Undocumented Students Pin Hopes on Federal Deferred Action, State DREAM Act


WASHINGTON—Veronica Martinez-Vargas, a 19-year-old illegal immigrant from Salisbury, couldn't believe it when she turned in her application for the Deferred Action program enacted in June by the Obama administration.

"It was overwhelming," she said. "I had my friend with me and we just hugged for a while."

The program either stops or prevents deportation proceedings for undocumented youths for two years and allows them to obtain a work permit. To apply, immigrants had to be under age 31 as of June 15, 2012, but at least age 15. They also must prove they entered the country before their 16th birthday and lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007.

Just 29 applications have been approved nationally, of more than 82,000 who applied since the program opened in August. It's unknown how many Maryland students applied or are eligible, however, more than 350 Maryland students qualify for the Maryland Dream Act, according to the Department of Legislative Services, which shares many of the same requirements.

When Martinez-Vargas came from Mexico to the U.S. at age 10, she did not understand the gravity of her status. It wasn't until she tried to volunteer at a hospital years later and was rejected for failing to include a Social Security number on her application that she realized her delicate status.

She dreamed of going to universities such as Loyola, but because she does not qualify for government aid, she could not afford them. Now 19, she is a biochemistry major at Wor-Wic Community College, paying out-of-state tuition, despite living in Maryland for nine years.

While she's delighted by the Deferred Action program, she's realistic, too.

"This is a placeholder, but not a solution," she said. "It is exciting though, to be able to receive a work permit and finish school."

Deferred Action may give some undocumented immigrants breathing room, but their status remains unstable.

Robert Koulish, a visiting government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the program is not law. It was created by President Barack Obama through an executive order, which provides much less certainty to the program.

"If Romney is elected in November, come January he could revoke it," he said. "This is not permanent and immigrants are still left in a precarious position."

Despite the low number of approvals, the processing of applications has gone relatively fast compared to other immigration programs, said Caroline Clark, president of the Immigration Law and Policy Association at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Other applications submitted to the UCIS could take as long as five years to approve, she said.

The limitations of Deferred Action makes passing the Maryland Dream Act, and even the Federal Dream Act, very important, said Clark.

"It is just a pause in removal proceedings," she said. "It does not lead toward citizenship and every two years you have to reapply."

The federal Dream Act has remained in legislative purgatory for more than 10 years. The most recent version of the bill creates a path to citizenship for immigrants who graduate from an institution of higher learning, attend at least two years toward a bachelor's or higher degree of learning, or served in the military for at least two years.

It is unlikely that will pass in the next four years, Clark said, regardless of who is elected.

While programs like Deferred Action or the Maryland Dream Act would solve part of the immigrant youth program, until an overall federal immigration reform bill passes, little things—as simple as transportation—will remain problems.

Just getting around is a nightmare for Eliel Acosta, a Deferred Action applicant brought to the U.S. at age 2, who is a junior in psychology at Mount St. Mary's University. He makes the 40-minute drive from his home near Gettysburg, Pa., without a driver's license. Luckily, he said, he has not been pulled over.

"It is too stressful," he said. "Being in college and driving without documents is a very stressful situation."

Acosta received help from his local priest to attend school. If he were to be deported he said he would have trouble working since his Spanish is not the best. Even though the program is only for two years, deferred action has given him, "a lot of hope that I can finish my education and possibly become a professor."

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