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For a Miami Dade College student, shift in immigration policy falls short

Julio Calderon received the news via text message while in class. Tears soon followed.

President Barack Obama’s announcement last month that many undocumented immigrant students and military service members would no longer have to fear deportations and could legally work in the United States represented a small victory in four years of advocacy and lobbying on behalf of his classmates.

As a student organizer for Students Working for Equal Rights, Calderon spent countless hours lobbying Congress to pass legislation known as the DREAM Act. But even as his advocacy efforts paid off for his fellow students, the Honduran immigrant’s personal dream remains unfulfilled: Calderon is not eligible for the new policy change because he entered the country illegally two months after his 16th birthday.

“I left class feeling happy that all our work over the last few years was worth it,” Calderon, 23, said following Obama’s announcement.

Days later, he acknowledged what he’d known for years: “You have many people who have been fighting for this for years and they’ll be left out, just like myself.”

Still, he remains a staunch supporter of the DREAM Act. For the past two weeks, Calderon has held informational sessions at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus for undocumented high school and college students who want to apply for the new protected status.

The policy shift, known as “deferred action,” will protect an estimated 800,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to apply for work permits. The policy applies to those who arrived in the country before they turned 16.

But there are potentially hundreds of thousands of other young undocumented immigrants living in the country whose fate will remain in limbo. These are young immigrants who, like Calderon, were either brought into the country after the age of 16 or arrived here as young children, but have lived in the country for more than 15 years and now are older than 30 — the cut off point for eligibility.

Many of these young immigrants, know as DREAMers, have urged Congress for more than a decade to pass legislation that will allow them a pathway to citizenship, so they can access scholarship funds and work in the country legally. Now these individuals are left out because of the age restrictions.

The exact number of people in this specific category is unknown because so many are without paperwork, but immigration experts estimate the figure is likely as high as those now protected. It is estimated that there are 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

While many conservative and liberal advocates agree that immigration reform is long overdue, most are cautious, if not critical of the policy change.

“Just to feel this small relief is great, but that doesn’t mean that we forgot about those who were left out or that this is a temporary solution,” said Natalia Jaramillo, an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a progressive immigrant advocacy group. “As long as we don’t strive for the bigger goal, we’re always going to see members of our family and members of our community suffering from this issue.”

Others say the move by Obama was motivated by election year politics.

“It’s a cynical way to look at and treat immigration,” said Jennifer Korn, the executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative policy organization. “Obama had the opportunity to do it in the first two years and he didn’t.”

Calderon agrees that the recent policy change is a minor fix to a larger problem. For him, the ultimate goal is reforming the immigration system so that his friends, family, and community members no longer live in fear of deportation and have access to the same opportunities as other Americans. That goal, he admits, is daunting.

But not impossible.

“I don’t believe in ‘you can’t do’ anymore,” Calderon said. “I know we’re going to do it and we’ll find a way.”

Calderon’s experience in the United States reflects the obstacles and opportunity of living in the country undocumented. Within moments of crossing the border illegally from Mexico in 2005, Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents stopped Calderon, his brother, and his mother, who had returned to Honduras to fetch her boys.

Calderon said his mother wanted to protect them from rising gang violence in their hometown.

“Over there someone getting killed everyday was normal,” Calderon said. “I couldn’t even go to another part of my city because gangs would question you and ask where you were going.”

Calderon’s mother had already been living in the United States when Honduran nationals received temporary protected status following devastation from Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Because of that, Calderon and his brother were not immediately sent back to their grandmother’s home in Honduras. Instead, they were issued a removal order and a court date. His opportunities in the United States were immediately limited.

“I thought to myself, I’m going to high school and that’s it,” Calderon said.

After finishing high school, Calderon started working construction with his father because he feared applying to college would alert immigration officials and lead to his deportation. But a chance encounter with a recruiter at Miami Dade College changed his fortunes.

Maggie Aguiar, a retired recruiter for Miami Dade College, helped Calderon and many other undocumented students in Miami-Dade County apply for school and secured funds for their education.

“Their problem was my problem because I could see their situation,” Aguiar said. “I was simply a vehicle to help others excel.”

Aguiar remembers Calderon as a young man hungry to learn and hungry to help others. She helped him navigate the application process and secured a full scholarship for him after his first semester.

“I took that opportunity as a sign that they were paying for me to do something big,” Calderon said. “I’m really privileged to be here.”

When he’s not studying for his degree in civil engineering, Calderon visits high schools to encourage other students to apply to college. He advises undocumented students on their options and opportunities during and after school. And during his time off, Calderon visits elected officials, urging them to pass legislation that removes barriers for undocumented students so they can achieve their educational goals. He does this despite the fact that he has been ineligible for any provisions of the DREAM act since 2010 when a language change narrowed the age range to those who could benefit from the bill.

“When I first saw that change and realized I don’t qualify, I was mad,” Calderon said. “But then I realized that when I joined, I didn’t do it for only for myself. I did it to help others and my community.”