How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'I've never had fingerprints taken': A deferred action hopeful navigates one last, scary step

Art by José Luís Agapito/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Young undocumented immigrants who apply for renewable two-year reprieves from deportation must submit live-scanned fingerprints as part of the process. Federal immigration officials say that so far, fewer than 100,000 of the 2 million eligible people have applied since the program began last month.

What is it like to submit one's fingerprints to the government after spending a lifetime in the shadows? Tens of thousands of young undocumented immigrants around the country are finding out as the move through the approval process for deferred action, a form of temporary legal status under a new policy the Obama administration established this summer.

Submitting fingerprints and having one's photograph taken at a government office is the last step before applicants learn whether they will be approved. If they are, they'll get a two-year renewable reprieve from deportation, and the opportunity to work legally in this country.

One applicant in the final stage of the process is Ivan Ceja, a 20-year-old Long Beach City College student. He submitted his application for deferred action on Aug. 15, the first day it was possible. A few days ago, his mother drove him from their home in Compton to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration office in Gardena, where he had his fingerprints scanned.

"I've never had fingerprints taken but, it’s interesting," Ceja said. "I thought it was going to be more of a stamp, but it’s actually like a laser. It shows up on the screen."

These final stages of the process can feel exhilarating, strange, even scary for undocumented young people like Ceja, many of whom have lived in the United States without papers since they were young children. Ceja was nine months old when his parents brought him here from Mexico.

"I don't get scared because I don't have anything to hide, or anything I've done in my past," he said. "And given the person I am, it's not like I am going to do something tomorrow where I am going to be in jeopardy because I'm now officially in their system. I'm just well, okay, so far I've trusted enough to apply, and this is a requirement, and I have to do it."

Some potential applicants express more doubts about trusting the process. For one thing, it includes a lot of conditions. To qualify, people must have arrived in the United States before their 16th birthdays, have maintained a clean record, and have been no older than 30 as of mid-June. By some estimates, close to 2 million young people could be eligible, but immigration officials say only a few more than 82,000 have applied so far.

One possible reason to hesitate: the November election. President Obama made deferred action happen with an executive order. Ivan Ceja recognizes how reversible that can be.

"Think about it, if Romney wins, he has two options," Ceja said. "Either those who applied can remain and those who didn't he can come after, or vice versa. Those who applied can be booted while those who didn't apply, he can say you have to wait for now. It can go both ways. I'd rather be ready."

Now he needs to be patient. Only a handful of deferred action applicants have received approval notices so far, and Ceja doesn't personally know anyone who has. But now that his fingerprints are in, he's heard that he could get an answer within six business days.

"Between now and then, just counting down the calendar, stripping away every day that goes by...just keeping on with school and trying to stay focused. Sometimes I stress out, but I know it's going to come. So I'll try not to stress out too much."

For him, it's likely to be a long week.

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