Young undocumented immigrants can finally apply for 'deferred action'

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Young adult immigrants who arrived in this country illegally as children may finally apply for deportation relief.

For people who qualify, it’s a step toward temporary legal residency. But in June, President Obama tried to explain what the new "deferred action" program is not.

“Let’s be clear — this is not amnesty," Obama said. "This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stop-gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”

Erick Huerta, 28, fits that profile. He was 7 years old when he crossed the Mexican border with his parents and two younger sisters. He has a clean record and is a hard worker, with a journalism degree from East L.A. College and a social media job with a small nonprofit.

At a Boyle Heights coffee shop, Huerta recalled that the announcement of the deferred action program two months ago surprised him — and aroused skepticism. How could he be sure federal immigration agents wouldn’t deport him if he came forward?

“I still see it that way," he said. "We’re pretty much giving them all of our information, where we’re going to be at, who we are. ... We’re giving them all this data. And it’s really scary, because this is the government.”

Huerta said he’s still debating whether to apply. If he does, his younger sisters will, too. But the application costs close to $500, “a good chunk of change” he said he doesn’t have yet.

He’s also considered the worst-case scenario — deportation — and he said the idea of it doesn’t seem so scary to him anymore.

“If I were to go back to Mexico," he said, trying to picture it, "I’d get my situation in order in terms of getting my Mexican residency and ID and all of that good stuff. ... And then I’d probably just start traveling the world,” he added, laughing.

Bupendra Ram’s story began halfway across the world 23 years ago. He was 2 years old when his family left Fiji on a U.S. tourist visa. Once they got here, someone who said he could secure green cards scammed them out of $10,000.

Ram said his instinct was to conceal his undocumented status — until a couple of years ago. That’s when the U.S. Senate voted down a bill that would have offered a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants in school or the military.

“That’s when I chose to empower myself," he said. "Because I saw a group of people dictating how we would be living our lives.”

Ram is a likely candidate for deferred action. Two years ago he graduated with honors from Cal State Fullerton with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Now he’s working on a master’s degree in speech communication. He works for a small company, and lives with his parents in Hawthorne.

He said he’s eager to try working and living legally in this country for two years.

“I will be applying — I do have all my documents together," he said. "I just need to get my birth certificate from Fiji. But I think it’s an opportunity, if anything, to go into these communities and present my story and the various opportunities that are available to people within that community.”

In other words, he regards the deferred action process as a powerful organizing tool. Asians and Pacific Islanders make up about 12 percent of approximately 1.4 million eligible immigrants across the country.

The program that begins accepting applications Wednesday does not offer a route to American citizenship, but its success may depend upon how many people like Bupendra Ram and Erick Huerta are willing to demonstrate what they can do with the possibilities it presents.

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