How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Deferred action: Fewer applicants than expected, 'endless' opportunities for some

Courtesy of Ivan Ceja

Ivan Ceja took this screen shot from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website in October when he learned his deferred action application was approved - and added his own celebratory comment, coined by a friend, before posting it to Facebook.

When President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, last June, immigrant advocates hailed it as a landmark shift for an administration that was until then best known for its strict enforcement and deportation policies. 

Under the program, young people who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and were no older than 30 are able to seek a renewable two-year reprieve from deportation, so long as they have a relatively clean record without any serious offenses, can prove at least five years' continuous residency in the country and meet other criteria.

The program kicked off in August.  But as of April, the program had only drawn slightly more than 500,000 applications, roughly a quarter of the nearly two million potential applicants that some predicted early on. There was a spike in applicants last fall, but incoming applications have since trailed off.

Twenty-one-year-old Ivan Ceja was among the first to apply.  Until last fall, the the Long Beach City College student had been living in the shadows, as he had since his parents brought him here illegally from Mexico when he was a less than a year old.

To help pay for school, he'd worked under-the-table construction jobs.  Since applying for the program,  he's obtained a work permit and a driver's license. He's been working, legally, as a tutor and on a city political campaign.  On Monday, just back from a job interview, he gushed with pride.

"Like, the first thing they asked me today is, 'Can I get all your identification?' I showed them my license, my permit, my social and everything," Ceja said. "It's really interesting - now, I can do that."

Many of those applying early on were students like Ceja, young people raised in the United States with recent school records, making for a relatively easy time documenting their years spent in the U.S. But it's been harder for those closer to the cutoff age of 30, working adults who by now have spent a decade or more underground.

At 29, Claudia Martinez isn't that much older than Ceja, but she lives in a different world. She's married, a mother of three, a restaurant cook who works double shifts to make ends meet.

"I usually try to clean my room and throw away a lot of papers. I was like a crazy woman, looking for paper, for years," said Martinez, who arrived at age 15 from her native Oaxaca and lives with her family in Koreatown.

Forget school transcripts - in what spare time she had between work and kids, Martinez is working to get her GED. Along with her time, her dollars are also accounted for. It's made the $465 dollar application fee, and related legal fees, a hurdle.

"I tried to apply for it, but I didn't because I didn't have a lot of money," Martinez said. "So I tried to work hard to have enough money to apply for it."

After a year of saving up, Martinez finally filed her application last week.

Martinez’s struggles partly help explain DACA's limited popularity. There are also people who simply haven't wanted to go public with their status, especially not for a temporary permit.

Then there's immigration reform, plans for which are now being debated in Congress. Louis DeSipio, a political scientist and immigration expert at UC Irvine, said that talk of comprehensive reform - which began soon after the November election - has also had an effect on the program and would-be applicants.

"Almost as soon as the Senate stated talking about a bipartisan proposal, DACA got lost in a much larger debate, really," DeSipio said. "I think the broader explanation is really the hope that a more comprehensive solution will be offered by Congress that will make the two-year reprieve offered by DACA less necessary."

But that kind of solution could be a long way off, if it ever comes. A comprehensive immigration reform bill has been pending in the Senate since April. But it still faces opposition and a lengthy debate, and a lack of agreement on reform in the House could hinder its prospects.

The House also recently voted to block future spending on deferred action, although it's a move that might amount to little more than headlines, since it’s unlikely the Senate will go along.

In the meantime, Ivan Ceja is also hoping for a permanent solution.

"We always joked around about how we were able to do so much without having this permit or a social, and now with it, it's just like the opportunities are endless," Ceja said. "Now that we've got a taste of it, it's about securing it."

Ceja plans to make the most of the coming year with his temporary status by working and saving money. He wants to study dentistry, and is making plans to transfer to a four-year college. The job he's just applied for is in manufacturing, but it's a morning shift, allowing him to schedule afternoon classes.

And on the topic of endless opportunities: He's also looking into better-paying side jobs. Maybe, he says, even a real estate license.

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