Dindy Keita flew across the Atlantic by herself when she was seven. While she went to join her parents in the United States, her older brother Ousmane Herff stayed behind in France with their grandmother and didn’t follow until four years later, in 2008. That was one year too late.
A child of illegal immigrants from Mali and Martinique, Keita is eligible for the Obama administration’s new immigration policy, which allows her to stay in this country without fear of deportation for two years, and to obtain a range of official documents. After living most of her life in legal jeopardy, Keita can now look forward to feeling more welcome here. Her brother, however, can’t.
To be considered for so-called deferred action, an applicant must have lived continuously in the U.S. since June 2007, a year before her brother arrived.
“My mom cried when she found out that I qualified and my brother didn’t,” said Keita, now 15. She and Herff, 18, live in Washington Heights with their two younger brothers, their common father and Keita’s mother, who has known Herff since he was an infant. He doesn’t expect to be deported, he said but without a work permit, he sees little future here.
“At some point I would also like to go visit my mother in France,” he said in a New York accent as distinctive as any native’s. Sitting in front of their father’s pizza and crepe shop on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem, Herff explained that he uses his salary to repay a college debt he amassed over summer before he found out he couldn’t qualify for financial aid because of his immigration status. For Keita, on the other hand, deferred action offers a path to independence.
“I like working for my dad. He’s a good first boss,” she said, laughing. “But I want a real job. I want to go to Harvard to become a lawyer.”
When the administration announced its Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative in June, immigrants all over the country were ecstatic.
“My heart dropped when I heard about it,” said Kelvin Parra, 20, a native Dominican, explaining his excitement. “It was a surprise for us all.”
In New York, says the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, 60,000 to 90,000 people may qualify for deferral. Nationally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, up to 1.7 million meet the requirements, which include being younger than 31, having arrived before age 16, being in school or holding a high school diploma, and having lived in the country continuously since 2007 – a problem for Ousmane Herff.
According to the latest numbers from the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, approximately 82,000 people nationally applied in the first month after the government began accepting applications on August 15. The agency had approved 29 applications and had another 1,600 ready for review.
Immigration experts say that applicants had seemed anxious about submitting their information, but that numbers will start to pick up.
“Some initially worried that their information could be used for removal procedures for them or their family members, but the the agency has put that to rest,” said Douglas Stump, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyer Association. “I expect an increase in the number of applications.”
Critics of the policy see deferred action as a form of amnesty, and fear that the U.S. will become a magnet for immigrants at a time when unemployed Americans are looking for work. Congressman Allen West (R-Fla.) has called deferred action a backdoor opportunity for people to vote – even though the new policy doesn’t permit voting.
Other politicians have claimed that the administration overstepped its authority by implementing the policy. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach filed a lawsuit against Obama, and Mitt Romney has expressed opposition to the program, but promised if elected to uphold deferrals already granted.
In Washington Heights, people line up outside the Coalition’s offices early each morning. On a cold October morning, a handful of people had been hunching their shoulders and breathing on their cold hands for hours , until they were let in at 8 a.m.
“They only see 10 people a day, so we had to get here early,” said a 23-year-old, who asked not to be named because of her status.
The last man in the door was Natanael Valerio, a 21-year-old Dominican immigrant. When a Coalition staffer asked, in Spanish, if he had all his documents with him this time, Valerio put a paper binder on the table. The week before, he’d been told to bring something official proving that he’d stayed in the U.S. since graduating high school. This time, he had phone bills and letters from his doctor spanning several years. Hoping to eventually enroll in the police academy, he said that he was also eager to travel the country he’s lived in since he was nine. “I have never been outside of New York City,” Valerio said.
The biggest obstacle for applicants, said Coalition paralegal Candida Rivera, is to prove their continued physical presence in the U.S. When an undocumented immigrant graduates from school, she falls below the official radar and often has no records showing her whereabouts.
“We tell them to bring anything that shows their presence in the country: receipts for money transfers abroad, subscriptions and so forth. We’ve had to copy a lot of magazines for people,” Rivera said, chuckling.
Around 2 p.m., after six hours in the Coalition office, Valerio re-emerged. Still sounding optimistic, he said he’d been asked to submit phone bills dating to 2010, before he changed his phone number.
Applying for deferral takes some guts. Without the option to appeal, applicants only get one shot, Rivera explained, and some applicants worry about the official spotlight.
Yet Elaine Hidalgo, 20, didn’t hesitate to apply. Having emigrated from the Dominican Republic 10 years ago, she now lives in Washington Heights with her mother and two younger brothers. Since graduating high school she has worked in a bakery, but wants to study management, then explore other jobs.
“I want to have my own business and to help support my family,” she said. Three weeks after her application, she got an appointment to submit fingerprints – one of the final steps in the process.
Hidalgo’s eagerness to boost her family’s income is common among applicants, the Coalition has found. The salary hike that normally accompanies legal work will have substantial effects on immigrant families. “Illegal workers often make four dollars an hour, and they have no rights,” said Rivera.
But while the new policy will make life easier for some, it’s no panacea.
“This is not what we wanted. It’s not the DREAM Act,” Rivera said.
Deferral merely provides a respite from anxiety that can be renewed every other year, which Mrs. Rivera thought was “good, but it’s not enough. What happens if we have a different administration in two years?”
At Make the Road, a New York community organization that has spent years pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, youth organizer Natalia Aristizabal sounded similarly skeptical.
“This is not a path to a green card; it doesn’t give access to all the rights a first-class citizen has. And it doesn’t benefit the families,” she said. “It creates a new class of citizens, whose status can be taken away any moment.”
She conceded nonetheless that the new policy “will have a huge impact”.
At the American Immigration Lawyer Association, the president-elect predicted,“It’s going to have a profound effect across the country,” including political consequences as a potential 1.7 million people step out of the shadows and into society.
“When immigrant groups have tried to get attention in Washington, it has been difficult to get a big roll-out because everyone was afraid of being seen in public. Politically, granting deferred action to this many people will provide a new level of energy,” he said.
For Dindy Keita, the excitement of being accepted into society pales in face of her brother’s rejection. Her mother shares her frustration.
“For me, it’s not a problem to not have documents, but Ousmane wants to go to college, and he can’t travel anywhere,” said Paquerette Carbeti, 37. “It’s like a prison here: Work, school, work, school. You need some air.” She has to dig deep for the $465 it will cost to file a deferral application, but Dindy is lucky, she said, to have the opportunity.
Still, Carbeti sees deferred action as an optimistic sign that policies can change suddenly.
“Maybe one day things will change,” she said.
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