How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

For some childhood arrivals, a long wait for legal status

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Jesus Cortez mows a customer's lawn in Orange County. He's hoping he can put his college education to use if he qualifies for immigration relief under the Obama administration's new immigration plan. He's earned a master's degree, but was too old to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012.

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Jesus Cortez arrived in the U.S. illegally when he was nine years old. He's been working as a gardener since he was in his teens, while putting himself through college and graduate school.


Jesus Cortez has been mowing lawns for a living in Orange County since he was a teenager.

"You know, we mow the lawn, we make sure it's cleaned up, you know, whatever people want," he said. "We trim trees, we blow the leaves."

It's a job that he is vastly overqualified for. 

“I have a degree in Chicano studies, another one in English, and I have a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on social and cultural analysis," said Cortez, 35. "I could teach at a private school, or I could teach in community college. 

He doesn't -- in fact he can't -- because he doesn't have legal status.

He's been in the United States since his family brought him here at the age of 9.

A succession of legalization efforts have washed through. But so far, legislation that would legalize his status has failed or he's been too old to qualify for policies that help younger immigrants who came as minors. So he’s kept doing what he’s always done, working under the table.

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In immigration news: DHS funding battle, executive action rollout, Cubans fear deportation for crimes, more

Ted Robbins/NPR

A U.S. Border Patrol truck patrols the fence separating the cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora. Congress continues to battle over funding the Department of Homeland Security, which is funded only until the end of this month.

At stake in immigration debate: Billions of dollars - Politico Congress is still fighting over funding the Department of Homeland Security, which is funded only until Feb. 27. Part of the battle are costly demands. From the story: "Immigration riders attached to the Homeland Security spending bill by the House GOP turn out to actually widen the budget deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. As a result, the $39.7 billion measure will need a supermajority of 60 votes under Senate budget rules, even if Republicans get past the Democratic filibuster."

Cubans Convicted in the U.S. Face New Fears of Deportation - New York Times Now that the United States is moving to normalize relations with Cuba, one request the Obama administration is reportedly making is for Cuba to take back nationals convicted of crimes in the U.S. From the story: "The United States cannot deport...the vast majority of the 34,500 other Cubans who face orders of deportation, almost all of them for criminal offenses, because Cuba will not accept them back."

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In immigration news: No legislative overhaul in sight, Homeland Security funding battle, more

US-IMMIGRATION-ICE-JEH JOHNSON

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

In a recent interview, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson called on Congress not to tie his agency's budget to President Obama's executive order on immigration. The agency is funded only through Feb. 27.

No comprehensive immigration reform until 2017? - Arizona Republic The political climate in Congress is a far cry from 2013, when the Senate approved a bipartisan bill to overhaul the immigration system. With President Obama's executive order unpopular with Republicans and bickering over Homeland Security funding, any compromise seems far off. From the story: "Immigration-reform advocates now say their best hope for reforms such as a pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants already in the country hinges on the 2016 elections: A new president will be elected and Democrats have an opportunity to win back the Senate."

Jeh Johnson to Congress: Stop tying immigration fight to DHS funding - Washington Post In an interview, Department of Homeland Secretary called on lawmakers to fun his agency in a way that is "separate and apart" from immigration policies. From the story: "DHS is currently funded through Feb. 27, as Congress continues to fight over a funding bill for the agency. Republicans are seeking to use a new spending bill to punish President Obama for his executive actions on immigration. Democrats are blocking GOP efforts to roll back the president’s actions."

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In immigration news: Health enrollment hurdles, Arab Americans and the census, immigration scams, more

Some people with only slightly elevated blood pressure might be able to relax a bit, if they're doctors go along new treatment guidelines.

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Immigrants who must prove their identity and legal status still face complications when enrolling for health insurance under Obamacare.

Immigrants still face health care enrollment snags - USA Today Enrolling for health insurance under Obamacare is still proving to be a hassle for some immigrants, who must jump extra hoops to prove their identity and legal status. From the story: "Immigrants and others trying to prove their citizenship and identities to enroll in health insurance still face some of the problems they had during the last open enrollment, according to those helping them sign up." This is complicated by the need to use a longer form and, for some, the lack of a long credit history.

Should the US census count Arab Americans differently? - Southern California Public Radio The U.S. Census Bureau is considering a new classification for Arab Americans, who so far have typically identified as "white" on census forms by default. While efforts to better count this population go back years, it's become a rallying point for some younger Arab Americans who matured politically in the post-9/11 era as peers faced discrimination. Said one young activist: “In a post-9/11 world, a lot of people felt they’re not treated as white."

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Should the US census count Arab Americans differently?

Little Arabia

Josie Huang/KPCC

A sign along Brookhurst Street in Anaheim, in the heart of the neighborhood unofficially known as Little Arabia. The U.S. Census Bureau is weighing a new category to use for Arab Americans in 2020.

The U.S. Census Bureau is weighing a new category to more accurately count Arab Americans. The proposed classification is referred to as “MENA,” for Middle Eastern-North African.
 
Arab American advocates say the idea is a long time coming.
 
“We’re an ethnic constituency, and the challenge is that sometimes the U.S. doesn’t do ethnicity very well because they’re fixated on race," said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C.

Census bureau officials have been gathering input, public comments and opinions from experts and Arab American groups. They say they plan to test the category this fall as part of a national content test, in which they'll evaluate what goes into the next census

Berry says not having an accurate count of Arab Americans leaves this population at a disadvantage, in terms of everything from public services to political influence.
 
Efforts to add a category for Arab Americans date back decades. But in recent years, young activists have led their own charge.

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