When President Barack Obama announced a program last summer that would essentially confer legal status on young undocumented immigrants, there was some concern about the risk involved in applying. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, as the program is called, is only for two years, so what would come next for those who came forward? And what about those who were judged ineligible? Would they make themselves at risk for deportation?
But a few things are apparent seven months after the program started: Applicants are coming forward in droves. And the Obama administration is approving almost all of them.
The most recent numbers from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show that nearly 440,000 immigrants have applied. All but roughly 15,000 are now free to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. The program sets out a variety of eligibility requirements, but basically it targets immigrants who were brought here as children.
Those figures confirm what Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, is seeing locally. Noting the "tremendous enthusiasm" generated by the program, he says his organization has helped some 2,500 immigrants submit their paperwork to the government.
And what happens after someone who has been living a semi-secretive life suddenly no longer has to. "It's like I was born yesterday," says Jesus Lopez, who was approved into the program in December.
Lopez, who came here with his family from Mexico when he was 11, didn't exactly hide in the shadows. He has been studying political science at the University of Washington, from which he expects to graduate in June with a 3.4 grade point average. He has also worked for five years at a restaurant in Southcenter Mall.
But he was never able to give his boss at the restaurant a valid Social Security number-- until now. So when he got the coveted number, he pulled his boss aside and said: "I've got to talk to you." When his boss asked why, Lopez said he needed to provide some "personal information."
"We have your personal information," his confused boss replied. That's when Lopez told him that the information he had was a fabrication. "I thought I was going to get fired," Lopez says. Instead, his boss ended up helping him fill out paperwork as if he was a brand new employee.
Lopez also recently opened a bank account at BECU, something he had previously been told he needed a Social Security card to do. He's now hoping to go to law school. He says he's unworried about the limited duration of the DACA program since his authorization can be extended every two years. He also points out that Congress may eventually approve the much debated DREAM Act, which would permanently legalize people like him.
Still, Lopez is nervous enough, if not for him than for family members who remain undocumented, to ask to be identified by his middle name.
The government, however, is not fueling fears. Despite earlier concerns, Baron says he doesn't know of anyone who has faced negative consequences for applying to the DACA program, even if they were not accepted.