Undocumented youth in Hillsboro weigh in on deportation deferral program
Born in Mexico but raised here, Johan Chavez of Hillsboro says returning to his native country would be like entering a different world.
Now 17 and a student at Hillsboro High School, he remembers traveling at age 7 by bus then car across the U.S. border with his family. Since then, he has lost fluency in his native tongue and identification with a culture that now seems foreign.
As an undocumented immigrant, however, it is he who has remained foreign -- something he struggles with.
"Honestly, in my opinion, I am 100 percent American," he said.
Chavez's status and outlook could merge, though, if he is approved for a renewable work permit through a federal program that would defer his deportation. With a Social Security number, he could get a bank account and a job. With a job, he could pay for college, a necessary step toward his dream of becoming a music teacher.
"I know everything I want to do in life," he said, "but basically I can't do anything without some type of legal status."
Chavez is one of an estimated 16,600 young illegal workers and students in Oregon who qualify for President Barack Obama's executive order program. To apply, they must prove they arrived in the United States before turning 16, are 30 or younger, have been living here for at least five years and are in school, graduated from high school or served in the military. They also cannot be convicted of certain crimes.
There is no data specific to Oregon about how many people have applied in the last three months. But of the 900,000 young immigrants believed to be eligible nationwide, only about 300,000 have so far applied, according to data released earlier this month by the Department of Homeland Security.
Luis Guerra, legal coordinator and development associate for the immigrant rights group Causa, said the low number of filed applications can be explained by several factors.
One bottleneck effect, he said, is that many undocumented immigrants are relying on nonprofits for financial and legal assistance with the application process. Many of those organizations are struggling to keep up with demand, resulting in long waiting lists, he said.
"I would estimate the average cost per applicant, including government fees and receiving service from a nonprofit, to be somewhere in the $800 to $1,000 range," Guerra said. "That is not including transportation costs and time off work for many, especially when they have to travel from far places to Portland to either find the large concentration of services or go to a USCIS appointment."
Guerra said applicants may also have trouble submitting proof of identification. He said that for those who don't have passports or licenses, the only proof may come in the form of a consular identification from their country of origin's consulate in Oregon, which adds an extra step to the process.
The last main barrier was removed after the presidential election, Guerra said. Many were concerned that a government headed by Republican candidate Mitt Romney would have resulted in mass deportation, so they are just now coming forward to apply, he said.
For those who have applied, the process can be as short as two months, said Causa's executive director, Francisco Lopez. Many applications received in August have been approved. Some immigrants from around the state have already gotten their work permits and begun to apply for driver's licenses. Most, however, are still waiting for the news that could dramatically change their lives.
Maria Gonzalez, 20, of Aloha is anxious but hopeful that her application will be approved. With her paperwork and fingerprints completed, all that's left is to wait for a response.
"I'm just nervous because basically I'm juggling," she said. "I could have made a stupid mistake on the application and ruined it. It's scary to think that I may not get it."
The Mexico native remembers cautiously walking through the desert border at age 10. Now she is a student at Portland Community College, hoping to attain a career as a nurse or physician's assistant.
For Gonzalez, deferred action is a means to fulfill her potential. Graduating from Aloha High School in 2010 was terrifying, she said, because illegal status kept her from getting any of the scholarships she had applied for.
"Since I live in a single-parent home, once I graduated I was on my own," she said. "All my life, I thought I was pretty smart, but it brought me down to reality knowing that I didn't have the money to go to school, even though I had the head."
Ulises Olvera's status as a gay, undocumented Latino student has afforded him more luck in financing his education.
Olvera, 21, never thought he would get to go to college. Now he attends Portland Community College Rock Creek in Hillsboro, which he has been able to fund through his job as equity ambassador at the multicultural student center. The Pride Foundation, an organization that supports equality for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, also awarded Olvera a $4,500 scholarship, he said.
"I didn't think I would be able to get into school in the first place," he said. "But anything is possible. I'm pretty successful -- getting my higher education, making a difference at a college setting -- and that's very empowering."
Even so, he said, acceptance into the deferred action program would open up a whole new set of doors for scholarships and work opportunities.
But first things first. If his application is approved, Olvera said, he will break in the new work permit by using it to get a license.
"I depend on public transportation," he said. "I want to drive because right now I live in Beaverton and my parents live in Jewell. I barely get to see them."