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Young Undocumented Students Now Have An Option; Why Aren't More Taking It?

Young people who are in the country illegally face many tough questions.

Can they get a job? Will they get deported?

A year ago, the Obama administration implemented a program that allows some undocumented immigrants to stay in the country temporarily. As of September, 93,277 applications from Texas have been accepted and 72,408 have been approved. But thousands more still haven’t applied.

Jessica Barron knows what it’s like to live in the shadows.

Her parents brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was two years old. She grew up here, graduated from high school with honors and enrolled at the University of North Texas' Dallas campus. Still, there were some obstacles.

“I know I was very qualified for certain jobs,” Barron said. “I have the talent. I have the knowledge in so many areas and just not being able to take those opportunities that at some point were offered to me just because the fact that I did not have a social security [number].”

Living in limbo

Like many young undocumented immigrants, she felt her life was in limbo.

“That was very frustrating,” she said. “You feel like you have everything that it takes but, there’s nothing you can do.”

A year ago, the Obama administration unveiled a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.

This is not the DREAM Act that would give conditional permanent status. Like that proposal, it's a program with age limits and other tough restrictions. But if you’re accepted, you have to reapply after two years. 

Barron jumped at the opportunity. But waiting for her application to be approved was nerve-racking.

“I remember just praying, and saying, ‘Please God, let me be approved. Let me be approved.’ ”

And she was.

Today, Barron is the DACA coordinator for Catholic Charities of Dallas. The organization just received funding to reach out to counties beyond Dallas.

"An American mindset"

Catholic Charities Spokeswoman Rosalyn Vasquez says the need is obvious.

“They were raised here. They have an American mindset. They were educated here,” Vasquez said. “They’ve grown up here, so they don’t really understand they need to go through this process.”

Fernando Dubove, an immigration attorney in Dallas, says he believes word about the program has spread. He said his office was flooded with potential applicants the first few months after the announcement.

“Unless you lived in a cave without electricity, you knew this program was out there,” Dubove said.

He says the issue for many is money. The application fee is $465. The other barrier, he says, is fear.

“Concerns that what happens if my application is denied? What happens if this program is not renewed in a year and a half? What happens to my mom and dad because now immigration knows where my parents live?” Dubove said. “And if you can alleviate those fears, I think the majority of people who have held back and are eligible will apply.”

Outside a Dallas grocery store, Maria Sanchez sells DVDs, CDs and toys from a stall. She has two daughters who recently were granted temporary legal status. A third daughter, who’s 23, hasn’t applied because she didn’t graduate from high school and dropped out of a GED program. Her mom’s concerned.

“We don’t know what will happen when President Obama leaves office,” Sanchez says. “We‘ve been in the country many years. We all work and my children went to school here.”

Sanchez says immigrants who are working and haven’t committed a crime deserve to have the opportunity to live in the country legally.

"A wonderful future"

Barron says she hopes more people will apply. She says Catholic Charities isn’t charging individuals for assistance with their application, and those who can’t afford the application fee can see if they’re eligible for financial assistance. While it’s not the Dream Act as many had hoped, she says she no longer lives in fear.

“And so I just see it as a wonderful future for myself,” says Barron, who would like to go to law school after graduating from UNT.

For now, Barron will spend the next six months traveling to churches, schools and community colleges getting the word out to other young immigrants.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.