As the evening approaches, a large crowd gathers in front of the steps of a downtown Los Angeles building. The men and women, holding signs, talk among themselves. In the middle of the crowd, Zacil Pech, a 24-year-old student, holds a large sign written in bold red letters. “Stop all deportations,” it says. “In solidarity with the #Dream9. #Bring them home.”
Her own experiences as an undocumented immigrant brought Pech out on this summer day to demonstrate in support of nine Mexican-American youths ”“ the so-called #Dream9. The group of “dreamers” challenged U.S. immigration policies in late July by trying to enter the United States without visas. The nine spent 17 days in detention in Arizona before being released to await hearings on their requests for asylum.
For years, Pech, like many other undocumented residents of Los Angeles, wanted the opportunity to drive a car without the daily fear of being stopped because of her lack of documentation. Now, as a result of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, she can get a driver’s license or a work permit and qualify for college grants previously unavailable to her.
Grateful for her own change in status, she recently made it her mission to help other young undocumented immigrants realize the same goals. A confident young woman with dark eyes and bold red lipstick, Pech now volunteers with Dream Team Los Angeles, an organization advocating for the rights of immigrant youth. She also studies accounting at East Los Angeles College.
Almost 2 million eligible
DACA, unveiled in June 2012, is expected to permit 1.4 million undocumented youth avoid deportation, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates. A half million more will become eligible when they turn 18 years old.
Anyone approved for deferred action gets the right to work, and in some states, including California, can apply for a driver’s license.
Originally from Guerrero, Mexico, Pech was brought to the United States at the age of four. Despite the language barrier, she said it was easy for her to adjust to life in the United States.
“My mom was very encouraging to me. She was telling me ‘go mija,’” said Pech.
Pech said that the application requirements for DACA, as well as the fees, make the application process time-consuming. Students must pay a $465 application fee in addition to proving residence in the United States since June 15, 2007.
Only one third of eligible students have applied. Activists attribute the low application rate to difficulties paying the application fee and compiling the documents necessary to prove residency –rent receipts, employment records, medical forms and school report cards. In addition, some young people may not be aware that they are eligible.
Luis Pérez, a project manager for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), estimated that almost half of eligible young people who have considered applying have found it impossible to compile the necessary evidence.
Before Pech started the application process, she asked many people about what was required and what help she could get. “I went to a lot different clinics to gather information and to see what each one had to offer,” she said.
Beware of bad advice
Immigration reform advocates advise students to be careful about where they seek advice and to avoid asking people who aren’t qualified, such as those advertising themselves as notarios. In Mexico, a notario can provide legal advice. But in the United States, only attorneys can provide legal advice.
If someone has a serious felony on his or her record, such as a DUI or a domestic violence or fraud conviction, advocates say that advice from an attorney is essential, since most denials cannot be appealed. Depending on the attorney, prices for a consultation will vary ranging from $150 to $1,000.
“If you are of low income, always start with the nonprofit organizations,” said Laura Urias, an attorney with the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (LACLJ), which is collaborating with CHIRLA to help students apply for deferred action.
After talking with three organizations, Pech got help with her application from Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ). She applied for deferred action last December. Her mother supported her decision, saying, “Go apply, because this can help not only you, but it can help our status,” recalled Pech.
Pech waited three months for approval. “I was really anxious, and I felt nervous and frustrated because the answer did not come quick,” said Pech. “It really depends on the person who was handling your case, how long they took, or how thoroughly they wanted to go through the report.”
Wait times today can be up to seven months, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service website.
The deferral is good only for two years, but a renewal process is likely to be developed if Congress does not enact pending immigration reform legislation.
Successful with her own application, Pech now helps others through the process. “I want to do that for other people that feel frustrated,” she said. “It’s worth the wait. To drive around without fear, to work a job not exploiting you, it’s like a prize.”