Chelsea, Mass. – It was standing- room only Wednesday in the auditorium of the ROCA community center in Chelsea, home to a Latino enclave north of Boston.
This was the first day certain undocumented immigrants could apply for a two-year reprieve from deportation under a new immigration process, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), announced in June by the Obama administration. And the Chelsea forum was one of numerous such gatherings held across the country to discuss eligibility and lessen confusion.
One of the panelists, Carlos Rojas, an 18-year-old native of Colombia, told the audience that he arrived in the United States with his mother when he was just 5-years-old.
In an interview, Rojas, who is a volunteer with the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM), and the New England representative for United We Dream, a network of youth-led immigrant organizations, said that had it not been for the persistence of the student movement, deferred action might never have materialized.
“In a lot of ways, it is a political strategy by President Obama – the Latino vote is incredibly important and he wants to be re-elected,” Rojas said. “But does it diminish the benefits? No.”
The new immigration policy would allow certain undocumented youth who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 to remain in the country and apply for a work permit. The deferral would last for two years and be renewable on a case-by-case basis but does not provide a path to lawful residence or citizenship.
Still, immigrant advocates say that the move by the Obama administration is the first step toward a more ambitious reform of what they see as the country’s broken immigration system.
In a lot of ways, it is a political strategy by President Obama – the Latino vote is incredibly important and he wants to be re-elected. But does it diminish the benefits? No.
- Carlos Rojas, student
“Over one million [undocumented] people are going to be able to get this relief,” said Cristina Aguilera, a campaign organizer for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, a statewide advocacy organization that co-sponsored the forum. “We see it as one step toward victory but we need to make sure we broaden it to include others. It’s a great day to celebrate, but now we have to broaden the fight.”
For somebody like Alex Ribeiro, 20, who is half Panamanian born in Brazil, and came to the United States when he was 11, the new policy means he might be able to transfer from the community college he now attends to a better school, where he can pursue his passion for architecture.
“It is going to be worth it,, especially after 10 years of suffering,” he said, and admitted that he already has most of his paperwork together to send off his application. “It’s the only thing I can stand on that can float me. I’ll take it.”
John Willshire-Carrera, lead attorney at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic at Greater Boston Legal Services, said his office estimates that roughly 15,000 people in Massachusetts could qualify under the new policy.
And though the $465 filing fee might be steep for some families, most people will be willing to pay it, he said.
“Its becoming a recognized member of the community…and obtaining lawful presence as a result of this process,” he said.
The measure may not be a permanent solution but for now, it is giving some people hope to remain in the only country they call home.
“I love this country,” said Marina Galo, 22, who came from Brazil when she was 15. “I don’t think I can go back to Brazil.”
Students need to fight even harder to pass a more long-lasting solution like the DREAM Act, said Rojas, the Colombian teenager.
“We’re undocumented Americans,” he said, coining a new term to describe the reality of undocumented youth who grew up here. “I’m an American in every way except to the government…this is the only future I have.”
Tanya Pérez-Brennan is a freelance writer based in Boston.