In a crisp white shirt and tie, Ivan Ceja looks every bit the political operative. One afternoon in early August, he fielded calls at the campaign office of George McKenna, who won a seat this week on the L.A. School Board.
Ivan worked as an office manager and field coordinator for the campaign. It's the second political job he's held so far since he obtained temporary legal status and a work permit almost two years ago, through a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
“If I hadn’t had DACA, I’d probably still be protesting in the streets, with a lot of my friends and organizers that I met," said Ceja, 22. "I wouldn’t be working here, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t have my license, so I would probably still be taking the bus. I’d probably still be working construction and, uh, being creative. I don’t know, it’s really hard for me to say.”
The Obama administration program grants a two-year reprieve from deportation and work permits to qualifying young immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, so long as they arrived before age 16, have a clean record and meet a list of other criteria.
More than 560,000 people have received deferred action so far; at least another half million others without legal status are eligible, but haven’t yet applied. And there are another 10 million immigrants in the country illegally that the program doesn't cover, among them people who arrived when they were older than 16, or who were over the cutoff age of 30 as of June 15, 2012.
Ivan Ceja is one of the lucky ones. KPCC listeners first met Ivan two years ago, when he was a 20-year-old community college student from Compton, working construction jobs with his father to pay for school with dreams of one day becoming a dentist.
He was nine months old when his parents brought him from Mexico to Southern California. On August 15, 2012, he was among the first to submit an application for deferred action. It changed his life.
"Now I’m able to save," Ivan said. "Now I have my sights set on buying a car, which I think will become a possibility soon because of this, too. I’m living at home with my parents and now I’m able to support more with rent, with bills, something that prior to that I would have been incapable of, and wouldn’t have even been able to think about.”
For many young people like Ivan who were approved - often called Dreamers - deferred action has got them thinking about a future out of the shadows – with cars, credit, homes to buy, and families to raise.
Ivan, for one, is now engaged to be married. And after working political campaigns, he’s changed his mind about dentistry.
“I’ll admit, I was really focused on being a dentist for a while, but then I thought about it and honestly, I don’t want to be looking at mouths every day," he said laughing. "I mean, I don’t like looking at my mouth every day."
He now plans to pursue an undergraduate degree in engineering – but he wants to keep going after that.
“I do want to pursue law in the future – primarily immigration, to focus around that," Ivan said. "I love working around people, so I can definitely see myself doing that.”
Ivan's future isn’t settled, though. Earlier this month, the GOP-led House of Representatives voted to eliminate deferred action, which some conservatives have singled out as a factor contributing to a recent crush of unaccompanied minors and families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, most fleeing violence in Central America. Although these young newcomers don't qualify, a bill that would gut the program cleared the House in a last-minute vote before the start of the August recess.
Observers don't expect the measure to go far, with Senate Democrats and President Obama expected to block it. At least, not so long as there is a Democratic president, said UC Irvine political scientist Louis DeSipio.
"President Obama has made clear, and I'm quite sure that if he had a Democratic successor, that that person would confirm that deportation efforts should be focused on those most worthy of deportation," DeSipio said. "That there simply aren't the resources, and that Congress is unwilling to pay for a larger program."
But there's no guarantee this will be the case after 2016.
Ivan has already applied for his renewal, good for two more years. But he does worry about what might happen if that changes. He remembers life without legal status all too well – a life that some friends and family members are still living.
"Okay, so yes, I look like a model citizen or a model candidate to stay in the country," Ivan said. "But what about my parents? What about say older students who did age out, and aren’t eligible for DACA? Why is there not an opportunity for them to receive those same kinds of benefits? I think that’s the kind of divide that exists now.”
And a divide there is. For those without DACA, among them young people who have spent much of their lives in the U.S., life is very different.
16-year-old Josue Ruiz of Boyle Heights has a 4.0 G.P.A. and excels in math and science.
In 2012, when President Obama announced he would be deferring deportations for certain young immigrants, Fifita’s friends and relatives bombarded her with calls. The Tongan woman has been living in the country illegally since her student visa expired more than five years ago — that’s why she asked her last name be withheld.
DACA would have given Fifita temporary legal status, access to a California driver’s license, and most importantly, a work permit. She wanted to earn money so she could go back to school and help out her family financially.
“My siblings don’t have that much money in Tonga,” said Fifita, who lives in Torrance. “So it would mean a lot for me and for them to help them.”
But when she saw the eligibility criteria, Fifita was heartbroken to to see that she met all save one: She came to the U.S. when she was 18, two years over the qualifying age for DACA.
“It was just very discouraging,” Fifita said. “I broke down into tears.”
Deferred action is meant to cover just about a tenth or so of the 11 million or so immigrants in the country illegally. But for those who narrowly missed eligibility, it can feel like they lost out on a whole new life.
“A lot of people are being left out because the requirements are very stringent,” said Diego Coaguila, who helps immigrants apply for DACA at the Central American Resource Center, near downtown Los Angeles.
Among the rules: Applicants must have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007 and been present in the country on June 15, 2012; must not have been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor; and must be in school or have a high school diploma. Coaguila said given many immigrants' economic hardships, the latter is easier said than done.
“Most of these folks have tremendous responsibilities and they cannot continue the GED programs or have dropped out of school,” Coaguila said.
Those currently enrolled in school also undergo tough scrutiny. Sixteen-year-old Josue Ruiz of Boyle Heights has a 4.0 G.P.A. and excels in math and science. He’s shy, except when it comes to academics.
“I think all my teachers really love me,” said Ruiz, who came with his family from Mexico. “I’m a really good student.”
Ruiz and his parents thought he had met all the requirements. But as it turned out, immigration officials did not feel he had given ample proof that had been residing continuously in the country.
“I was devastated,” said Ruiz, who is re-applying again, and making sure he gets more documentation from his school. He says he needs to: “DACA can open more doors for me,” he said.
Thirty-two-year-old Jorge would also like to apply for DACA so he can expand his career beyond bookkeeping.
“Believe me, I don’t want to be a bookkeeper my whole life,” said Jorge, who requested his last name not be used. “I want to be a (Certified Public Accountant). I need a social security number to get that license.”
But like Fifita, he arrived in the U.S. at age 18, disqualifying him from DACA. Jorge said that when he found out, he fell into a depression. But after a few months, he shook it off.
“The best thing I can do is accept the circumstances and do the best I can in my life,” he said.
While others are saddened about being shut out of DACA, Coaguila said still other potentially eligible individuals don’t even pursue an application because they already have work, often in the service sector, often as construction or restaurant workers.
But in the case of Fifita, she aspires to be a mechanical engineer. She had to put that career trajectory on hold when she stopped going to school.
“I was sitting at home, hopeless,” Fifita said. “I was doing chores, literally babysitting my nephews and nieces.”
Fifita found a valuable outlet in community work through the Tongan women’s group Ta’ahine ‘o Moana. Through her outreach, she was able to meet other young Tongans lacking legal status.
Now Fifita is looking to the summer’s end, when she hopes to go back to school – and when President Obama said he’ll act on immigration. She hopes the president extends deferred action to more people.
“All I know is that I have positive thoughts about it,” she said.
Deferred action may be temporary, but she’ll take it.