At immigration workshop, hope and a path through a legal thicket
Hundreds of people filled a gymnasium in south Minneapolis over the weekend to learn more about a new federal program that gives some young people who are in the country illegally the right to work in the U.S.
It's called Deferred Deportation for Childhood Arrivals. The policy from the Obama administration went into effect last week and covers illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Organizers of the workshop expected 200 to 300 people to attend. But there were nearly that many lined up outside Green Central Park School in south Minneapolis before the event even started on Saturday.
By the time things got under way there were more than 700 people filling the school's gym, waiting to hear details of the new deportation deferral program.
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First came a briefing on what the new policy means for young illegal immigrants in the United States.
Essentially, it offers a temporary reprieve from deportation in the form of a two-year work visa. Only those under the age of 31 who came to the U.S. as children (age 16 or younger) and have lived here for five years are eligible. They must have a high school diploma or a GED and cannot have a criminal record.
The workshop, organized by several immigrant advocacy groups, offered a legal triage of sorts.
Dozens of people stood, waiting to talk to lawyers, in lines that wound through the school's hallways.
"It's crowded. I hope we can talk to everyone and get everyone through," said Juve Meza, a volunteer with Navigate, a group that advocates for students without legal citizenship documents.
"All the doors have opened for me now, and I'm so excited."
Meza says the point of the workshop was to help people determine if they're eligible for the program; find legal help to work their way through the process; and round up the documents they need to apply. In most cases, that means school records.
"These are students who are already in our schools and have gone through our school system," Meza said. "Some are working. I think this is a great opportunity for many to actually be able to contribute more and participate more in the community."
That's what Karina, a 21-year-old student at the University of Minnesota, says she wants.
"All the doors have opened for me now, and I'm so excited," she said.
Karina asked that only her first name be used because she is not a citizen and has no documents. She lived in Mexico until she was 9 and then entered the U.S. illegally with her grandmother.
She expects to graduate from the University of Minnesota next spring with degrees in sociology and Chicano studies. She wants to get a job with a nonprofit organization, something she could do with a work visa through the deportation deferral program.
Karina says she has heard people criticize the policy, saying it gives the children of people who entered the country illegally a free pass from being deported.
"I get it. I get that point of view," she said. "But it's not like it was my fault, right?"
Advocates for immigrants say it's not that young illegal immigrants are cutting in line ahead of people who have been waiting to get into the country through legal measures.
John Keller, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, says the program gives people who are already here the legal right to work but does not give them any advantages in becoming a permanent citizen.
"There's no mechanism in the law for anybody who gets this remedy to become a permanent resident or have a permanent place in the line in front of people who are waiting," Keller said.
Keller says once people apply for the deferred deportation program, it will likely take several months before they find out if they qualify.
His group and the state demographer estimate there are about 2,500 to 4,000 people in Minnesota who could qualify. Some advocacy groups claim there are even more, perhaps 10,000.
A Homeland Security official in Minnesota says the agency won't have any data on how many people apply for the program until sometime next month.
Advocates for immigrants say they will offer more workshops on the new policy throughout Minnesota in the coming months.