Thousands of Undocumented Immigrants in Connecticut Get a Chance to Gain Papers
By Gregory B. Hladky
October 04, 2012
Guadalupe Ramirez crossed the U.S. border from Mexico into Arizona with her mom when she was just four years old. Now 17, Ramirez really doesn't have many memories of the place she was born. "I consider this my home," she says of her adopted city of Bridgeport.
It's always been a home shadowed by the uncertainty and frustration of being an undocumented immigrant.
Now those shadows seem to be lifting, for Ramirez and for the more than 9,300 other Connecticut "Dreamers" like her who may be eligible for a new federal program that would protect them from deportation.
At least that's the hope. There's also an element of fear.
Some worry the "deferment" program might not be renewed after the first two years. Or that the whole thing could collapse after the election. Or that the detailed information these Dreamers are required to supply the government under the "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" initiative could put them or their families at risk in the future.
Ramirez, who just began classes as a Fairfield University freshman, mailed off her application a couple of weeks ago. "I'm really excited for that," she says. "I hope it all goes well."
The program was announced in June by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and would cover kids who arrived in the U.S. illegally before age 16, have been here for at least five years, are in school or honorably discharged from the military, and never committed a serious crime. By some estimates, there are as many as 1.76 million "Dreamers" in the United States.
In Connecticut, according to estimates by the Immigration Policy Center, about 6,670 people between the ages of 15 and 30 could be "immediate beneficiaries" of the new policy. Another 2,700 Connecticut kids 5-14 years of age could take advantage of the program in the future.
President Barack Obama had been under increasing criticism for his failure to push for major immigration reform. Many activists and Hispanic leaders hailed the announcement this summer of a program that would allow young immigrants brought to this country by their parents to stay. Some Republicans sneered that the move was a blatant political ploy by the president to win Hispanic votes in this election year.
Tens of thousands of young immigrants turned out on Aug. 15, the first day that applications for the new program became available. A Department of Homeland Security spokesman told the Associated Press last week that about 72,000 applications have already been received.
In early September, DHS officials announced that the first wave of those applications have now been approved. That's way ahead of the original schedule, providing Republican critics with more ammunition for their claims that Obama is using the program for campaign purposes.
Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential candidate, has criticized Obama's actions on this issue and said he'd veto any "Dream Act" like the one that hit Republican opposition in Congress in 2010.
That bill would have provided a permanent way for young undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. But Romney has dodged the question about whether he'd kill the "deferred action" program if he's elected.
Lucas Codognolla, a 21-year-old Stamford resident who was born in Brazil and is also applying for the new program, doesn't believe Romney would actually have the cojones to kill the deferred action initiative. "But that's just my opinion," he adds. "A lot of people are waiting until they see what happens in the election before applying."
"There's some fear in people," says Codognolla. The concern is that, if Obama doesn't win and Romney feels compelled to kill the program, "People who've applied might be in some danger of being deported."
Anyone applying under the deferred action initiative has to supply the feds with a bunch of documentation. And that information would make it awfully easy for them to find a Dreamer (or his or her family) if the whole thing comes crashing down under a Romney administration.
The New York Times reported last week that some employers of undocumented Dreamers are also nervous. They fear the feds might use all the information supplied by young immigrants to prosecute anyone who's hired that person in the past.
An undocumented immigrant applying for the program has to put up $465 as a processing fee for the paperwork and fingerprinting stuff.
To qualify, you have to prove that you entered the U.S. before you turned 16; lived in this country continuously between 2007 and 2012; are in school, or graduated from high school, or earned your GED, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. armed forces or the U.S. Coast Guard. You also can't have a felony or major misdemeanor conviction on your record.
Immigration activists, like Hafid Dumet of SOMOS CT, say proving where you were, and when, usually involves getting things like copies of medical and school records. Once you have all the required documentation and fill out the application, Dumet says you then have to have your fingerprints and photograph taken and wait for a criminal background check to be completed.
Codognolla says that he's experiencing a real sense of excitement about the prospect of becoming legal after all this time. "When I was in the post office mailing my application, I was shaking," he recalls.
"This is going to take away the fear of being stopped by the cops … the fear of being deported," says Codognolla.
He came to the U.S. at age 9 with his family in 2000 on a tourist visa and never left. Codognolla is now enrolled in the Stamford branch of the University of Connecticut, studying for a degree in political science and a minor in economics.
"Basically, I didn't really understand my status until I was in high school," he says. His friends started talking about getting driver's licenses and applying to colleges. "That's when my parents sat me down and explained my situation."
"I became embarrassed by my status," he says now. "I became very reserved … I was confused, and I had no support system outside my family. I was fearful of getting deported" and worried about college and the future, Codognolla adds.
With help from his high school guidance counselor, he learned he didn't need a Social Security number to apply to college, and actually got accepted into a couple of universities and was even awarded a scholarship from an upstate New York school.
Like lots of Dreamers, the issue of financial aid for an undocumented immigrant became an ugly roadblock for Codognolla. Someone on the school's financial aid committee objected when they found out about his status, he explains, "and the scholarship was withdrawn."
"It was really depressing," Codognolla remembers, and not only for himself. "I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school," he says, and his family was thrilled with the idea of his going to college.
In the end, Codognolla studied at Norwalk Community College for two years before transferring to UConn. "I'm actually thinking of going to law school to become an immigration lawyer," he says.
Ramirez tells a similar story of becoming aware of her uncertain status. "It was kind of like pushing me down," she says, recalling the time in high school when she applied for a job but then couldn't get it because she had no documentation.
She ranked sixth academically in her graduating class at Bullard-Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport, but knew she'd have problems getting any government financial aid.
"I was looking forward to college … but how am I going to go to college if I can't get the money?" is what she kept asking herself. Her solution turned out to be a grant from a Fairfield University scholarship fund for students coming out of Bridgeport.
Ramirez is hoping for a degree in information systems, and is planning on combining that with criminal justice courses so she can get a job in "forensic finances" when she graduates.
The idea that this whole "deferred action" program might be thrown out if Romney wins the election doesn't bother Ramirez as much as it does some of her friends in the immigrant community. She doubts a politician like Romney would want to suffer the kind of backlash that such action would bring from the Hispanic communities.
Providing all this information to the feds is "a risky situation," Ramirez admits, but it's a risk she and her family are willing to take. "I don't think it's going to be a problem for my family," she says. "We try to be very careful with everything we do because of our status."
And that's the way it's always been for America's undocumented immigrants, an attempt to balance the hope that brought them here with the fear of being forced to leave.