writes tonight’s topic: “Deferred Action,” President
Obama’s recent executive order granting two-year work permits to young undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements.
The basic requirements include: must have lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; must have arrived before age 16 and currently be under 31; must be enrolled in high school, have a diploma or GED, or be enrolled in the Coast Guard or military by time of application; and no significant criminal record. In return, they get a two-year work permit and qualify for a driver’s licenses.
Deferred Action isn’t amnesty, nor is it the long-sought DREAM Act, which contains many more requirements and results in a true path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, not just a temporary status.
“There’s about 1.7 million people [nationwide] potentially eligible for Deferred Action,” says Yessica Lopez, General Coordinator the Student Immigrant Movement chapter in East Boston, quoting Pew Hispanic statistics. “About 950,000 qualify now. And 2.7 million will be left ineligible.” SIM is a statewide organization made up of young immigrant students of various residency statuses—Lopez herself is an undocumented college student.
SIM, which has fought for the DREAM Act for years, will be conducting their own Deferred Action application workshops
in areas like East Boston, Lawrence, and New Bedford, complete with legal counsel from the Greater Boston Legal Center.
Some students are also in attendance for the EBECC information session, like Tania Hernandez, a driven young woman with college and career in mind. The high school senior arrived at the EBECC fresh from shadowing an anesthesiologist, her dream job. “I saw two surgeries, it was so cool,” she says, beaming.
Earlier this year she won a gold medal in swimming at the Bay State Games. “It’s not the Olympics, but, you know, it’s pretty big for those of us there.”
She plans to study medicine and has applied to all Ivy League schools.
“I want to become the best,” she says. “That’s something my grandpa taught me.”
Her family is originally from Mexico, but Hernandez doesn’t remember much of the country.
“I’ve been here since I was five years old. Most of my memories are here. All of my friends are here.” Her family hasn’t visited Mexico because they worry that they’ll be denied re-entrance to the U.S. Her parents have considered moving back, but decided to stay for their daughter’s sake.
“It was a huge sacrifice. They left everything they had behind for their kids. I want to make them proud, I want to make them see their sacrifice is worth it, My dad is extremely excited.”
The conference room is full of parents well over the cutoff age asking questions and taking notes on behalf of their children.
One couple sits in back, listening to Martel with determined faces and occasionally asking questions. Their son and daughter, young teenagers, look bored.
“We need to take advantage of this opportunity,” says the mother in Spanish. “[My kids] now have the possibility of a future.”
“Some kids seem like they have no goals, no dreams,” says Luisa Chew, the Immigration Coordinator at EBECC who often works with the youth. “Maybe now, with this, they’ll start feeling something.
Like, ‘Wake up! There’s something for you here.’”
“We can prove we can work, go to school, get an education, help our economy,” says Lopez. She, like Hernandez, Chew, and every parent in the room Friday night, hopes the next two years bring better and more permanent legislation for undocumented immigrants. In-state tuition for undocumented immigrants is another issue to fight for—Lopez has lived in Massachusetts for 13 years but pays international student rates. And then there are still kids, like Hernandez’s little sister, who are currently too young for Deferred Action.
“Someday we’ll have the DREAM Act for those kids,” says Chew. “I want these kids to have the same opportunities my kids have.”