The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program offers a two-year deferment of deportation proceedings to undocumented immigrants. Qualified applicants must have entered the country as children, stayed out of major legal trouble and received at least a GED or be currently enrolled as students, among other requirements. There could be 10,000 to 20,000 Oklahomans eligible for the program, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute.
Grasping the application
Oklahoma City Attorney T. Douglas Stump, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said his office screened more than 100 people in the first three days after the application became available, and his staff continues to stay busy.
“Even though it does not give them a ‘legal’ status, it does provide them with a lawful status in the country,” Stump said.
The application process is extensive.
It costs $465 and includes multiple background checks and a collection of biometric data. Advocates have worried the process might deter some eligible immigrants.
“The initial concern by many is whether or not they believe the next [presidential] administration will continue the program,” Stump said.
More than 300 people showed up for an Aug. 15 forum held by DREAM Act Oklahoma City, said DREAM Act Norman member Natalia Montelongo. Group members are now leading clinics to help applicants complete the process.
“We were so excited,” she said. “This is a move. It’s making change. It was really, really good.”
Although their focus is currently on educating immigrants about deferment, the members of DREAM Act Oklahoma plan to fight for permanent immigration reforms in the future.
Some of its members, undocumented immigrants who grew up in the U.S., call themselves Dreamers. Others are U.S. citizens. They have all experienced the challenges of being undocumented students.
Barriers to education
Wendy Espinoza was 2 years old when she arrived in Oklahoma. Her father was already in the U.S. After unsuccessfully searching for a way to immigrate legally, her mother and her two brothers made the 800-mile trip from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to Oklahoma City.
“Most Americans have this concept of immigrants coming just for need,” Espinoza said. “Actually, we came here with a different dream.”
Hers included higher education, but for undocumented immigrants, that can seem unattainable. Espinoza was valedictorian of U.S. Grant High School’s class of 2006. Despite earning the top GPA, she was repeatedly denied scholarships to public universities because she didn’t have a Social Security number, she said.
She attended Oklahoma City Community College for a year before transferring to the University of Central Oklahoma. In May, she became the first Latina woman in the school’s history to earn a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. She joined DREAM Act Oklahoma City in part to help undocumented high school students make it into college.
“Now we know what universities can help you and what scholarships are being given away,” she said.
Judith Huerta recently graduated from Oklahoma City University on a full-ride scholarship. When she got to college, undocumented high schoolers started asking her how she got there.
The barriers to college faced by undocumented students aren’t purely institutional. Espinoza said some family members, friends and others within the community discourage higher education, citing limited opportunities afterward.
Huerta heard those arguments, but chose direct action instead.
Earlier this month, she was arrested at a sit-in in Florida Sen. Bill Nelson’s suburban Miami office. She traveled there with a national group to protest practices at the nearby Broward Transitional Center, which holds undocumented immigrants, including one man on a hunger strike.
Huerta began actively protesting in college, drawing mixed responses from her family. Her father thinks it draws too much attention, believing the Hispanic community must unify before seeking change, she said. Her mother supports her, but worries.
“She’s really scared about me going to jail, because your whole life, you try to keep your kid from going to jail and then she puts herself in there deliberately,” Huerta said.
Fredy Valencia was 16 when he entered the U.S. with his family. He is ineligible for the deferment program because he was too old by one year when he crossed the border into the country.
“I didn’t have much say if I wanted to come because I had to look after my sister,” Valencia said.
He and Huerta started DREAM Act Oklahoma City about a year ago. Valencia, who currently attends Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City, said he would have had a very different life if he had stayed in Jalisco.
In Oklahoma, he found a purpose. “We’re leaders here,” he said. “We’re helping the community.”