Region's young immigrants now making it through new Deferred Action program

Dania Maxwell/Staff
A line of people wait to enter an information session provided by volunteer Ave Maria law students at Legal Aid to help deferred action cases among immigrants on Wednesday, August 22, 2012 in Naples, Fla.

Photo by DANIA MAXWELL, NAPLES DAILY NEWS // Buy this photo

Dania Maxwell/Staff A line of people wait to enter an information session provided by volunteer Ave Maria law students at Legal Aid to help deferred action cases among immigrants on Wednesday, August 22, 2012 in Naples, Fla.

Requirements to be considered under new immigration policy:

■ Under age 16 when came to U.S.

■ Has already resided in U.S. continuously for at least five years already

■ In school, a high school graduate, obtained GED or honorably discharged

■ Not been convicted of a serious crime; doesn’t pose threat to national security

■ Not older than 30

Source: Department of Homeland Security

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— Fatima Soto didn't live under the radar when she was undocumented.

It was inconvenient and disheartening. She couldn't get her driver's license or work legally, but the Immokalee High School salutatorian made honor roll semester after semester, earned scholarships and started at Florida Gulf Coast University this summer, all while not living in the U.S. legally.

Only in November could she breathe easy for the first time in 11 years, though, when her approval under the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy arrived.

It was a "big relief, like it was like a dream come true," the 18-year-old said. "Something I didn't ever expect to happen."

Soto is one of about 53,000 previously undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children who are now allowed to stay, and in most cases work, for renewable two-year periods, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services, the federal agency that processes the applications.

From when the policy went into force in mid-August to mid-November, only 5 percent of the roughly 300,000 applicants to submit paperwork were from Florida, the agency noted in a report. The majority were in California and Texas.

That means only one in five of the potential 85,750 Deferred Action beneficiaries in Florida has applied, according to an estimate by the Immigration Policy Center.

Local acceptances are trickling in under the program, according to Collier County immigration attorneys. Unofficial tallies from attorneys and nonprofit agencies that specialize in immigration found more than 200 in Collier County.

Maureen Kelleher, an immigration specialist with Legal Aid Service of Collier County, said her agency knows of seven acceptances so far, out of about 120 submitted.

"They're thrilled," Kelleher said. "They have a future."

Like Soto, nearly 70 percent of national applicants were born in Mexico, followed distantly by El Salvador and Honduras.

The teen didn't choose to come to the country. Her parents traveled to Immokalee first, leaving their 4-year-old daughter in Mexico for three years until a relative brought her to the U.S., according to the college freshman, who wants to work in the criminal justice field.

She's the oldest of four siblings in a mixed-status family. While her sisters and brother are U.S.-born, her parents still don't have their papers, and her father is facing possible deportation.

Unlike citizenship or certain types of visas, Deferred Action can't be used to normalize other family members' statuses, and federal officials made clear that the policy isn't a path to citizenship, as earlier iterations like the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would have. Through several iterations in the U.S. Congress since it was first introduced in 2001, the unsuccessful bill would provide for legal permanent residency for the so-called DREAMERs, or those individuals who arrived as children and are living in an unauthorized status but are of "good moral character."

Instead, Deferred Action allows undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children temporary reprieve from deportation, as long as they meet certain requirements, primarily regarding education, lack of criminal history, and continuous residence in U.S. since June 15, 2007.

States are handling the nuances of the reprieve differently. While Florida allows individuals with a work permit to obtain a driver's license, Arizona faces a lawsuit over denying them to Deferred Action youth.

Because the status is temporary, Soto and other DACA-approved individuals will have to reapply every two years. And like most government policies, there is always the possibility the program could end.

Still, said Soto, "It's better than having to go back … and (have) all my hard work be for nothing."

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