Thousands of Utahns have entered deferred deportation program
Nadia Torres was a baby when her parents brought her from Mexico without papers. Lacking required documents, she imagined little in her future but bottom-rung jobs in America Â and nothing better if she returned to a native country she never knew.
That all changed exactly a year ago.
That's when the administration of President Barack Obama announced "deferred action for childhood arrivals" (DACA).
It allowed people to apply to stay in the country if they arrived prior to age 16, lived continuously here since at least June 15, 2007, were younger than 31 last year, were enrolled in school or graduated from high school, and had not been convicted of serious crimes.
"It changed my life," said Torres, a Utahn in her mid-20s with a 3-year-old son. "I thought I would always have minimum-wage jobs at best. Now I want to be a nurse. Now that is possible."
She applied for DACA and was approved.
"I already have a Social Security number," she said, adding that she is working while finishing her high-school degree and aiming for college and nursing school.
Statistics recently prepared by the Department of Homeland Security show that 6,365 Utah residents applied for DACA from last Aug. 15 through the end of June, and 4,756 have been approved so far.
Nationally, more than 500,000 people have applied, and 400,562 approved. A study by the Brookings Institution this week said just 1 percent of applicants have been denied.
That study also said that nearly 75 percent of applicants were born in Mexico. Other top countries for applicants were El Salvador, 4 percent; Honduras, 2.7 percent; Guatemala, 2.5 percent; and South Korea, 1.5 percent.
"DACA is a blessing to a lot of dreamers who came here as children, through no fault of their own," said Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino. "They often faced deportation. Now, many of them are going back to school and are working in jobs that they actually want instead of minimal jobs."
But Diana Paredes, program coordinator for Communities United, said DACA status is still no substitute for citizenship, and hopes immigration reform may soon allow that for such people.
"They can't vote. They can't participate in a lot of government programs, like AmeriCorps," she said. "People who qualify for government scholarships often can't apply for those. ... Many of them are still living in a household where their parents are undocumented, and are crippled by their parents' impediments."
She adds, "At the same time, there is no sense of security. This [DACA] is part of an executive order, and it could go away at any time with a different president."
Still, Yapias said he is disappointed that more Utahns have not applied for DACA.
"There is a myth, in the middle of the current immigration debate, that waiting for immigration reform would be better for these people," Yapias said.
But he said that depending on what is in final immigration bills in Congress, getting DACA status might put people on a quicker path to citizenship. And he says they should take advantage of better legal status now to improve education and jobs.
Yapias also said he has seen more immigrants who came as children go back to school because of DACA.
"Many of them had dropped out of school when they were young, because they thought, 'What's the point. I can never get a good job,' " Yapias said. "With DACA, many have gone back to finish now."
Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a blog Thursday that DACA has made a real difference.
"Thousands of hardworking young people who are American in every way but a piece of paper now have the ability to continue their educations and contribute to their communities," she wrote.
"By removing the threat of deportation for people brought to the country as children, we have been able to continue to focus our enforcement efforts on serious criminals, public safety threats, and those who pose a danger to national security."