For years Julian Gomez, 20, suffered in silence with a secret. His family overstayed their tourist visa after they moved from Argentina to Miami when he was one. Without identification, he couldn’t apply for student loans, a job or a driver’s license.
He graduated summa cum laude from Coral Park Senior High, is an honors student at Miami-Dade College and an avid Harry Potter fan. After President Barack Obama announced June 15 that an immigration initiative — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — would temporarily shield him from deportation, he came out as an “Undocumented American” on a YouTube video.
In the video — sponsored by a popular Harry Potter fan network — he explained why, in his view, if the wizard were real, he would support immigration reform. It got 15,400 views.
In times of high unemployment and economic stagnation, many say that is imperative for the United States to discourage immigrants who have come here illegally, even if they had no choice in the matter, because their parents brought them. After all, at a time when many college graduates can’t land a job in their field of study and national unemployment is at 7.8 percent, doesn't an abundance of young undocumented immigrants make the job market appreciably worse?
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Gomez doesn't think so. He believes that giving undocumented students identification will help them put their “entrepreneurial spirit” to use, which will improve the economy and reduce unemployment. Studies have shown that immigrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than others.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, is changing the lives of an estimated 1.7 million people nationwide. It provides protected status for two years, a work permit and a driver’s license in some states. (Arizona and Nebraska are notable exceptions.)
Hundreds of families have been flooding Florida International University College of Law’s main hall in West Miami-Dade asking for legal help. The school’s Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic has been offering free clinics on Saturdays since August.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) began to accept applications Aug. 15. CIS officials promoting the program have said that the information is not submitted to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection unless fraud is involved. But not everyone is convinced, and there are risks.
As of Sept. 13, officials had accepted 82,361 requests for processing, and completed only 29. The program does not provide a path to citizenship, and the renewal in two years is not certain.
“I brought my son from Peru when he was 4. I waited until he was an adult to tell him that he was an illegal. It was the worst day of my life,” Sonia Fernandez, 48, said. “He was depressed and suffered a stroke at only 19 because of stress. I’m still afraid. We thought about it carefully. Not everyone is applying.”
It was Fernandez’s second time at the clinic Sept. 15. She and her son Franco were having trouble completing his evidentiary documentation package. Applicants must be 15 and older, and must prove that they were younger than 31 on June 15, arrived before the age of 16 and have resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007. High school education and criminal records are also important factors.
For FIU law student Ashley Gruber, 26, the experience was “a bit overwhelming” and “put law school into perspective.” As a third-year law school student, she has had the opportunity to deal with immigration cases at Krome Detention Center, but this was different, because “you are dealing with teenagers.”
Some teens were there alone. The law school student volunteers explained the requirements and the risks of submitting fraudulent documentation.
“This is a great service. Immigration attorneys in South Florida are charging from $500 to $3,000,” Pedro Hernandez, 55, said while sitting in his blue truck. He dropped off his daughter in the parking lot, because he was afraid that “the law is the law.” She was teary eyed.
Inside, activists and volunteers, who have been setting up these clinics in Florida City, Little Havana, Pembroke Pines and West Miami-Dade, were waiting for her. She had made an appointment.
United We Dream (UWD) policy director Gabriela Pacheco, 27, an undocumented migrant who moved to Miami from Ecuador when she was 7, was checking that applicants were being helped. She publicly disclosed her status in 2006, and during a 2010 protest, she and a group walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, D.C.
Students Working For Equal Rights (SWER) volunteer José Machado, 17, an undocumented student at Miami Senior High in Little Havana, was sharing his story with applicants who were waiting in an auditorium. He moved with his mom and his twin brother to Miami from Nicaragua when he was 6.
“I was 16, I was sleeping, waiting for my mom, but she never came home. She was arrested for driving without a license. I wasn’t allowed to see her and I’m now in foster care,” Machado said. His brother is living with an aunt in Miami.“I have learned a lot about my rights. I want to do everything I can so that other families are not separated like mine was.” He wants to study political science.
This program has energized young people like Gomez, who are joining groups supporting immigration reform on Facebook, communicating with other “#dreamers” on Twitter and posting pictures of their new “#DACA” work permits and legal clinics on Instagram.
FIU law professor Juan Carlos Gómez, who is not related to Julian Gomez, has been helping low-income undocumented migrants for about two decades.
“You hear all of these incredible stories of young people who have been brought to the United States and have such hope to contribute so much,” Gómez said. “They want to run businesses. They want to be accountants. They are paying for college out of their own pockets. These are incredible human beings, who will only make us a richer nation.”
FIU law students, attorney volunteers and activists under his supervision have processed about 500 applications. They hope to process at least 25,000. There are an estimated 100,000 potential applicants in Florida.
Gómez said there is an urgency to help as many people as possible to prevent potential applicants from falling prey to opportunistic fraudsters. But he needs help. He said he would like to borrow a copy machine for “when they go on the road.” He needs more attorney volunteers, and has a list of people, like the single mom of an autistic boy, who can’t afford the $465 fee the government requires for the application.
Carlos, who did not want to disclose his last name and is an honors student at Miami-Dade College, said “people treat you like dirt when they know that you are undocumented.” He said he mowed lawns, helped a friend clean offices, washed cars and sold t-shirts online to come up with the money.
There are very few waivers for the fee, so Gómez is hoping to connect sponsors to applicants.
“One of the most fascinating things is when you are able to make a difference,” Gómez said in tears. “That work permit frees the person up, because people are no longer able to exploit them easily, because it’s a fair game. And that is what the U.S. is about.”