As a young mother on a tight budget, Natalia Crespin is often exhausted from cooking in a cramped Arlington apartment, keeping her baby quiet and her toddler entertained, lugging their strollers on and off public buses, and juggling bills on the modest pay the children’s father earns as a drywall hanger.
But as one of about 522,000 young illegal immigrants nationwide who have been granted a two-year amnesty, Crespin says she sleeps more soundly now than in the entire 12 years since she arrived in the United States. Her heart no longer pounds when a police patrol car slows or when someone knocks on the door at night.
Recently, she and an aunt were at a public laundry when a man who said he was a police officer started bothering them. “Before I had my papers, I would have kept quiet and walked away,” said Crespin, 23, a native of El Salvador. “Now I can stand up for myself. I told him to chill.”
For a small slice of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the presidential order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a legal ticket to self-respect. It has propelled a waiter in Springfield onto a restaurant management track, qualified a student in Leesburg for a scholarship at the University of Arkansas, and transported a high school senior from Annandale to Beijing with a national Girl Scouts delegation.
A survey of about 1,000 DACA recipients nationwide, conducted by Harvard University and the University of Southern California, found that most were taking concrete steps to move up in U.S. society. More than 60 percent had found a new job and obtained a driver’s license. Over half had opened a bank account, and 38 percent had gotten a credit card, which they could not do previously without legal ID.
More than 8,100 Virginia residents between the ages of 18 and 31 obtained DACA status between mid-2012 and the end of 2013, as well as about 6,500 in Maryland and 500 in the District. To qualify, all had to produce documents proving that they were younger than 32 and arrived in the United States before 16, had no criminal history and have lived here continually since 2007 while working or attending school.
Gathering such proof has been a daunting challenge for a population whose aim was once to remain invisible. Applicants said they tracked down old landlords and school transcripts, but few had leases or accounts in their names. Most of the 43,000 rejected so far were not able to fill in enough gaps in their histories, and many of the estimated 1.5 million to 1.8 million eligible immigrants have not been able to apply at all.
“People come to me for help who don’t have a single scrap of paper,” said Simon Sandoval, a lawyer with the Center for Legal Justice in Falls Church who has helped 60 applicants win DACA status. “They never finished high school, they worked as day laborers, they had nothing in their names. Sometimes there is nothing I can do.”
Even for those who overcome the initial hurdles, DACA recipients’ ability to take full advantage of their new status varies with their income and skills, family support, proficiency in English and access to low-cost college tuition, which is available only in a handful of states, including Maryland. Traveling abroad requires special permission.
Many are able to leave day-labor pools for steadier jobs in stores or trades and take part-time classes at community colleges. Their schedules are often gruelling, but they are keenly aware that the clock is ticking. Every benefit DACA status confers — a Social Security card, a work permit, the right to drive — is valid for only two years.
“I am an ambitious person, but I was nothing without DACA. In high school, all my friends were looking forward to college. For me, the doors were shut,” said Victor Benitez, 24, a Salvadoran from Springfield. After years of doing odd jobs, he is a training manager at a Silver Diner and dreams of opening his own franchise. “I don’t want to start from zero again two years from now,” he said. “You have to have faith, and you have to keep pushing.”
Immigrant advocates are pressing for DACA to be extended to include more illegal immigrants, but the White House has said it does not have the power to do so, and there is no indication that Congress will enact a permanent amnesty after months of fighting over immigration reform. President Obama has ordered a review of deportation policies, but so far his administration has continued to deport record numbers of people.
For many DACA recipients, relief from fear of deportation is soured by worries for parents and other relatives who are still here illegally. According to the Harvard-USC survey, 14 percent of DACA recipients said they had a parent or sibling who had been deported, and nearly half said they worried constantly that friends and relatives would be caught and sent home.
In the Washington region, immigration lawyers said that most of their DACA clients have parents who are in the country illegally. Some families have several children who received DACA; in other cases, one sibling was successful but another was too old or did not have enough documents to get approval.
Lupe Villarroel, 20, whose parents brought her from Bolivia as a child, is using her DACA status to study international relations at Northern Virginia Community College while working at a Macy’s. Her brother Mauricio was also granted DACA status and is combining work and college. But both of their parents lack immigration papers; their mother works from home and their father, who is in poor health, often changes low-level jobs.
“My parents are very proud of me, but I do worry about them,” she said. “I always think that one day my dad won’t come home from work.”
One of the most significant DACA benefits, access to low-cost public college tuition, is available in Maryland but not in Virginia, where the more conservative legislature has repeatedly voted to deny it. Villarroel, who pays $300 per course credit at NVCC, spends twice what her brother pays to study business at Montgomery College in Maryland — and will take much longer to graduate. DACA recipients, in some cases, can apply to renew their status for two years.
Although it opens many doors, temporary legal status is hardly an automatic guarantee of a better life, especially for young Central Americans whose parents fled poverty and conflict, and who grew up here in precarious economic and family circumstances. Even without fear of being deported, life for some is almost as much of a struggle as it was before DACA.
Crespin and her Salvadoran boyfriend, Franklin Amaya, obtained DACA status last year with the help of Just Neighbors, a nonprofit agency in Fairfax County. Both had lost parents to violence and flight from their homeland. Both had spent years hopping among cheap apartments and temporary jobs. Their first baby was born in 2012, while Crespin was finishing high school and Amaya was earning barely enough to pay rent.
Today, they live in the same tiny basement apartment. They have no car, no savings, one cellphone between them and a second baby, who was born in December. Amaya’s proudest possessions are tattoos of his daughter’s names, Isabella and Angelica, on each arm.
But plans and dreams they now possess in abundance. Amaya is studying for his high school equivalency on nights when he doesn’t come home too tired; his goal is to become an electrician. Crespin is taking one class at a time at NVCC while her friends babysit, and she hopes to become a social worker.
“I wasn’t sure about DACA at first. A lot of people were afraid it was a fake, but Franklin said it was a big chance for us, and he was right,” Crespin said, jiggling Angelica on her knee and helping Isabella balance on her tricycle. “I want my girls to learn to swim and take art and play soccer. Now that I am finally legal,, this is my country, and it will be theirs, too.”