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Undocumented Youth Line Up For A Chance To Stay


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we go to the Democratic Republic of Congo where a rebellion has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Could it lead to a wider regional war? We'll ask.

But first, crowds of young people living in this country illegally are hoping to come out of the shadows through a new Obama administration plan to let them avoid being deported. The program is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the Department of Homeland Security began accepting applications yesterday.

Thousands showed up in cities across the country to apply, including Mubasha Ahmed in New York.

MUBASHA AHMED: For the first time I know that I can do this over here without having to give up on everything that I've worked on, you know, and all the people that have supported me.

LYDEN: In a few minutes we'll speak with another young person who's applied for deferred action, but first we turn to reporter Antonio Olivo. He covers immigration issues for the Chicago Tribune. Welcome.

ANTONIO OLIVO: Hi, Jacki. It's great to be with you. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: Before I ask you about the scene yesterday, would you remind us of the plan that was put in place by the Obama administration and what the requirements are?

OLIVO: Sure. OK. So this is procedure for temporary protected status. It's a two-year protection for which you must reapply. And along with the protected status people with successful applications also will apply for permission to work in the United States, which is key.

LYDEN: So you were at Chicago's Navy Pier yesterday and this seemed to be one of the biggest meeting places for people to come out and start the application process. Tell us what the scene was like.

OLIVO: Absolutely. It was a sight to behold. The line essentially extended the length of Navy pier, which is a pretty long pier. And then it went several blocks through Pier Park essentially, several blocks west, then it turned on a lakefront bike path and went several blocks south I would say easily a quarter of a mile long.

And the people standing there, all of them holding birth certificates, school transcripts, plane tickets from when they first got to the United States, all of this memorabilia from their lives living out of status.

LYDEN: And what were people saying to you? Where were they coming from?

OLIVO: People came from as far away as Wisconsin. The people that I spoke with, they were, essentially, mostly from the Chicago area and the crowd itself was a heavily Latino crowd but there were also people - there was one young man from Nigeria, another from Brazil, Dominican Republican. So it was fairly diverse.

But, you know, everyone had heard of this event at Navy pier and so many of them slept over Tuesday night to get to be first or close to first in line. And it turned out that that was a smart move because toward mid-morning there were just so many people here that they were being turned away.

The organizers of the event just didn't have the time or the capacity to help them.

LYDEN: Did anyone speak about feeling fearful about doing this if the administration changes and this program is ended?

OLIVO: Yes. There's definitely some hesitation and wariness to applying and formally declaring yourself as being in the country illegally, especially since this is temporary protected status and it's subject to the whims of whoever is in the White House.

And so if after the November elections it isn't Barack Obama, then there is a chance that it could be overturned or in some way significantly modified. So people were very concerned about that, very concerned about being on some sort of government record.

LYDEN: But they decided to gamble on it, anyway.

OLIVO: Right. For a lot of people, you know, they've been...

LYDEN: And why?

OLIVO: Well, I mean, they've been waiting to legitimize their lives here - formally legitimize their lives here, for most of their lives. For many people, you know, this is the only country that they know. Many of them speak only English or mostly English and so it essentially offers the opportunity to get a job without having to hide your status from your employer.

It offers the opportunity to afford a better school and essentially just try and live a normal life in the U.S.

LYDEN: All right. Well, Antonio Olivo, thank you very much for speaking with us.

OLIVO: Thank you.

LYDEN: Antonio Olivo is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and he joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks again. Now we turn to one of the young people who hopes this plan works for her. Evelyn Rivera was brought to the U.S. from Columbia when she was just three years old.

She grew up Florida, unaware that she was here without legal status until she was 12. She now lives in Florida but Evelyn Rivera came here to Washington to apply for the deferred action and to help others do the same. Evelyn Rivera, thanks for joining us here in the studio.

EVELYN RIVERA: Thanks for having me, Jacki. I'm excited to be here today.

LYDEN: So we know you're an organizer with the group United We Dream which is helping people apply for this program, but I'd like to hear more of your own personal story. Not knowing until you were 12. What happened? That sounds dramatic.

RIVERA: Yes. So I grew up believing that I was just like any other student or youth that was living here in the United States and it wasn't until middle school that I overheard a conversation that my parents were having. So I confronted my mom and then that's finally when she told me, yes, that we had no legal status in the United States and that we had been living here a while like that.

And that's when I also found out that I was different than two sisters, because my sisters are both U.S. citizens. And so part of the reason why she didn't tell me is because she wanted me to live a normal life as well and, further, to not be any different or separation between us three.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. And they're younger than you.

RIVERA: No. One is older and one's younger.

LYDEN: But they were born here.


LYDEN: So how did that kind of change things for you as a 12-year-old?

RIVERA: I mean, at that age, not so much because I didn't understand what it meant. I just figured, OK, that's fine. I'm sure in a few years we'll gain legal status and everything's going to be OK. And, you know, that's what my mom said too, you know, just to keep praying, to have faith, and something, some sort of change, will come up. So not to worry.

So I didn't and I just continued on with the rest of my middle school education and working really hard in school.

LYDEN: Not telling anyone.

RIVERA: Not telling anyone.

LYDEN: Not telling anyone.

RIVERA: No one.

LYDEN: And what happened in high school?

RIVERA: So high school was really great. I have always loved high school and worked really hard. Took the honors AP classes and I played lacrosse all through high school as well. But senior year was a little rough, just because it was the time when you start applying for colleges and everybody asks you where you're going to apply and you have to make up stories as to, oh, you're waiting to take the SAT one more time so you get better test scores.

So about two months before my high school graduation - I was actually in the car with my mother - and it was spring break, and we got pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. And since it was about the second or third time driving without a license in Florida that's, I guess, a huge, sort of, misdemeanor.

And so she was arrested and then from there they saw that she had no legal status here.

LYDEN: So you were in the car with her at that time. I just wanted to...

RIVERA: Yeah, I was.

LYDEN: ...pause a little bit on that day. So the two of you are pulled over. Do you know immediately this is a big deal because she doesn't have a license?

RIVERA: I knew. Because she didn't have a license for a while so we knew, you know that there was that possibility that something could happen if she were stopped, but she still needed to work to provide for our family and, you know, to take us to lacrosse practice or to pick us up from, like, the extracurricular activities that we did.

So we always knew that that was going to happen. And then I know the second that I saw the police car come behind us, even before he turned the lights on, I just knew. And I turned to my mom and I'm like, we're about to get pulled over. And she's like no, we're OK. And I'm like, no, I just know it's going to happen.

LYDEN: So you actually have not seen your mom since that time. Tell us what happened.

RIVERA: Yes. So then when she was taken to the jail they saw that she didn't have legal status, so she was transferred to a detention center down by Miami, Pompano Beach area. And so from there we tried very, very hard to try to get her in time for my high school graduation, but ultimately what we ended up having to was - she had decided to do voluntary departure because we were told that that was the best option for us, that it would give her the possibility of being able to come back into the United States when someone petitioned for her.

LYDEN: Now, because you are, yourself, here illegally, were you able to go and see her?

RIVERA: No. I have not been able to see her. So it's been about a little bit over five years of not being able to, like, physically see her in person but being able to at least talk through Skype and through the phone.

LYDEN: So now, Evelyn, you have applied for the Deferred Act. What is your biggest hope as this deportation relief program is applied?

RIVERA: It's just very exciting for myself to know that for my family, it's going to be a relief for them since my dad has legal status as well. So I'm the only one that doesn't. And they can finally just relax a little bit and just know that I'm going to be OK and I'm going to be safe and they don't need to worry about me as much.

And an opportunity that brings me closer to being able to visit my mom in Columbia.

LYDEN: Was anyone in your family worried that maybe this wasn't such a good idea yesterday, that you were really putting yourself on the radar? Of course, you'd already been an activist, but now it was going to be official.

RIVERA: Right. No, definitely not. I actually called my younger sister and I was like, so I've been thinking about applying today, but I don't know if I should wait and come home and do it with all of you there. And she's like, no, no, no. She's like, are you crazy? She's like, you need to do this right now. She's like, you need to submit it. My family has been extremely supportive through this whole process.

LYDEN: And how old are you now, Evelyn?

RIVERA: I am 23 now.

LYDEN: And have you been able to go to school?

RIVERA: I have, but I had to take the year off just because it's too expensive in Florida. We don't have in-state tuition.

LYDEN: Now, you just heard Antonio talk about the fact that this is a two year plan that's intended to be renewed. It's not particularly the DREAM Act. We do know that Mitt Romney has said that he would not be in favor of that plan, and other Republicans say that this is a bad plan. What's your response to that?

RIVERA: Personally, I believe it's a great opportunity for myself and for every other Dreamer out there that's applying for this process right now. It gives us a chance to contribute back to this country that we love, gives me a chance to go back to school as well, and to study and to work, so that I can provide for my family that has given me so much and so much support through this whole process.

LYDEN: But if it is not enacted, if indeed the administration should switch, what will you do then?

RIVERA: I truly believe - I don't see that happening. I think there's just so much power in the youth right now and in Dreamers everywhere and all of our allies and just in ourselves and in our stories, I don't see how something like this exciting could be taken away when you really see the faith in the story of an undocumented youth.

LYDEN: So how did it feel yesterday? You got this piece paper. I mean, you were in line. You're smiling at me now. You just got this big smile on your face.

RIVERA: It was amazing. It didn't really hit me until I had, like, the lawyer review through my documents and just to get that confirmation that, yes, everything's here, your application's fine, and then being able to submit with two of my best friends yesterday in Washington, D.C. was just amazing, and having that receipt from the Post Office is like the best piece of paper I've ever gotten in my life.

LYDEN: Can you get a legal driver's license now?

RIVERA: In Florida, yes. If I get the work permit, I'll be able to get the license.

LYDEN: Evelyn Rivera is an organizer for the group United We Dream. She applied for deferred action here in Washington yesterday and she joins us here in the studio. Thank you, Evelyn Rivera.

RIVERA: Oh, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.